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Prayer is a Battle

ancient antique armor armour
ancient antique armor armour
Photo by Maria Pop on

The Catechism tells us that “prayer is a battle,” and, “The ‘spiritual battle’ of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer” (no. 2725). We do not expect battles to be easy or consoling. We expect them to be dangerous and difficult. Of course, prayer is sometimes consoling, and it leads to abiding peace and joy. But before we experience that peace and joy, we have to fight against ourselves, the pull of the world, and the Devil. We cannot triumph before we take up the sword.

The Catechism goes on to say,

“In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures” (2726).

The first skirmish is understanding what prayer is. We have covered that in the last few posts, noting that prayer is at heart a conversation with God.

The same paragraph of the Catechism says,

“Many Christians unconsciously regard prayer as an occupation that is incompatible with all the other things they have to do: they ‘don’t have the time’.”

We might suppose, then, that our next battle is carving out time for prayer. I believe something else must come first, however.

What are your priorities?

Once when talking to an acquaintance who was a college professor, I asked him what he had been reading lately. He replied, “I don’t have time to read.” No doubt he was busy. But my thought then and now was, You really mean that reading is not one of your priorities. I have always loved reading. No matter how busy I have been, from working three jobs to caring for an infant, I have always made time to read.

We can apply this to prayer. If your first reaction to the thought of starting a prayer routine is, “I don’t have the time,” aren’t you saying that you think other things more important? Don’t get me wrong. I understand that you are busy. I am busy too. But can you be too busy for God? If you wanted to spend time regularly with your spouse, but were always told, “Sorry, I’m just too busy,” that would not be a good sign for your marriage. In a healthy marriage, spouses make spending time together a priority. So it is in a healthy relationship with God.

Too busy, or not interested?

Rarely is anyone too busy to eat. We attempt to get adequate sleep no matter how full our schedule is. We make time for whatever is most important to us.

Our next battle, then, is to embrace the importance of prayer, to make it a priority. If it is one of our top priorities, we will somehow find the time to pray regularly.

We know we cannot live a healthy life without enough food and sleep. The truth is that without daily prayer we cannot have a healthy spiritual life. And spiritual health is even more important than physical health. When we recognize and embrace this truth, we will no more skip praying than we will skip eating or sleeping.

Prayer is a battle. It requires fighting the mindset of the world that other tasks are more important. Until we conquer this mindset, we will never be faithful in prayer. Next time, then, we will examine why daily prayer is vital to spiritual health.

Connie Rossini

Note: If you are not a subscriber, please sign up here so that you don’t miss a post in this series. A new video course on prayer is coming soon!

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Praying in a Contemplative Manner

In order to reach the finish line, you must know where it lies. Photo from Pixabay.

Remember the analogy from previous posts of prayer as a race? A runner who does not know where the finish line lies is unlikely to win the race. Similarly, a Christian who does not understand the goal of prayer is not likely to attain it. Prayer is meant to draw us into an intimate communion with Christ that transforms our whole life. We begin fostering this communion by praying well and trying to follow God’s will. God completes it by drawing us into a deeper union than our efforts alone could ever yield. He does this through the prayer called infused contemplation.

The Carmelite saints who are the pre-eminent teachers on prayer (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross) reserve the word contemplation to this “infused,” poured-in-by-God, type of prayer. God normally saves this gift for those who have been praying faithfully and practicing virtue for many years, to the point of overcoming deliberate sin.  It is a long, slow process to prepare ourselves to meet God. When we have done all that we can to prepare ourselves for him, he comes to us, because he desires union with us even more than we desire union with him.

Beginners in prayer should not expect to experience contemplation quickly. Prayer is not a sprint. It is a marathon. But we can start praying in a contemplative manner today. Praying in a contemplative manner involves praying with loving attention to God.

Love, not methods

This is what we have been practicing, using the sign of the cross. Last time, we learned to make the sign of the cross slowly and reverently, thinking about the Holy Trinity or the Crucifixion as we do so. Practicing vocal prayer with reverent attention is the beginning of the race toward contemplation.

Some people erroneously believe that all they need to grow in prayer is the right method. They seek a secret, a formula that will make them contemplatives. Prayer growth is not a matter of method, however. It is a matter of love. Only love can unite us with Jesus. The more we love him, both during our prayer time and outside of it, the closer we will come to him. It’s that simple.

We don’t need a mantra. We don’t need to empty our minds or turn away from pious thoughts. We don’t need the latest fad prayer “discovered” in the Bible or other ancient text.

We need to love.

Every time we say a prayer, no matter how short or simple, we should interiorly cast a loving glance at Jesus. Our minds tend to run all over during prayer, because we have not formed good habits.

It is easier to focus on God for ten seconds than for ten minutes. That is why we started practicing reverent prayer with the sign of the cross. Once we have formed the habit of praying the sign of the cross well, we can try praying one Hail Mary with loving attention. Then perhaps one Our Father. Then the Creed or a somewhat longer prayer.

Spiritual writers often talk about the need for silence and solitude in prayer. It is possible to pray in a noisy, crowded subway (I have done it many times!) but it is not optimal. Seeking a place to be alone in the quiet minimizes exterior distractions. Living our lives in accordance with God’s will helps minimize interior noise and distractions.

But the most important element of prayer is love. Love will do the work necessary to be united with the beloved. Love will persevere. And love makes even the simplest prayer rewarding.

Pray in such a way as to prepare for the pure gift of infused contemplation. Pray in a contemplative manner. Pray with loving attention.

Connie Rossini

More on infused contemplation

Are You Living a Contemplative Life?

This article was originally published in The Catholic Voice, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.  This is the third in a series that I am posting from past newspaper columns, every other Tuesday. I have 3 years’ worth of columns to share with you! I wrote these columns in a logical order, so that they could serve as a written course on mental prayer. For more in-depth study, follow the links to read blog posts that you may have missed or forgotten. If you have not subscribed to my blog, do so now so that you don’t miss a post.

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Reverent, Loving Vocal Prayer

Photo from Pixabay.

This article was originally published in The Catholic Voice, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.  This is the second in a series that I am posting from past newspaper columns, every other Tuesday. I have 3 years’ worth of columns to share with you! I wrote these columns in a logical order, so that they could serve as a written course on mental prayer. For more in-depth study, follow the links to read blog posts that you may have missed or forgotten. If you have not subscribed, do so now so that you don’t miss a post.

In my last blog post, we defined prayer as a loving conversation with God. We saw that vocal prayer uses words composed by others. Today we will examine how to say a familiar vocal prayer in a manner that ensures we are truly praying. We will use one of the simplest prayers imaginable, so simple that you may not even think of it as a prayer: the sign of the cross.

The sign of the cross was one of the first prayers we learned, likely when we were small children. If you are like me, you never spent much time thinking about this prayer itself, or how to pray it lovingly and reverently. You probably thought of it as more of an introduction to prayer than a prayer itself.

Most of us developed bad habits in making the sign of the cross, and unless someone has pointed this out to us, still practice those bad habits today. We mutter “Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Amen,” instead of the complete prayer. We make the gesture quickly, unthinkingly, and if in public might refrain from making it at all.

Correcting bad habits

Why begin practicing prayer with something so simple? Please do not dismiss this subject as beneath you. Praying even these simple words with the right disposition can prepare us for an intimate relationship with God through contemplation. On the other hand, if we do not pay attention when we make the sign of the cross, we will likely practice bad habits with more complex prayers as well. Bad habits are difficult to break and good habits are difficult to establish. We need to begin simply.

Let’s return to the analogy of prayer as running a race. No one gets up one morning and decides to run a marathon before he has run shorter distances. He builds up to it slowly. Pushing himself too hard at the beginning can backfire. If he starts with running one mile and slowly adds to it, he builds muscle and endurance until he is ready for the race.

Making the sign of the cross with loving reverence helps us form the habit of thinking about God when we pray.  St. Teresa of Avila, who was named a Doctor of the Church for her teaching on prayer, says, “If a person neither considers to Whom he is addressing himself, what he asks, nor what he is who ventures to speak to God, although his lips may utter many words, I do not call it prayer” (Interior Castle, 1.1.9).

A conversation requires attention. If another person speaks to us but we do not listen, we are not conversing. Likewise, if we answer him absent-mindedly, we make no connection with him.

A powerful prayer

Early Christians considered the sign of the cross to be one of the most powerful prayers. It is the sign of our salvation, the sign with which we were marked at Baptism, the sign by which we are blessed at the end of each Mass. It invokes all three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Over the next couple of weeks, I challenge you to correct any sloppiness you have allowed to creep into this practice. Say all the words, slowly and clearly: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Make the full gesture. Imagine the Crucifixion as you pray it. Thank the Lord for saving you from sin. Or reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity. It only takes a few seconds of loving attention to start down the way of true prayer.

Connie Rossini

For more on how praying vocal prayer well can deepen your intimacy with God, see Praying The Contemplative Rosary.

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What is Prayer?

This article was originally published in The Catholic Voice, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha. You may have seen it in a revised form in my book, The Q & A Guide to Mental Prayer. Beginning today, I will be posting past newspaper columns, every other Tuesday. I have 3 years’ worth of columns to share with you! I wrote these columns in a logical order, so that they could serve as a written course on mental prayer. For more in-depth study, follow the links to read blog posts that you may have missed or forgotten. If you have not subscribed, do so now so that you don’t miss a post.

Virgin Praying. Anonymous (Wikimedia Commons).

Before we learn how to pray, or learn how to pray better, we should understand what prayer is.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives several definitions of prayer. For example:

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (no. 2559, quoting St. John Damascene).

We are familiar with requesting things from God. But prayer encompasses much more than that. Making requests is often wordy prayer. “The raising of one’s mind and heart to God” may not include any words at all.

The Catechism tells us (nos. 2626-2643) that Christians have practiced many forms of prayer throughout the centuries, including:

  • Blessing and Adoration
  • Petition
  • Intercession
  • Thanksgiving
  • Praise

These forms speak about the content of prayer, what we pray.

The Catechism also notes three expressions of prayer (nos. 2700-2719). They explain how we pray:

  • Vocal Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation

These expressions of prayer are the particular focus of this column, especially meditation. We will begin, however, with vocal prayer, the expression of prayer that even young children are familiar with. Vocal prayer, prayed well, blends into meditation. And meditation prayed well prepares a soul for the gift of infused contemplation. Infused contemplation is a mysterious communion with God that is difficult to talk about concretely. It is the prayer of saints. But it is also what God desires for each of us. The Catechism says about meditation:

“This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.” Christian prayer “should go … to union with him.” We should seek this union with Jesus through prayer.

When a runner competes, he needs to know where the finish line lies. Otherwise, no matter how fast he runs, he will lose the race. He might even run away from his goal rather than toward it. If we want to understand prayer and pray well, we need to know where a life of prayer should lead us. That place, that finish line, is union with Christ.

Even beginners in prayer should know something about contemplation. We need to remember the goal as we practice vocal prayer and meditation, so that we don’t run the wrong direction. True prayer leads toward fuller union with Jesus.

This brings us back to our question: What is prayer?

St. Teresa of Avila called prayer “friendly converse with God.” (To see an introductory post on Teresa’s Interior Castle, click here.) When we are just learning to pray, we recite prayers written by others. We talk to God using the prayers of the Church, the saints or our parents and teachers. This is vocal prayer. After embracing vocal prayer, we desire to converse with God in our own words. The Catechism calls this prayer meditation to emphasize that it is not mere chatting with Jesus, but listening to him in the Scriptures, pondering his words, and speaking to him about them. Contemplation is a conversation with God that goes beyond words, images, and concepts. It is a loving gaze between God and the soul.

Without friendly converse between God and the soul there is no true prayer. And every loving conversation with God is prayer, whether we use many words, few, or none.

How do we make sure we are conversing with God when we attempt to pray? We will consider that question next time, by looking at a simple (and familiar) vocal prayer.

Connie Rossini