The other night, tired and discouraged, I crawled off to bed without praying. I was too tired, too dejected to pray, I reasoned. I would read a few pages in a book about prayer and then drop off to sleep.
I had read only a couple of pages when I stumbled on these sentences: "The mere act of prayer is abhorrent to the forces of evil, and you will find that there will be all kinds of hindrances (depression, doubt, frustrations and so on). Many of those hindrances will have the smell of sulfur smoke about them (Approaching God by Steve Brown, p. 41).
Was my discouragement an attack by Satan? And was I giving into it? I guess I had better pray, after all.
For a book which is an objective compendium of the teachings of the church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is surprisingly and refreshingly forthright about the subjective difficulties ordinary folks have in our prayer lives. It talks about distractions, dryness and decreasing vigilance in prayer -- three major barriers to my prayer and maybe to yours too. And it talks about the erroneous assumption that prayer is incompatible with my busy life.
"Prayer is a battle," the Catechism says. "Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn us away from prayer, away from union with God" (no. 2725). We win the battle to the extent that we gain "humility, trust and perseverance" (no. 2728).
That evening, I did pray. I prayed in bed for about 10 minutes and then drifted off to sleep. But the next morning I awoke early and the feeling of dejection and hopelessness had returned. I got up and spent close to an hour in prayer, using a prayer booklet -- Miracle Hour by Linda Schubert (sorry, that's really what it's called). It gives a method for spending an hour in prayer -- mostly vocal prayer -- broken down into 12 five-minute segments. I needed to speak those words of prayer to draw me out of my own head.
It seemd to work. As I praised God and prayed the booklet's prayers of spiritual warfare, surrender to God and release of the Holy Spirit, I was energized and gained a more positive attitude.
But as the day wore on and my fatigue grew, again negative attitudes descended on me. That evening, I returned to prayer for 40 minutes, again using the booklet. By now, almost two days after I began, things seem to be closer to an even keel.
On this occasion, I had persevered. Far too often, I don't.
But was this "healing" the action of the Holy Spirit or was it merely the power of suggestion in the words of the prayers themselves? That question misses something, I think. Surely, focusing my mind on positive spiritual matters helped to overcome my dejection. The action of the Holy Spirit was to call me to prayer, to call me to abandon my death-dealing mood.
Was there something more? Did the Holy Spirit work a tiny miracle by driving out the devil and by healing me by supernatural means? I don't know and I wouldn't want to imply either that he did or that he didn't.
What I do know is that prayer is difficult. It is difficult to get started -- there are too many excuses for not praying. It is difficult once you do get started -- there are often distractions and it sometimes seems boring and useless. It is especially difficult when you are in a blue mood or tired. And it is even more difficult when one's life is a quagmire of immorality.
Prayer is not natural. We are naturally inclined to live in a world of sense perception and to focus on meeting our own needs. Prayer means rising out of that.
But there is no excuse for not persevering in prayer. Either Jesus is the Lord of one's life or he is not. If he is then one must give him time on a frequent and regular basis. What sort of marriage would it be if one rarely took time to talk with one's spouse? Yet, one's relationship with Jesus ought to be even more important than one's marriage. One must find time and ways to be with him regularly.
Perseverance will bear fruit. Perseverance strengthens faith into something which is steadfast -- into a true love of God which is not dependent on emotions. Father Romano Guardini wrote that "Indeed it is the very nature of faith to persevere, for faith is not rooted in emotion but in character, not in experience but in loyalty; in short, not in the changeable, but in the constant elements of life" (The Art of Praying, p. 167).
Perseverance in prayer during times of difficulty is perhaps the strongest witness to one's belief that there is more to this world than meets the eye. It is a living embodiment of Scripture's claim that faith "is the victory that conquers the world" (1 John 5:4).
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