Yes, the Angelus. At the beginning of 2014, I resolved to pray the Angelus everyday throughout the year. I thought it would be a simple, fun thing to try. I was wrong. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever faced. Inevitably, my Angelus alert would ping in the middle of some pressing task–a focused email I was writing, a delightful lunch conversation, a big project I was knee-deep in. The last thing I wanted to do was break away, lose my momentum, and pray the Angelus, even if it only took a few minutes.
But eventually the Angelus liberated me. I understand that in monasteries, when the bell rings for prayer, monks are obligated to stop whatever they’re doing and pray, even if that means quitting a letter in mid-sentence or dropping a shovel mid-swing. That act of submission communicates to your whole being–your body, your time, your ambition–that God matters more than whatever you’re doing at that moment. Once you free yourself from the slavish demands around you–which, in the long run, aren’t really important anyways–your life starts moving to a new rhythm, following a new clock. That’s why I still try to pray the Angelus everyday (albeit to mixed results.)
If anyone reading this wants to tackle a simple but enormously challenging discipline, commit to praying the Angelus everyday, no matter how inconvenient. It’s incredibly freeing.
In terms of place, we’ve set up a beautiful prayer corner in our home, replete with a cushioned kneeler, icons on the wall of our favorite saints, and even a few second-class relics. Having a place devoted to prayer, set apart from the rest of the house, really sanctifies the experience for me. It makes it easier to lift my soul into a new spiritual space.
In terms of position, I prefer to kneel. I used to not think my posture mattered while praying. But then I was stung by C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, in which the veteran tempter advises:
“At the very least, [Christians] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”
I soon changed my posture. Personally, I’ve noticed that when I’m in a position associated with reverence (like kneeling) I’m in a more humble state of mind (“Lord I am not worthy to receive you..”) Likewise, I often extend my hands in a receiving position, so as to prepare my spirit to receive God’s grace. It might sound and look silly, but I know from experience that our bodies do have the potential to uplift or frustrate our prayers.
Do you use any tools or sacramentals?
All the time. One of the dangers of being a bibliophile is that you often prefer to read books on prayer instead of actually praying. Thus my greatest challenge is to use fewer books, apps, and sacramentals and instead pray in unmediated silence.
In terms of apps, though, I often use the Divine Office app, which I love, but I rarely have time to use. When I was praying the Office consistently, however, this app was invaluable. I can access it on my computer, phone, or iPad, wherever I was. I can even reflect on the audio version while driving.
What is your relationship with the Rosary?
I used to detest it, then I just ignored it, then I grew intrigued by it, and now I pray it almost everyday. The turning point for me, as a Protestant-to-Catholic convert, was discovering how Christo-centric it is. The Rosary is really about Christ–just as Mary is. Both are moons reflecting the Son. If you haven’t yet seen that, you’ve misunderstood the Rosary.
Is there one particular book or spiritual work that has been particularly important to your devotional life?
My favorite devotional work is Frank Sheed’s To Know Christ Jesus
. I turn to it time and again. It captures what Christianity is ultimately about–knowing Christ Jesus–and helps you accomplish it.
What is your current spiritual or devotional reading?
Just this morning I finished Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli, originally written in 1589 (I have the beautiful Sophia Institute Press edition). It was the favorite book of St. Francis de Sales, who described it as “the favorite, the dear book” and elsewhere as “golden.” For eighteen years he carried a copy in his pocket.
Spiritual Combat is one of the best devotional books I’ve ever read–definitely in my top three. With its advice on fighting spiritual battles and attaining victory over sin, I would especially commend it to men. It’s not a flowery, overly-pious devotional. It’s a rousing call to arms which makes you aware that you’re in a battle with the darkest of powers, bent on your eternal destruction, and so you better prepare yourself to fight. Fr. Scupoli shows you how.
If you don’t think prayer matters, or that virtue is worth pursuing, or that you can conquer your besetting sins, this book will change your mind.
Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?
Oh, yes, but too many to list. I’ve come to know the saints not just as intercessors but as friends. I feel especially close to Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Thérèse of Liseux, both of whom died at just 24. I’ve read so much about them, and prayed alongside them so often, that I count them as friends.
I’m also very close to Ven. Fulton Sheen, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Damien of Molokai, and St. John Paul II. They’re constant companions.
What is one prayer you find particularly powerful or effective?
The Jesus Prayer (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”). It’s the Gospel in a nutshell. I pray this, or some ad hoc version of it, throughout the day, every day. It’s especially rich when you time it to the rhythm of your breathing–inhale Christ and exhale your sin. What more can you need?
Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences in your prayer life?
Yes. A couple years after becoming Catholic, I had a quasi-mystical experience. Still adjusting to life as a Catholic, my prayer life was unusually dry and confused. One day, I was in our local parish alone, praying, and after a few minutes I found myself drifting into one of those in-between experiences where you’re half awake and alert, but half asleep and drowsy.
Even though I knew nobody else was in the sanctuary, I suddenly had a clear vision of four people sitting in the front pew. I got up and moved toward them. As I got closer I recognized the group. They were four of my favorite Catholic figures: G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, St. Damien of Molokai, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. They were sharing a kneeler, each praying with hands clasped, heads bowed, and eyes closed.
I stood watching them for a few seconds, excited to be in the presence of such holiness. To me they were celebrities. But it was Chesterton who turned my attention away. Without speaking or moving the rest of his body, and still in prayer, he quietly lifted up his finger and pointed to the large crucifix in our parish. As soon as I gazed upon Christ I snapped back from the vision.
Wherever that experience came from, I’ve carried it with me over the last six years. It fortified two of my central commitments: first, to always focus on Christ crucified, especially during times of spiritual dryness, and second to join my prayers with the saints, who are always kneeling alongside me, pointing the way.
I’d like to see ________________ answer these questions.