Friday, November 20, 2015

When Prayer Doesn't Come Easily

I have very vivid memories as a kid in junior high having a fulfilling prayer life. I prayed every day without fail. They were simple prayers, but prayers nonetheless. I was never told to pray this way...of course I was encouraged by my family and teachers and priests to pray, but it wasn't like I was forced to do it. I genuinely wanted to. I loved praying. I really felt connected to God, and His presence surrounded me constantly. It really was like what they say in Scripture: I felt a peace that words cannot describe, and I think I can honestly say (without trying to sound arrogant or "holier than thou") that I did love God and desired a relationship with Him above everything else in my life.

This is how my children look every night at prayer time...
Granted, my life was much simpler then. I had only myself to care for, so finding time for contemplative prayer was much easier. We didn't have the internet as a distraction. There were many times that I was BORED (a word that, in our present day, we don't understand anymore because of the never ending choices of distraction and entertainment that technology brings us), so I quite naturally turned to prayer because sometimes there really was nothing else to do.

At the time, I didn't realize what an incredible gift God had given me. I thought everyone felt this way when they prayed. It struck me odd that some people would not pray...why on Earth would you not pray when being close to God is the best feeling in the world?

I entered high school, I became busier, made new friends, and my prayer life wained. I was distracted, as they say, by "the things of this world." I got a pretty awesome boyfriend (who's still pretty awesome if I do say so myself) and thought I had everything.

Then of course, college came, and my prayer life was pretty much non existent. I've written about this before, but I was so into myself that I don't know if it was even possible for me to see past my own nose. I went to Mass every weekend still, but only because that's how I was raised and I knew no other way. I talked to others about God, and about how I was "religious" and "Catholic", even though I really had no idea what I meant by that. But I had awesome friends, and was successful in school, and I thought I had everything.

Which is funny, because I was pretty darned miserable.

And it showed, too. I was not a nice person. (I'm still not sometimes, believe me). But looking back at some of the things I did and the way I treated some people, I still shudder even though I have been to confession about it and I know God has forgiven me. And the funny thing is, throughout high school and college, I was always questioning: "WHY AM I SO UNHAPPY?"

It's interesting how when your prayer life stops, so does your happiness. You think you are happy. Sometimes. There are brief moments of positive emotion that can occur within relationships, activities, and successes. But then that fades and you are left empty. And the funniest thing is, we get angry at God for this...asking him, "Why, God? Why? What else can I do?" even though He has already given us the answer:

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

But see, this is the answer we don't want to hear. We don't want to deny ourselves. Or take up our crosses. Crosses are difficult to carry. And inconvenient. So we ignore this message and carry on with our lives the way WE want and continue to wonder why we are miserable.

Thanks be to God, through the intercession of MANY prayers by others I'm sure, and through the influence of my now husband's conversion to the Catholic faith, I finally came to my senses at the end of my college career and realized what a complete jerk I was. It was humbling and humiliating to look at myself how I really was. But only when I did that could I start to change. I started to pray again. I enjoyed praying again. I was peaceful, and happy, and good with life for the first time in many years.

Then, I had my first living child, Elizabeth. And my life as I knew it came to a crashing halt and everything changed. All the sudden, I had another life to be responsible for besides my own. I thought I had gotten past my selfishness, but in hindsight, I was only scratching the surface. This person, this baby girl, was completely dependent on me. And I had no idea what I was doing.

In the frenzy of learning how to properly breastfeed (which never really happened), sleep deprivation, months of pretty serious illnesses my little newborn had to go through, and just learning how to be a parent and survive at the same time, I again forgot about prayer. Who has time for that? I was just trying to keep my head above water. Getting through weekend Mass with a baby who really loved screaming at decibel levels that even our stone wall Cathedral cry room couldn't contain was taxing enough. You want to know what the readings were that day? Hahaha! I can't even tell you what the date is!
Elizabeth, 3 months old, Ash Wednesday. I think she was mad because her ashes were not dark enough.

I realized in the back of my mind that I needed to pray. And REALLY, I had extended periods of time where I was sitting, feeding a baby, which could have easily been devoted to times of prayer. And out of guilt, I started to cave and say my prayers. Sometimes. But all I really wanted to do was just zone out and watch Netflix. Because this parenting thing was exhausting, and prayer was not bringing me the rest I needed. It was just more work.

And that is the key point that I think we all need to realize: prayer is WORK. It is HARD work. Having a consistent prayer life does not come easily or conveniently to most people. And I think, after having had such a fulfilling prayer life in my younger years, I was totally turned off to it when in my busier seasons of life when it didn't bring me that instant comfort and gratification that I used to get. "I'm not getting the results I expected," I would think to myself. "I'm not getting warm and fuzzy feelings. So I must not be doing it right. I guess I'll just stop." I went through periods of this, on and off, for a good while during Elizabeth's first year of life.

Then one day in October when she was 10 months old, I made a decision. I was going to start praying the rosary. I had dappled in the rosary before. I had gone through periods where I would try to pray it every day, and that would last a few weeks, and then the sheer thought of having to sit there for twenty minutes to recite those tedious prayers would become overwhelming and I'd stop for awhile. And then I'd start the cycle again. But...I'm not sure what was different about this time...but this time, I was serious. I made a promise that I would pray the rosary every single day, no matter what. Even when I didn't want to (which was every day). Even when it was inconvenient (which was every day). Even when I'd rather be doing something else (which was definitely every day).

I wonder if St. Dominic had trouble concentrating too?
I will write another post related to my journey specifically with the rosary (to summarize, I have never missed a day since that day in October 2013...and this is not to make myself sound like some saintly person, because I am still not good at praying it). But the point I am trying to make here is this: In my 2+ years of praying a daily rosary, I have never once felt warm and fuzzy, and I have never once "felt" God's overwhelming presence. In fact, most of the time, all I'm thinking is how I'd rather be doing something else. Or what I'm going to eat for breakfast. Or what my plans are for that day. And then I'll realize my mind is wandering, and OOPS! I'll try to focus whatever mystery I might be praying at the moment. Okay, the Scourging at the pillar. Our Father, who art in heaven...and the cycle continues.

The fact that I have a "dry" prayer life used to bother me greatly. In fact, I went through a pretty major faith crisis because of it. I was angry at God for not rewarding me for being faithful to Him. "I'm TRYING here!!! What more do you want!!!! Can't I get SOME reward for doing all this work??"

But I am slowly realizing that, really, positive emotional fulfillment does not always happen with all relationships in life. Our emotions can play tricks on us. Emotions change, God does not. Those warm and fuzzy feelings I was looking for are not an indicator of how much God loves me or if He hears my prayers. I love my family, and I work at a relationship with them. Sometimes that relationship feels more like work, other times it comes easier. The same can be said with prayer. Intellectually, I know God hears my prayers and that He loves me. But everyone feels abandoned by Him from time to time...even Jesus, hanging on the cross, about to die, asking God: "Why have you abandoned me?" If JESUS did not "feel" God's presence, well heck, why would I expect to be above that?

If you are struggling with daily prayer, you are not alone. It is HARD. It is WORK. And it does not always make you feel any different. But it will slowly transform your life in ways you might not have chosen yourself
. Remember, Jesus did not promise us a life of instant gratification. He promised us the opposite: difficulty and hardship. But regardless of what our ever changing emotions tell us, we can always know one thing for certain: prayer is ALWAYS a good thing. It WILL change us for the better. And God, even when we do not feel Him, will never abandon us.

Check out this video on spiritual dryness from Fr. Robert Barron. It really shed some light for me on how God is trying to teach us to fall in love with Him, not the emotion of falling in love with him.