Al Kresta is a broadcaster, journalist and author. He is President and CEO of Ave Maria Radio, and host of “Kresta in the Afternoon.” I’ll let him fill in the rest…
Read other entries in the How I Pray series.
Who are you?
Hmm, is that a trick question? Didn’t John Paul II say something like we are a riddle even to ourselves? You don’t want anything that grand or mysterious? Okay. Good. Here goes: I’m a Catholic disciple of Christ still learning about grace and mercy, a husband and father still learning to be a faithful lover, a missionary still trying to communicate the Faith to a troubled generation, an American citizen who believes we best bless the nation, if we first build the Church. I’m a baby boomer who remains a traitor to his own generation. Give me World Youth Day and not Woodstock as the sign of the age to come.
Professionally, I’m president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of “Kresta in the Afternoon” a two hour daily talk program that strives to hold conversations of consequence. We are distributed to around 250 stations through the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network.
What is your vocation?
To be conformed to Christ like all the baptized. I was called to marriage, to form a domestic church and to raise children to become disciples of Christ. My particular calling, however, goes back to 1974, while I sat toggling between praying and reading in the Michigan State University Student Union. A settled, deep, peaceful sensation rested on me and I knew as certainly as though I had received a telegram that I was called to spend the rest of my life “disseminating the truth of the Christian faith.” At that very moment, both C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul were laying on my lap. I was a lapsed Catholic, a stereotypic casualty of the 1960s. But the Truth witnessed to in those books had filled me with such joy, enthusiasm and purpose that I couldn’t imagine not sharing it with people, who like me, needed to know the reality witnessed to in those books.
I was equally certain that I was called to marry a woman who would share a strong sense of Christian mission. Sally Morris did and, yes, she had many other attractions. We married in 1977. Somebody told us to craft a family mission statement. So we did. The aim of our family would be “to demonstrate the existence of the Infinite, Personal, Triune God and the truth of the gospel by living lives of prayer, activism, love and truthtelling.” It sounds a little presumptuous for a 26 and 22 year old who had been Christians for roughly two years. The truth is, we often did it poorly, and sometimes, through tears. Thirty eight years later, however, we are still at it and, by God’s grace, that tattered mission statement is still posted on our refrigerator door.
For the first ten years after graduation, my principal way of disseminating the faith was managing Christian bookstores. In late 1986, an independent charismatic congregation called me to serve as its pastor. Around that same time, I was asked to put together a talk radio format that would apply the Christian faith to current events, marriage and family issues, the arts and sciences, pop culture and media, politics and law. Five years later, when I resigned my pastorate to return to the Catholic Church, radio became full time. I never imagined that nearly thirty years later, people who knew me would largely associate me with radio.
What is your prayer routine for an average day?
Talking about my personal prayer life makes me anxious for two reasons. First, Jesus told us to beware of practicing our piety before men in order to be seen by them. I know lapsed Catholics who stay away because they can’t measure up to some high standard of piety they imagine their Catholic friends actually practice. Someone I love is dead, in part, because of his mistaken notion that he had to get his spiritual life together before he returned to Christ and His Church.
Second, my prayer life is not very impressive and I’d rather not trumpet it and have people think less of me for having disclosed my deficit. On the other hand, you can’t be tempted to play the spiritual peacock when your feathers are few and lack any radiance. Okay. So now, let me tell you about my prayer life.
First of all, Sally and I, as temporarily professed lay Dominicans, pledge to pray the divine office daily. She does. I don’t…at least not consistently. Yes, it really bothers me that I fail to fulfill a pledge. All the saints are clear that a rule, a routine of prayer is essential to spiritual growth. It not only enhances your conversation with God, it gives you mastery over your impulses and distractions. One can’t be a serious Christian without praying as consistently as one eats and sleeps. Then again, I’m not that consistent an eater or sleeper either.
I do pray throughout the day but not on a strict schedule. Morning Prayer often gets me started while I shave and Compline/Night Prayer is not unknown at day’s end. But throughout the day, I usually settle for prayer that runs like a repetitive bass pattern underneath a twelve bar blues rolling through the back of my mind. It is a fairly constant, inarticulate conversation filled with grunts, sighs, humphs and wows.
While poring over news stories, answering listener email, considering policy changes, this droning prayer routinely surfaces and then recedes again. Years ago, Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God first introduced me to St. Paul’s words: “Whether we eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.” Even stuffing our face has a divine purpose. In time, Brother Lawrence’s discipline became part of my operating system.
He best describes it: “A little lifting up of the heart suffices; a little remembrance of God, an interior act of adoration, even though made on the march and with sword in hand, are prayers which, short though they may be, are nevertheless very pleasing to God, and far from making a soldier lose his courage on the most dangerous occasions, bolster it. Let him then think of God as much as possible so that he will gradually become accustomed to this little but holy exercise; no one will notice it and nothing is easier than to repeat often during the day these little acts of interior adoration.”
We try to start all staff meetings with a short prayer. Going to Mass every day is something I intend but haven’t made regular. For two months, I might make it but once my engine is racing, I find it difficult to disengage and sit still even for a speedy thirty minute liturgy. That’s not an excuse, just a description. Other friends and co-workers handle it beautifully. So I’m convinced I will– just not today.
How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle the moments when you don’t?
I often fall. The only real failure, however, is to not get up. I simply try again. Our Heavenly Father takes pleasure in our efforts. Just like I delight in my children and grandchildren as they flop and drop time and again learning to walk, he finds us amusing.
In 2003, I was hospitalized for ten weeks. I didn’t want to waste a moment of suffering but rather offer it up. Pinned to a bed, I had daily Eucharist. Sally visited with a consistent Liturgy of the Hours and an extraordinary Litany of Suffering. Yet “offering it up” wasn’t going very well. My best friend handed me Dom Hubert von Zeller’s soon to be republished, The Mystery of Suffering. Von Zeller showed that what St. Catherine of Siena said about prayer can be applied equally to suffering: “’God does not ask for a perfect work, but for infinite desire.’ So long as the soul wants… to move in a God-ward direction there is nothing to worry about. Imperfections in endurance, like distractions in prayer, are…inescapable in our fallen human state …[T]he substantial element in pain bearing as in praying, is the will to love God.” God’s mercy promises that our prayers will not be valued according to their distractions but by our intentions.
Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?
That question asks someone to open the tabernacle of his heart and reveal what keeps it beating. It’s pretty intimate and it certainly trumps asking a person to name his favorite band or movie. So I need to work up to answering it.
Let me start by petting a peeve: devotional pile-ons. Show me some spiritual he-man who claims to go to daily Mass, weekly confession, noonday Angelus as well as perform daily Rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, Liturgy of the Hours, a list of Litanies and Invocations covering everything from the Crown of the Twelve Stars to a Happy Death and then novenas related to the Miraculous Medal, Immaculate Heart, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Pompeii and, not to mention, all the devotions to dozens of saints and blesseds—and I’ll show you a saint ready to ascend to heaven without passing purgatory or a pathological liar whose children, wife and co-workers need to be consulted to really learn what he is like.
When you lead an apostolate you learn to beware of “mission creep”, i.e., the multiplication of good things to do to the detriment of the one thing God has called you to do. Similarly, all Catholics must beware of “devotion creep” i.e., multiplying our devotional exercises because we can’t possibly say, “No” to St. Drogo of the Ugly, St. Brendan the Navigator, Blessed Diana D’Andalo, Blessed Osanna of Mantua, ad infinitum. And what devotional dunce dares to neglect Our Lady of Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Perpetual Help, Sorrows, the Lake, Undoer of Knots, Good Counsel, Mount Carmel, etc. Not to mention missing this prayer meeting or that healing Mass and obsessively avoiding sacrilege by not tossing your saint cards into that drawer with the discarded eyeglasses, used theater tickets and dirty handkerchiefs. Enough already! Laity are in the world, not the cloister. I’m a father of five, grandfather of eleven, and clearly no monk. The genius of Catholicism is that it has a devotion for everyone; it doesn’t prescribe every devotion to anyone.
So what do I actually do instead of complaining about devotional posers? My formal devotions are pruned back to keep them simple and sparse, few and focused and with one ultimate aim: “Make my life a prayer to You, I want to do what You want me to. No empty words, no white lies, no token prayers, no compromise.”… I want to be what you formed me to be.
To that end, Eucharistic Adoration remains my top devotion. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic life. Why shouldn’t it occupy the same place in my devotional life? St. Paul said “Imitate me as I imitate Christ”. In Eucharistic Adoration, Christ is present to us as truly as he was to Sts. Peter and Matthew in the first century. Where can I best consult with Jesus? Outside of Mass, it is Eucharistic Adoration. Where can I go to find the peace that passes all understanding? Eucharistic Adoration. Where can I throw all my burdens and parcels of anxiety, resentment, lust and thwarted ambition down at the foot of the cross? Eucharistic Adoration. Where can I hold a sick child, broken relationship, or fear of death up to be bathed in eternal light? Eucharistic Adoration. Sometimes I just sit there and look at Jesus and he looks at me. Other times I pray extemporaneously pouring out my concerns. Other times I use Paul Thigpen’s and Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s collections of prayers for Eucharistic Adoration. For reading, I use the Gospels and Fr. Groeschel’s In the Presence of the Lord: The History, Theology, and Psychology of Eucharistic Devotion.
At home, Sally makes it easy by keeping our family altar adorned with icons, saint cards, statues, plants and symbols drawn from the current liturgical season or feast day. This environment cues us for prayer even as we are arguing over who lost the remote. All this looks so ideal in print. In real life, however, it is often done spottily. We keep a prayer list on the refrigerator but some requests stay up there months and half the time I’m not sure how often anyone is even praying for the poor soul.
A few times a year, Sally and I pray novenas around some particular need. We daily pray for the souls in purgatory and for the usual church, family, national, and world concerns, including the poor and persecuted.
The story of our life together would be incomprehensible without a string of key answered prayers. We enlist the prayers of our children when momentous family decisions need to be made or when tragedy or joy have visited us. We’ve prayed over our children while they sleep, not nightly, but occasionally. We have prayed together and alone on the street, in grocery stores, abortion clinics, automobiles, libraries, doctors’ offices, monasteries, beaches, ferris wheels, trains, planes and cruise ships. Our children may have been occasionally embarrassed but were never surprised for us to stop and just pray, sometimes for very unconventional reasons in unconventional settings.
I once believed that all prayers should be extemporaneous. Then I met the rich, beautiful eloquent Prayers and Thanksgivings from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Why rely on my earnest but clumsy and impoverished spontaneous prayers when I had something so much better? I still use them along with a personal collection of Catholic prayers arranged by intention.
Do you have a place, habit or way of praying?
Before I lost my leg to necrotizing fasciitis in 2003, I loved walking and praying. I loved kneeling. My first book was titled Why Do Catholics Genuflect? After my amputation, my editor suggested we call the sequel How Does This Catholic Genuflect? Well, he doesn’t. My postures are limited.
St. Dominic, however, lists nine ways of prayer. Lying prostrate on the ground, standing in a cruciform position, praying with hands lifted high and others. I sometimes raise my hands in supplication or lie prostrate on my bed. If alone, I might even sing my prayers. Solitude is a must for I have no right to impose penitential practices on the ears of others.
When people ask me what is the best posture for prayer I compare it to the question of what bible translation is best. The question is “Best for what?” If you are just starting to read then the best translation quite simply is the one you will actually read and not just sit on a shelf collecting dust.
The same holds true for prayer postures. What enables you to keep praying? Pray wherever you are comfortable. The same principle holds for duration of prayer. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Remember, after three years of being mentored by Jesus himself, Peter, James and John, his closest friends, couldn’t even watch and pray for one hour with the Master.
If you can spend seven minutes, do it. Use a timer if necessary. Work up to longer periods. Do I pray while driving? Not after I drove past my exit a dozen times. BTW, is praying while driving similar to texting while driving?
I am not a purist and gladly mix praying and reading. At work, I pray as I read the newspapers and magazines. I pray for insight, for the people in the story and the problem described in the articles.
Pray the Scripture you’re reading. It’s a time-honored discipline called “lectio divina.” I also “festoon” my prayers: E.g., “Our Father– who loves us more than we love ourselves, who asks us to embrace all types of human beings in the word Our- who art in heaven– the place of perfection, where tears have ceased- hallowed by thy name– that name which is above all names, that name which was revealed to Moses, that name which drove demons away, that name which is the way, the truth and the life and so forth.” I find it easier to pray for longer periods of time this way. It also keeps my mind from wandering.
Do you use any tools or sacramentals?
I use Surgeworks’ Divine Office on my Iphone. Near my desk, I also keep a gripping icon of St. Paul given to me by my friend, Steve Ray. He knew my confirmation name is Paul. I don’t think he knew it was, sadly, chosen for Paul McCartney when I was 13, long before I ever had an inkling of a missionary vocation. I try to make sure St. Paul is either looking over my shoulder or staring me in the face as I work at my desk at home.
Retreats are also important. I try to spend four days a year at the Abbey of Gethsemani just south of Bardstown, Kentucky. But it ends up being every two or three years. Sometime in the next two years, I hope to go on pilgrimage to the key sites of St. Paul’s missionary journeys.
What is your relationship with the Rosary?
We are friends but see each other infrequently. I prayed the Rosary quite a bit as a young boy. Less so at the moment, proving that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. For me, meditating on the mysteries requires a free mind. I need unstructured time to do this. I rarely get it. Because doing double-time around the Rosary is so subjectively unsatisfying I avoid it.
Are there any books or spiritual works that are important in your devotional life?
As a young evangelical Protestant I was smitten by A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. Later I came to love Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray, Courage to Pray, God and Man. C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer contains honest advice on prayer
Today I find myself praying the psalms rather than reading books on prayer. Thomas Merton has a small booklet that helps to pray the psalms. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms tries to deal with the different types of psalms. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke showed me that the Psalms are not a disparate collection of random songs, prayers and reflections from ancient Israel. The psalms can be categorized according to intent. There are psalms of lament as well as thanksgiving and confession. Liturgical psalms were used in the Temple or royal enthronement ceremonies. These different psalms possess distinct textures and purposes. They are not a large, lumpy mass of ancient Hebrew pieties. Understanding this, I can make them my own.
What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?
I’ve been reading Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism and Poetry by Paul Murray, O.P. It is unusual for me to read such an academically oriented book on prayer. Murray told me how Thomas’ prayer effected his appetite for learning.
When I find a spiritual or devotional book that hooks me, I read and re-read it rather than finding something novel. The test of a good book on prayer is that you close it and start praying. Try Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer. Dallas Willard’s Hearing God, Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, Dan Burke’s Navigating the Interior Life. His Avila Institute offers outstanding daily reflections at http://rcspiritualdirection.com/.
For years I shied away from the great mystics like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Sienna, or teachers like Francis de Sales. They charted the spiritual landscape with its hills and valleys using vocabulary that seemed, at times, contradictory. I wasn’t confident I could follow it. Ralph Martin’s The Fulfillment of All Desire is a patient, workmanlike study that provides all the correspondences and linkages between these teachers. It inspires as it informs.
As an evangelical Protestant I was immersed in the letters of St. Paul. Catholic spirituality, however, privileges the Gospels so I’m spending more time there. If Benedict XVI was writing copy for Cheerios’ boxes, I’d have a big yellow box with me during prayer. I love his search for the face of the Lord, Jesus of Nazareth. What a unique blend of critical scholarship, devotional ruminations and encounter with Christ. Nothing is quite like it. If you don’t connect with it try Romano Guardini’s The Lord (loved by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis) and Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ which is a masterpiece of popular writing while never losing spiritual depth. His most enduring book.
Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?
St. John Paul II was a once in a century pope. But he didn’t come alive for me as a friend and encourager until his death. Then, strangely, his life was available to me at a level I hadn’t before accessed. Both he and Blessed John Henry Newman are primary patrons along with Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul and Albert the Great.
Thomas Merton is not a patron. He is, however, like an older brother who gave me some very good things and then got into some trouble later in life because of his restlessness and chronic discontent. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. But when he’s bad, he’s awful. His writings between 1948-58 are outstanding. Try Life and Holiness, the Living Bread or Thoughts in Solitude. Beginning with Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in 1966 he becomes increasingly unreliable. I still love him like a brother but wouldn’t co-sign a loan with him, spiritually speaking. Pray for his soul. He did much good for the Church.
Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?
Yes. As I said above, our life together would be inexplicable if prayers weren’t answered. Pascal said that in prayer God grants us the dignity of supernatural causation. In short, “Prayer works.” As of December 5th, I’ve had a prayer of twenty five years answered in a startling way. While it would not pass muster with the medical board at Lourdes, the events in question are miraculous when seen as part of a long story of divine guidance stretching back through a good part of my adult life.
I would like to see ___________________ answer these questions.
Dr. Ray Guarendi and Dr. Gregory Popcak
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, two things. First, prayer should be as enjoyable as play. Prayer should be as rewarding as conversation with your best friend. So if you are not enjoying prayer recognize that something is wrong. If I told you that Boston Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t enjoy football, you wouldn’t say, “He just needs to toughen up and force himself to play.” No, you would think something had gone wrong in his soul. Here is a man who looks like he was created to play. We are created for intimacy with God. So when we don’t want intimacy something is wrong. Relax. Ask why. Perhaps you are hiding a sin. But you really hide nothing from God. Confess it and take joy in his mercy. More likely, you are probably laboring under distorted impressions about God. Maybe you feel he’s like a banker. He gives you only what you put in. So if you don’t pray much, you don’t deserve to enjoy him very much. Nonsense. His mercy endures forever. His love is overflowing. Take advantage of the fact that he knows you but still loves you more than you love yourself. Maybe you see him as a policeman just waiting to bust you. No wonder you want to avoid him. Maybe you see him as an employer, a stern taskmaster who threatens to fire you if he doesn’t get his money’s worth. He isn’t like that.
He is more like what we experience in spontaneous acts of giving thanks. Sacramentally, that is Eucharist, the grace of thanksgiving. When we give thanks from the heart, we taste not only our joy with Him but his joy with us, his good creation. God made us to be motivated through delight. He’s not above even bribing us with promises that at his right hand are pleasures forevermore. So if you are not enjoying time with him, you simply misunderstand him. Don’t stop seeking the pearl of great price.
Second, our prayer, devotions and spiritual reading should be in a style or mode appropriate to ourselves. One reason we don’t enjoy prayer or devotions is that we are like David trying to wear Saul’s armor. He needed his tools, not Saul’s. Our prayer, devotion and spiritual reading should be suited to our distinct mix of emotion, intellect, history, state of life and aspirations for the future. People who find St. John of the Cross dense and unhelpful or who admit that St. John Paul II is baffling are not spiritual pygmies. They simply need a devotional guide whose voice they recognize and understand. By the same token, those who find many popular books on prayer insipid, repetitive and banal are not spiritual snobs or eggheads. Their hearts are aflame when reading John of the Cross rather than when mouthing a praise and worship ditty. Let each person stand or fall to his own Master because “soon and very soon we are going to see the King” and we’ll see Him, the ultimate object of all our desires, face to face.