My Prayer Life isn’t the Best

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Once in confession, I confessed to my pastor that my prayer life wasn’t what it should be. “Whose is?” the priest responded. It was early on in my life as a Christian, and I was still trying to figure out how to pray well (and how to make a good confession). Twenty-three years into my life as a Catholic (longer than most of my students have been alive), my prayer life has improved but it’s still far from perfect, as God continues to remind me.

In the gospel reading for this Sunday (Lk 18:1-8), Jesus speaks of the necessity “to pray always without becoming weary” (Lk 18:1). This divine command is repeated later in the New Testament when St. Paul instructs us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Most of us struggle to pray even a few minutes each day. We can’t imagine praying all the time. Yet it must be possible, otherwise God wouldn’t expect it of us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting St. John Damascene) defines prayer as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559). To think about God with our mind and to desire God with our heart is the essence of prayer. Considered in this way, we see how it is possible and indeed necessary for the Christian to pray always, as we should always have God on our mind and in our heart, whatever else we may be doing at the moment.

Admittedly, this is difficult without long practice. We are easily distracted creatures, and our minds and hearts are all-too-ready to focus on lesser goods (and lesser gods). To have God always in the back of our minds while we study, work, rest and play, we must have dedicated time each day when we bring God to the front of our minds and give Him our full attention. We must train our minds and hearts to do what they were made to do, which is to know and love God.

Mental prayer

This is why the saints so often recommend the practice of daily mental prayer (sometimes called Christian meditation). Simply put, this is when you set aside time to focus and reflect upon some divine subject. This can take many forms. It can be praying the rosary, making sure to meditate attentively on each mystery. It can be lectio divina, or sacred reading, where you spend time reflecting on a passage of scripture or the spiritual writings of a saint. It can be time spent gazing with devotion upon a crucifix or other piece of sacred art. The outer form of prayer is really a tool to focus your attention. The real work of prayer takes place in the “hidden inner room” of your heart where the soul converses with God.

How long does this take? Is fifteen minutes enough? An hour? It is important to spend a significant time in prayer, but don’t confuse quantity with quality. Prayer is about building a relationship with God. When we spend time with someone we love, we don’t look at the clock. We look for opportunities to spend more time together. The point is not to make God an afterthought. Don’t pray “if you have time.” Make time.

The saints most often recommend praying first thing in the morning. Before we get distracted by our daily schedule and to-do lists, we take time to thank God and pray for His blessings on the new day. This way we always put God first. We can then carry the fruits of our meditation with us throughout the day, helping us to “pray always.” Praying at night before bed is a good opportunity to thank God for His blessings, review our day, and ask pardon for any sins we may have committed. But the best time to pray is always “right now.”

This all sounds simple, but it takes practice and dedication to develop good prayer habits. The trick is simply to do it, and keep doing it, persevering when it gets tough. This is important to remember, especially when prayer doesn’t come easy or we don’t feel like we are “getting anything out of it.” Keep going.

The parable Jesus tells in the gospel is about a widow who keeps petitioning a judge over and over until she gets the judgment she wants. The Old Testament reading this week from Exodus recounts how Aaron and Hur kept holding Moses’ hands up for him in prayer, even when he grew tired, to bring the Israelites victory in battle (Ex 17:8-13). The epistle reading this week begins with the reminder to “remain faithful” (2 Tm 3:14). Faithfulness means persevering not just when things are easy, but when they are difficult. Just ask any couple who’s been married for fifty years.

A personal story

When I confessed all those years ago that my prayer life wasn’t what it should be, I was right. My prayer life at the time was practically nonexistent. But I wanted it to be better, so I worked on it. I discovered that prayer is like anything else in that if you want to get good at it, you have to let yourself be bad at it for a while. I tried the rosary, but I had trouble sticking with it. I tried the Liturgy of the Hours and found that form of prayer more suited to my sensibilities. But I still struggled to find regular time to devote to it. It took me a long time to find a routine I could stick with, but I eventually found something that worked.

Once I had established some good prayer habits, I looked for ways to add to my daily regimen during Advent and Lent. Usually it would be something extra I’d do just for the season, but occasionally I’d find something that I felt I wanted to stick with. I even picked up the rosary again and found it much more appealing this time around.

In this way my prayer life became established over the course of several years until it became what I would call “settled.” I would begin my day with a holy hour consisting of the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours (Matins and Lauds), lectio divina with the daily readings from the Lectionary, and my own personal petitions and prayers of intercession for others. At the end of the day we pray a family rosary and, after tucking the kids into bed, my wife and I pray Evening Prayer (Vespers) and then read together from a devotional. It’s a prayer routine I can look at, pat myself on the back, and feel good about. But for the past year that routine has been in shambles.

Our son, Ephraim, turns one year old this month. For the past year, I haven’t been able to hide away by myself for an hour of morning devotions, because there’s a baby that needs tending to. Most mornings I start my prayers only to pause when the baby wakes up. I take him into my lap and do my best to finish with him pulling at the ribbons of my breviary. There have been a few times when he’s knocked my prayer book to the floor, losing my page and scattering prayer cards to the four winds. Forget about lectio divina. There’s a leaky diaper demanding my attention.

Our family rosary has been joined by a new member who thinks the beads are a teething ring. Never mind that he has an actual teething ring. He wants what daddy’s holding, so daddy counts his prayers on his fingers now. Was that ten Hail Mary’s? Or eleven? The third sorrowful mystery is the Visitation, right?

It’s hard to engage in mental prayer when you are mentally exhausted, and it’s difficult to focus when the source of your distraction is squirming in your lap. So I haven’t gotten a lot out of my daily prayer lately. But I’m doing what God wants me to do, honoring my duties as a father and a husband. There are many ways to pray; some involve holding a rosary, others holding a baby spoon.

Pray without becoming weary

Here’s the thing: when Jesus says to pray always without becoming weary, he’s not saying not to pray when you are weary. He’s saying to keep going even when you are weary. You can bet Moses’ arms got tired when he was praying for the Israelite victory, but instead of throwing in the towel, he got Aaron and Hur to prop him up. So even if you need to prop yourself up, keep praying. Persevere, even if it’s not your “best prayer time.”

Things will always happen in life to distract us from prayer. If we only prayed when the conditions were perfect, we’d never pray at all. If we only pray because of what we get out of it, then we’re praying for the wrong reasons. When we make that effort to pray even when we are tired, even when we are distracted, even when we are “not feeling it,” then we know we aren’t praying because of how it makes us feel, but because it’s something we are truly devoted to out of love for God. It’s like any other relationship — you make time for a friend even when you’re busy, not just when it’s convenient. You may not feel like you are getting anything out of your distracted prayer, but God sees you trying and He blesses you for it.

Remember that even the great St. Paul admitted that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” but found consolation in the fact that “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness” and “intercedes for us with groans too deep for words” (cf. Rom 8:26). There have been plenty of times when my prayer has begun with “Holy Spirit, I don’t have it in me to pray right now, so you’re going to have to do the heavy lifting.” Moses had Aaron and Hur, but you’ve got the Holy Spirit and your Guardian Angel to hold you up.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about prayer. Having a stable prayer life is important precisely because other aspects of your life can be unstable. My prayer routine may not be what I’d like it to be right now, but I’m not worried about it because I know that this time in my life (like all times) is temporary. Things will eventually settle down and my prayer life will become more stable. Then something else will happen to shake things up again. That’s just the way of things. Lather, rinse, and repeat until the Second Coming.

Just keep praying. Always. This is what it means to be faithful. Keep God as your constant companion through all the ups and downs of this life, and you will have Him as your companion forever in the life to come.