Image by Roman Zaiets via Shutterstock
Do you ever find prayer… difficult? If so, you are by no means alone. C.S. Lewis eloquently sums up what many of us feel about prayer at one point or another:
“Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a crossword puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us. And we know that we are not alone in this.” (C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer)
We may truthfully say that prayer is something simple—a “surge of the heart… a simple look turned toward heaven… a cry of recognition and of love” (St. Therese of Lisieux) or “the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him” (CCC 2565)—but it is by no means easy. Prayer is a battle because it is not only “a gift of grace” but also “a determined response on our part” (CCC 2725). We fight this battle against both our own fallen nature and against the Enemy of our soul, struggling at various times against distraction, dryness, and other difficulties.
These obstacles to prayer can often seem insurmountable. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines three weapons to aid us in fighting the good fight: “to overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance” (CCC 2728).
Humility is our first weapon in the battle of prayer, because “humility is the foundation of prayer” (CCC 2559). When we approach prayer with humility, distractions and dryness cannot derail our prayer. Humility protects us from falling into the trap of hunting down distractions and trying to force them out of our thoughts—instead we can simply acknowledge them and turn back to prayer, keeping our focus on God and not on our own powers of concentration (or lack thereof).
Likewise humility allows us to accept and endure dryness in prayer when it comes—as it surely will. If we pray only when it makes us feel good, our prayer life will most certainly wither and die. But if we have the humility to choose to love God for himself and to turn to him in prayer out of that love, then our prayer will bear great fruit—whether it feels like it or not.
In fact, both distraction and dryness can be gifts to help us grow in the life of prayer. They remind us how much we need God in order to be able to pray at all. These experiences are also opportunities to be vigilant in prayer, as Jesus exhorts us to be (e.g., Luke 22:40). Then we can pray with the Psalmist, “My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:8).
This humble vigilance of heart is closely related to the virtue of hope. Humility means seeing reality as God sees it, which means seeing not only our own lowliness, but also his love and faithfulness. Firmly anchored by this hope, we will not be swept away by any difficulties in prayer.
Our next weapon is filial trust—praying “in trust and boldness as children” of our loving Father (CCC 2741). We need this filial trust so that we will be able to resist temptations against faith, especially when it seems that our prayers are not being heard.
We become children of the Father through Christ (cf. John 1:12)—and so it comes as no surprise that it is Christ himself who enables us to pray with this filial trust, both by his example in teaching us how to pray and by his action in interceding for us: “All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross and, in his Resurrection, heard by the Father” (CCC 2741). We can rest assured that God most certainly hears and answers our prayers because the Son has brought our petitions before the Father—and who would doubt that the Father hears and answers the Son? The Resurrection is proof that he does.
Our job is to trust both that God hears and that his answer will be good—even if it’s not the answer we would have chosen for ourselves. In the words of the 4th century monk and theologian Evagrius Ponticus:
“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.”
Although we might not receive the specific thing we ask for in prayer, God never fails to give “the Gift that contains all gifts, the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1082, cf. 2741). Part of filial trust is learning to love the Giver more than his gifts.
Armed with humility and trust we battle against distraction, dryness, and the discouragement of prayers that seem to be unanswered. But in order to obey the command to “Pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) we must be armed with the perseverance that can come only from love: “Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love” (CCC 2742).
As we strive to persevere in love we must remember three things
- God is always with us, and so it is always possible to pray. That is, it is possible to train our hearts to be always attentive to his presence, even when other demands are made on our time and attention.
- Prayer is absolutely necessary. It is not optional. Prayer is more necessary to our spiritual life than breathing is to our physical life.
- We cannot separate prayer and Christian life. It is not a question of either a life of prayer or a life of good works—that would be like choosing whether we are going to love God or love our neighbor. We are clearly commanded to do both, and we love both God and neighbor by uniting a life of prayer to a life in service of Christ present in those around us.
These weapons equip us for victory in the battle of prayer. May God strengthen us in faith, hope, and love as he draws us ever deeper into the “vital and personal relationship… [that] is prayer” (CCC 2558).