Since starting my new website Is Centering Prayer Catholic?, I’ve been pondering why certain errors about prayer are so common. I think I’ve hit on a root misunderstanding that’s at the bottom of many of these errors: ignoring the distinction between the natural and the supernatural in prayer.
The Catechism quotes St. John Damascene in saying:
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” (No. 2559)
This indicates prayer is a human activity. One raises one’s own mind and heart to God. Note that this is not true of contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is primarily a divine activity. As St. Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26), so God steps in to help us. We then must respond with an act of faith or love, but such acts cannot initiate contemplation.
In this post, however, I wish to concentrate on the earlier stages of prayer, prayer in the Purgative Way. What common errors can we avoid by recognizing that prayer in the early stages is human? Here are six truths that people often misunderstand.
1. Prayer must become a habit.
The difficulty in establishing a prayer routine often surprises and discourages beginners. They think something is wrong with them if they keep forgetting to pray, or if prayer feels like a chore. Or they assume that since it’s hard for them to find a consistent time to pray, God must not require it of people in their state in life. So we see mothers, for example, who go for years without setting aside time for mental prayer. And we see lots of people giving up prayer as “not for me.”
But (pre-contemplative) prayer is a human activity. Any time we start practicing something new, we must form new habits. Habits take time. They take effort.
How many times have we decided to start exercising more and failed? How about eating a healthier diet? Overcoming procrastinating? Being more organized? We’ve tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and failed.
Does that mean that “exercise is not for me,” or “God must not require me to eat what’s good for me,” or “I should just settle for being disorganized forever?”
Prayer is no different from any other habit. We set aside a specific time, we make a plan. We try. We fail. We try again. We ask for others’ support and prayers. And we keep going until the habit is formed.
If you are struggling to form the habit of prayer, don’t give up! Soon it will be as easy as brushing your teeth. Just give it and yourself time.
2. Distractions are normal.
How often do our minds wander while someone is talking to us? While we’re watching the evening news? While we’re listening to a lecture?
I imagine that Adam and Eve before the Fall had no interior distractions. Their imaginations and memories were under the complete control of their reason. In deep contemplative prayer, our imagination and memory will come back under the control of reason. But until then, we do have interior distractions. Our minds wander. This is perfectly normal for fallen humans.
Do we worry that something is wrong with us when we don’t listen with attention to every word another says? Do we ask others what’s wrong with us? Do we give up having conversations? Of course not!
But somehow when it comes to prayer, we expect to have perfect attention from the first day. If we don’t, we think something is wrong with us. Nothing more than has been wrong with every fallen human being.
We don’t need special prayer methods like Centering Prayer or techniques like mindfulness to make ourselves hyper-focused. We just need some effort and practice, and trust in God when we fail. Involuntary distractions will not keep us away from intimacy with Christ. Voluntary distractions, of course, are another matter. But even there, conquering them is gradual, as is the conquest of every sin.
3. Aridity is normal.
Do we feel an overwhelming love for our spouse every time we think of him or her? Do we always enjoy our vocation? No. Sometimes even our favorite people get on our nerves (without doing anything wrong!). Sometimes even our favorite activities grow stale. Sometimes everything and everyone leaves us bored and restless.
Now, we were made for God in a way we were not made for our spouse or our hobbies. But that does not mean that prayer should always feel good. We have ups and downs in prayer just as in everything else.
Dryness in prayer is normal. Getting bored while meditating on a favorite Scripture verse is normal. Feeling far from God when we are really pleasing Him is normal.
Emotions come. Emotions go. They have little to do with the quality of our prayer. In heaven we will find constant joy in the Beatific Vision. Until then, expect aridity.
4. Prayer uses our minds and hearts.
What separates humans from every other bodily creature? We have an intellect and a will. We can know and love on a level that lower animals cannot.
Since prayer is human activity at the beginning, we need to pray like humans. We use our minds, meditating on Sacred Scripture or the truths of the faith. We use our hearts, speaking loving words to God. We use our imaginations, picturing God or the saints or the Eucharist in our minds. We use our memories, calling to mind the times we have fallen short of doing God’s will, or the past graces He has given us.
Any prayer that asks a beginner to set aside using his mind or heart is not a human prayer. No wonder Centering Prayer and similar errors lead people to deny their human nature! This is a danger too with mindfulness, even though it is not viewed as prayer. It cultivates habits of setting aside the use of one’s faculties — the intellect, the will, the passions, memory, and imagination. Then when one goes to pray, one must strive against these ingrained habits in order to pray well. Prayer lifts these faculties to God, uses them to connect with God. If we set them aside through our own power, no connection is made.
Infused contemplation begins with divine activity. When God initiates it, we quietly respond. Until then, we pray as humans should.
5. Locutions and visions are extraordinary.
This should be obvious by now. Divine messages, prophecies, and visions are not a normal part of prayer. They are unusual gifts from God. We should not expect them, and we should be somewhat circumspect when they come to us or others.
Now, inspirations of the Holy Spirit are commonplace. When we meditate on Sacred Scripture, for example, we sometimes hear God speaking directly to us through the words on the page. The Holy Spirit uses the Scripture to enlighten our minds about where we need to repent and be converted. He can also enlighten our minds regarding something we are not reading about on a particular day.
But specific messages containing unusual commands (beyond what is necessary for everyone) or predictions of the future must always be submitted to a spiritual director.
Prayer is about conversing and communing with Christ. Nothing more (is there anything more?), nothing less.
6. Prayer is simple.
Now, prayer is not always easy, but neither is it complicated. We don’t need elaborate methods or techniques. Prayerfully read Scripture, ponder it, talk to God about it. That’s the essence of mental prayer. The details of how one does so will differ from person to person, from one religious tradition to another.
Prayer should be very natural. It is like talking to our best friend. But first, we listen to Him in the Scriptures. Then we respond. Don’t overthink it. Don’t worry that you are doing it “wrong.” Lovingly listen. Lovingly speak. That is all God requires.
I hope this post has helped you to see some of the common errors about prayer in a new light. Please ask any questions you have in the combox.
Note: This post was edited for clarity on 8/19/21.