Dr. Tom Neal is Professor of Spiritual Theology and Academic Dean at Notre Dame Seminary. He blogs at Neal Obstat, which is just a great name for a blog. He did his graduate work in historical theology and the socio-historical dimensions of Christian mysticism, and has done adult catechesis for seventeen years. He writes that his “hobbies include birdwatching, gardening, biking, racquetball, blogging and Saints watching,” and lives with his wife and four children in a suburb of New Orleans. I wasn’t familiar with his writing before he was tagged by Brandon Vogt in Brandon’s How I Pray entry, but I’m glad to have someone new to add to my regular reading.
Who are you?
I am a sinner made in God’s image and redeemed by Jesus, and grateful to be alive.
What is your vocation?
My first vocation is to be a saint by consecrating the world to God with my bride Patti, with our children Michael, Nicholas, Maria, Catherine and through the intercession of our six miscarried children whom we have baptized with our tears and offered back to God on the wings of hope. Among other things, God has also called me to help intellectually form future priests at Notre Dame Seminary.
What is your prayer routine for an average day?
My prayer routine has a fixed core with lots of untidy edges, though of course life’s ebb and flow sometimes makes the core untidy.
The Core: I rise every day around 5:00 a.m. to have an hour of solitude before the day’s rush begins. The heart of that hour is lectio with the Mass readings. I’ve found I need nothing more than that to fill the hour, with grief at 6:00 when it ends. As a family we pray the Morning Offering to consecrate the day to God. I pray before all meals and when ambulances pass. I’m able to mostly attend daily Mass at work, and every Sunday with family. We pray a family Rosary, Chaplet or other prayer most evenings before bed, and 50% of the time I don’t fall asleep on the third decade. I bless each of our children before they sleep. My wife and I bless each other and on occasion pray intentions together. I examine my conscience before sleep and read something spiritual before I drift off to make my last thoughts of God.
The Edges: I try to practice a colloquy with God and his saints throughout the day, engaging them in little things that happen. I love to laugh secretly with Christ at things I find funny. I always invoke St. Therese before a difficult conversation and lift personal intentions now and again to deceased holy people I’ve known. I consecrate special moments in a day to God for eternal safe-keeping, like when I dance with my wife or daughters. I especially love to speak to God about my wife and children, the magnificent natural world and life’s vicissitudes. I also chat with saints or dead holy folks about their written works that I study and teach. “[St.] Teresa, that’s freakin’ brilliant! Dorothy [Day], you’re crazy!” I assume they at least humor me in their beatific charity. I love to slip into the churches and chapels that reserve the Eucharist, or hang around odd hallowed haunts like abandoned and mossy statues in churchyards or the basement chapel in a monastery that no one visits. I love solitude and praying tattered prayer cards stuck in my books. As I’m moderately ADD, I find solace in God’s mercy that my desire makes up for my wandering mind.
How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?
It’s been 28 years since my “conversion” to a more lively faith, so I feel I have finally set firmly in place core routines and am fairly comfortable with the edges. I’ve come to rely on prayer as my rudder and compass and when I fall out of sync with my commitments I find myself more or less disoriented. My wife said to me the other day when she saw I worked during my morning prayer time, “We need you to be our anchor of prayer.” Especially when the life routines that frame my life of prayer are disrupted for this or that reason, I find myself falling into a more disorganized or inconsistent practice. And my prayer oscillates from dry to wet, cold to fiery. But what I have come to believe is that God’s mercy always supplies for our weakness and failures and inconsistencies and infidelities and mediocrities if we repent, give them to Him to rework and press on. St. Isaac of Syria said that “This life is for repentance,” and I have made that my motto. Most of my spiritual success likely comes from repenting. And it’s a lot easier to sleep at night when you’re sunk safely in an ocean of mercy and not laying with agitation on a bed of self-righteous nails. Something like that.
Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?
Four. Lectio is my cherished favorite. Surrendering myself to a biblical text and entering it to discover Christ, speak with him, listen to him, sit with him is supremely awesome and never ever tiring. The Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me” is my version – is a constant companion and helps me face and avert temptations throughout the day. The Rosary is a powerful weapon against evil and a rich means of chewing on the Gospel, but mostly I pray it as an act of the will as I find it penitential. My wife keeps me faithful to it. The Chaplet of Mercy because it helps me exercise my baptismal priesthood, offering my life with Jesus to the Father, and so helps me to prepare for and extend the offering of the Mass.
Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?
The postures vary based on what prayer we’re speaking of, but for my a.m. lectio I sit in the same corner of our living room couch facing a statue of Our Lady with my legs crossed, Magnificat prayer-book in my lap and hands mostly opened upwards to shape my soul receptively to God. When I walk in the evening, I talk to God aloud, passersby notwithstanding.
Do you use any tools or sacramentals?
I use the Magnificat for Mass readings, My Daily Bread devotional for the last 25 years (by the Precious Blood Fathers), divineoffice.org when I pray the Hours, a small cross blessed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, a rosary. I love icons and often sit and gaze at them and, as the Eastern tradition teaches, allow them to look at me or, more frightening, into me.
What are your relationship with the Rosary?
See above, but I will reiterate that even if I find it challenging to pray I feel duty-bound to pray it because of its grand position in our Tradition. And that makes it probably a most fruitful devotion for me because it’s not about me, like so much else is in my spiritual life can tend to be. And my wife, who loves it, inspires me every day to re-embrace it.
Is there one particular book or spiritual work that has been particularly important to your devotional life?
How can I pick one? Aside from Scripture, which is the epicenter, my absolute favorites have been My Daily Bread by the Precious Blood Fathers, everything by Fr. Jean Lafrance and Therese’s Story of a Soul.
What is your current spiritual or devotional reading?
Scripture and His Life Is Mine by Archimandrite Sophrony.
Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?
Sts. Therese and John of the Cross, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, Venerable Matt Talbot and St. Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, martyred by the Bolsheviks, whose prayer penned shortly before her death never stops haunting my prayer: “Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, our neighbor’s evil to forgive; and the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet. In days when enemies rob us, to bear the shame and humiliation, Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, bless us with prayer and give our humble soul rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.”
What is one prayer you find particularly powerful or effective?
The Jesus Prayer.
Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences in your prayer life?
Once when I was praying for someone who had recently died, who had gravely hurt me in life, I received the gift to forgive him and felt, somehow, that beyond the grave this grace was also extended to benefit him. But as I claim no infallible charism of discernment, I can say no more with certainly than that I was given the grace to forgive. That’s, for me, a supreme miracle.
I’d like to see ________________ answer these questions.
Austin Ashcraft and Faye Akers.