Faithfulness to prayer is very rewarding. “The dark night of the soul” will pass away. We are to persevere in prayer even in the midst of trials and difficulties.
The Power of Personal Prayer
People usually ask me: “How are you able to manage so many things simultaneously – official work, the family and serving the Lord? What are the techniques of time management? Tell us the secret. With much lesser quantum of matters in hand, we tend to mess up things.” I tell them that I do not follow the techniques of time management but what has helped greatly is that I have adopted a disciplined life style. What matters is the grace of God. Perhaps the only secret that I could share is that I have tried my best to be faithful to my commitment to personal prayer. As my official engagements and travels increased, life began to get busier and busier. I then realized that it was adversely affecting my personal prayer. Not that I did not want to pray, several preoccupations proved to be an obstacle. By late night, I neither had the energy nor the disposition to pray and all that I desperately wanted was a good night’s rest.
St. John Chrysostom said, “A fish taken out of water cannot live. In a very short time it dies. Neither can the soul of man exist without prayer; it gradually will grow indifferent; it will die.” I too had the conviction that personal prayer is food for my soul. Without it I could not carry on for long. I would simply crash at some point of time. I did struggle much to bring my prayer life back on track. One thing that struck me was that although I was terribly busy, I hardly missed caring for the body. Whether I was traveling at a stretch for hours or days, spending hours at the work, engrossed in ministry or spending leisure time with the family; I always managed to find a slot for meals. No day has gone by without eating food. Except on occasions when I made a conscious decision to refrain from food, I would not allow my body to starve. I somehow found time for food. It is because I was conscious that I could not run for long without fuel for the body. I then realized that what was really missing was the conviction that I needed food for my soul. If it was possible to enforce discipline when it came to food for the body, why not apply the same yardstick concerning food for the soul? With this conviction and the guidance of my Spiritual Director, I tried to adhere to my time of personal prayer. It took a while to become regular because the odds not only continued, but increased multifold with the passage of time. I had to make a conscious effort to adhere to my resolution with regard to commitment to personal prayer. It has not been easy at all. If I dare to write this message it is because I have been regular with my personal prayer for the past five years and am experiencing its benefits.
The most common excuse for neglecting prayer life is that we do not have time. Yet we know that we make time for everything that we desire. Despite our busy schedules, don’t we find time for rest, leisure and work? The thought that we have no time for prayer is a tactic of the enemy, to make us feel quite comfortable skipping time for personal prayer, while making time for all else. We will have no spiritual existence without prayer. Let us, therefore, set aside specific time in our day’s schedule for personal prayer and be faithful to it.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction” (Para 2729). Speaking of distractions in prayer St. Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church and spiritual director, divides them into involuntary and voluntary distractions. Involuntary distractions come to our mind during prayer time. The mind wanders, yet we never find joy in it. All kinds of distractions ranging from children to health and from church to work and what to cook! We keep putting them aside and they keep coming back. St. Teresa tells us that we need to recognize that there is distraction and say to ourselves, “I need to attend to it later but right now I want to spend time with the Lord”. So continue the prayer time and do not shelve it. Stick to the prayer time and complete it. Voluntary distraction is when we are in the church praying, we are attracted to a woman’s hair style or her clothing or our mind is bored by the homily and it wanders off to the food we are going to eat after Mass. This is voluntary distraction; we are aware of what is going on but we do nothing about it and spend time indulging in that distraction. St. Teresa tells us that this is sin. We cannot always pray without distractions but we can do something to minimize it. At home choose a time when we will be least distracted and when our mind is fresh. Choose a place where people in the house know we are praying. These are things within our control. If one has the firm intention and will to pray, one will not consciously admit distractions. The resolute intention will implicitly permeate the whole time of prayer with a sense of God’s presence, although there will be occasional involuntary distractions. The most precious moments to give to the Lord are not those remaining at the end of the day, when the body and soul are sluggish; but those of the early part of day.
St. Teresa tells us that we need to recognize that there is distraction and say to ourselves, “I need to attend to it later but right now I want to spend time with the Lord”. So continue the prayer time and do not shelve it.
Another difficulty is dryness in prayer (cf CCC #2729). Many holy men and women have shared about the experience of dryness and desolation in prayer. Mother Teresa wrote about this experience: “There is so much contradiction in my soul, such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual – yet not wanted by God, repulses, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal… Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place”. Time of prayer may seem a total waste. Some of us think that we are to pray only where there is an urge to pray. We must pray even when we feel dry and do not have the urge very strongly. The great theologian Karl Rahner said: “Remember that this is a chapter of theology that cannot be dealt with by the lecturer’s logic or widespread discussion or desultory talk at a meeting of parish priests. It is a chapter of theology on its knees at prayer.” Faithfulness to prayer is very rewarding. “The dark night of the soul” will pass away. We are to persevere in prayer even in the midst of trials and difficulties. The Holy Spirit comes to our aid. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8:26-27).
We learn how to be committed to personal prayer from the life and example of Jesus. Jesus attracted crowds wherever He went. Same was the case with the Apostles. “He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in a boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.”(Mk 6:31-33). The whole ministry of Jesus was cushioned by a profound prayer life. What is striking is the difficulty Jesus had in finding the time and solitude to pray, and the determination He showed in overcoming such difficulty. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ ” (Mk 1:35-37). “But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Lk 5:15-16). The public ministry of Jesus was even more hectic than the pace of our modern life and schedules. Even then Jesus took time out to pray and did so for long spells.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8:26-27).
Prayer is our lifeline with God. Speaking of prayer, St Francis de Sales said, “It is a river of life-giving water that makes the plants of our good desires grow and flourish, and quenches the thirst of the passions within our hearts”. We need manure and water for the tree of our ministry to continue to bear fruit – fruit that are good, abundant and lasting (cf Jn 15:8; Mt 7:18; Jn 15:16). A life of ministry without personal prayer shrivels and fades. Because personal prayer is the umbilical cord through which day to day nourishment and healing is transmitted to us. St. John Mary Vianney said, “Our one great happiness on earth is prayer.” As St. Teresa of Avila said, in prayer “we are dealing alone with Him whom we know loves us”. Many have also testified that all major initiatives in their ministry, that have borne fruit, were conceived in prayer; and they were able to survive the storms and the wind that came their way.
The challenge before us is to be men and women of prayer. As we wake up every morning, let us have a deep longing to see the Lord face to face: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Ps 42:1). Such an intense longing should propel us to seek exclusive time with the Lord at the start of each day. We will then be aglow in the Spirit. Having spent time with the Lord, our faces will be radiant like that of Moses. Our thoughts, words and actions would turn out to be prophetic and fruit-bearing! ”Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult easy”, said St John Chrysostom.