Written By: Raphael Ma,
“There are too many people who go before God with the pretence of being useful to Him” – St. Thérèse of Lisieux
If you think St. Thérèse’s observation also applies to you, then I wrote this post especially for you. The other day I had to go downtown in a big city to see the doctor. So I got on the train with my parents, and went to Mass at this wonderful chapel on the 3rd floor of a pretty inconspicuous building in the heart of the banking district of that same city. The whole trip brought back memories, since I used to take the same train to get to high school every day, and memories of other times on my way home from university between bus schedules, when I had dropped in that chapel for Mass, or on Fridays when they had all day adoration.
I have always found it difficult to keep my daily routine of prayer while I’m visiting home, and this Easter was no different. So in addition to the holiday “dissipation” – that’s a term some spiritual writers use to describe the “blah” feeling and difficulty focusing that comes from sort trying to do a whole bunch of things and really doing none of them, as in having music playing in the background while working on final exam sample questions while logged into facebook while carrying on a conversation with someone in the same room whom you are supposedly watching TV with… – there was the whole swirl of memories of my travels going on in my head, and so that day I was finding it difficult to concentrate and make my thanksgiving after Communion.
Then I got a little frustrated. I thought to myself – I’m a seminarian! Come on! I should be able to focus for just five minutes to pray!
And then I remembered a similar incident that happened just before Holy Week that I was going to take to confession soon.
It was our last hockey game before the break, and due to some personnel changes, I ended up playing goalie using someone else’s equipment. Even when I normally play goalie, I’m still using someone else’s equipment, but the equipment I used that day was new to me. About halfway through the game, I was letting in a lot of goals, and after one particularly frustrating one got in, I threw down my stick as hard as I could and swore loud enough that my teammates could hear me. I then proceeded in my mind to blame everyone and everything else – it’s because I’m using different equipment, it’s because my defense wasn’t there, etc. – anyone and anything other than myself. I did not want to consider the possibility that I just wasn’t as good in net as I thought.
While walking back to seminary after the game, I reflected– “thank God the stick didn’t break, after all none of the equipment was mine, and I guess I had no right to thrash it in my frustration.” And while I was at it, it was also time to face the truth that I had only been playing goalie since the summer, and I thought I was better than I actually was, and that’s why I was frustrated.
For those of us who try to keep a daily routine of prayer, which is a good thing, I think there comes a time when it begins to feel like a duty I’m doing for God. As irreverent as that sounds, I think the temptation is a real one. We treat it like an impersonal duty, instead of an encounter. We treat it like just another thing on the to-do list, and since we didn’t plan our schedule around our prayer times, we ended up crashing into prayer immediately from some other activity, and continued to think about the last thing we were doing for some, if not the whole time we meant to pray! But what I think underlies that “impersonal duty” attitude towards prayer is the assumption that prayer something we can just do, as if there was a prayer switch in us that we turn on and off at will. Then when we find that we are “performing” below our expectations, we get frustrated.
Not unlike borrowed sports equipment or skills we never really had, prayer doesn’t “belong” to us, like some thing we can amuse ourselves with for a while then put back on the shelf, and get it later, expecting to enjoy the same experience. Prayer is a gift from God. To whom does God give this gift?
The way my schedule works out I end up praying vespers/evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours immediately before my daily meditation. That means I end up praying the Magnificat each day before meditation. And the answer to my question struck me later that same day.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.” [Luke 1:46-55]
Suggested Reading:Catholic Living, Prayer, by Catholic Chapter House.