Joanne McPortland on the Call to Self-Destruction

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Ignacio de Ries: The Tree of Life, 1653

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spring quite like this. It’s not unusual for depression to come in cycles, and for it to hit harder as we emerge from winter. But this season, everywhere I look, I see people more people crushed under this burden than I ever recall seeing before.

Are we just talking about it more? Are we being more candid? Are years of stagnant economics and social upheaval wearing down our ability to resist?

Or is there something else going on here? More than one Catholic has suggested to me in private that it’s the work of the devil, and I’m inclined to agree in at least some of the cases. People are being flattened by depression like Wile E. Coyote under an anvil.

Joanne McPortland writes powerfully today about the siren song of suicide that calls us to death:

Maybe because I, and all too many Catholics I know, have started hearing the YouDon’tDeserveToLive voice louder again this spring, breaking through whatever treatment measures we had found useful. That happens. But if it’s the first time it happens after you’ve had some relief, it can provoke a faith crisis as well as a psychological one.

The pull of self-erasure can be particularly awful for people of faith, who feel the shame of not measuring up, not trusting in God enough, not being grateful enough, not being good enough. We’re likely to be more terrified when the abyss looks back if we feel the loss of God’s presence and consolation. Depressed Catholics don’t need to be reminded to beat our breasts in the Confiteor—it is always, for us, through our most grievous fault that we dare to exist. That’s not the Church’s teaching or intent. It is part of our DNA, part of how the disease manifests in this population.

There’s much more, including some advice on how to get through it. 

Sorry it’s been such a downer here lately, but the topics choose me, I don’t choose them.

I’ve bee writing more about prayer lately because that’s how I’m trying to work through it. The Jesus Prayer has been of great use to me lately, and now I have a new weapon in the arsenal: a chotki.

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This prayer rope uses knots to count off the Jesus Prayer, which some spiritual heavyweights have prayed tens of thousands of times a day. A rosary could serve the same purpose, but the rope is traditional in the Eastern Church, and I like having a new and distinct tool to use. I picked this one up in the shop next to the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia, but you can find them on Amazon.

More on mental health and depression.

Everyday Prayer

prayer

Pray without ceasing.

Prayer can be hard. Many of us follow the forms laid out by the Church because they are a good foundation upon which to build a prayer life. Whether it’s the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, we drink from a deep and pure well that can nourish our spiritual life with the wisdom of the Church and voice of God in Scripture. When we do, we join the People of God in one prayer.

Yet this discipline of prayer is like any discipline: it requires work and practice. As with a diet or exercise regimen, it can become a burden. If we put all our eggs in that basket, we can feel like failures if our discipline slips.

This why the Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes brief, frequent prayers over long, focused prayer. He says: “Prayer ought to be short and fervent, unless it happens, that one is moved by the grace of God to prolong it.”

Did you catch that last part? Longer prayer is a function of grace. Now, Benedictines certainly pray the Divine Office hours, so he’s not dismissing that. Instead, he sees the Office as a way to stand in the presence of God:

“We believe that God is everywhere present, and that His all-seeing eye beholds both the good and the bad; but there are no circumstances in which we should have such a profound and lively conviction of these truths, as while we are engaged in singing the Divine Office.”

In these deeper practices, we learn about God and dispose ourselves to His action, but prayer—the reaching out to God with heart, mind, and word—can be a much simpler thing.

The most humble yet powerful prayer is the Sign of the Cross. Body, mind, and voice all work together to proclaim the Trinity and the saving power of the crucifixion all at once.

It’s common to say “let your life become a prayer,” but that’s not quite what I mean here. Rather, we need to make prayer—short, frequent prayer—a part of our lives. Nothing big, mind you: just what the Church calls ejaculations. (Yes, I know, I know: but the Church’s understanding of the word preceded the other meaning.) Bring our lives back to God all day long with all our actions, if only just for a moment.

Say the Jesus Prayer. Make the Sign of the Cross before act. Say “God be with me” before you make a phone call. Say an Our Father at random points in the. Offer up a “Requiem aeternam” or “Lord have mercy” when you hear of a tragedy.

We all want our prayers to be outsized, deep, moving, profound. That is a worthy goal, but it should not be the ordinary way of prayer for us. The ordinary way is the little way.

I remember a video I saw years ago in a diocesan training session. It showed a woman making the Sign of the Cross over a tray of muffins as she put them in the oven. At the time I thought it looked absurd, and it’s probably not something I’d do myself, but now I see where she was coming from, and I think she was absolutely correct. She was trying to sanctify the mundane. It’s way of praying with our whole being, and composing that prayer from the simple moments of life.

We are a sacramental people. We believe God dignified flesh by taking it on Himself in the incarnation. We believe God uses matter to convey the sacred. Time, too, can become sacred, and every moment that clicks by can be sanctified for us if we turn to God in that moment and ask His blessing upon it.

Turning to frequent, short prayer throughout the day is like opening a windowshade on a bright day. The new light baths the room to reveal things formerly unseen. God is that light. The anxiety and stress of everyday life is the windowshade. Prayer is when we choose, if only for a moment, to let that light in so that we may see our life anew.

I doubt that The Muffin Lady’s Prayer was “Lord, make these the best muffins ever!” Rather, I think she was simply using her actions—in this case an act of both love and necessity in providing food for her family–as a moment to turn to God in thanks and love. She was trying to open herself to holiness by sanctifying the simple things.

“Pray without ceasing,” we are told. This doesn’t mean every person commits themselves to a life of prayer like a cloistered contemplative, but rather that each one of us is commanded to turn to God in the midst of life. We draw near to God and dwell in His presence, weaving our prayer out of the simple stuff of life, and offering up our time, our actions, our emotions, our very bodies in an act of love and devotion.

More on prayer can be found here. Simon Tugwell’s Prayer in Practice, which inspired these posts, is a little gem.

You Have No Right to Pray

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26

“It is very important to for us to realize that we do not know how to pray. If we think of prayer as something that we can—or worse, that we should—master and become proficient at, we are in danger of seriously falsifying our relationship with God.” Simon Tugwell

Prayer is one of those things I approach like a musician approaches his instrument: if I just practice it enough, I’ll get better at it. I’ll get more proficient, and in doing so grow closer to God. Part of the reason I started the How I Pray series (which is on a break for reasons already stated) was to try to see what I could learn from my fellow travelers. I kept thinking maybe there’s a key someone has, and they can let me use it to unlock a hidden door to a deeper prayer life.

Gerard Dou: The Prayer of the Spinner

Gerard Dou: The Prayer of the Spinner

This mindset is both right and wrong. Paradox doesn’t bother me because I believe it’s a fine way to understand the ineffable mysteries of the divine, but the error in my approach is something I need to consider as I try to grow in my prayer life.

All of this, naturally, has been complicated recently by major depression, which has sapped my strength and affected my recall. (I couldn’t even remember the final prayer of the Angelus today. That’s a frightening thing.) That’s caused me to consider new ways of praying other than my standard reliance of the Divine Office.

What I plan to do is work through some notions about prayer that I’ve been thinking about lately in a series of posts for the next week or two, time and health allowing.

Simon Tugwell’s excellent little book Prayer in Practice had several revelations for me, most notably the idea that we have no natural right to pray.

In the Old Testament, God authorizes priests and prophets to pray. In the New Testament, the situation changes but the underlying rules still hold. People are baptized into Christ, and by the gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments our hearts and lips are opened in prayer. All who are in Christ may now pray.

What this means, as Tugwell observes, is that prayer is a privilege not a right. It is both a gift and a duty.

What should follow from this shift in perspective is the realization that we cannot rely on ourselves alone for prayer.

We meet prayer halfway by following patterns and forms.

We dispose ourselves to prayer with an open heart.

We practice prayer through spiritual exercises.

We listen for God’s words in his scripture and in his Church.

We sit in the silent majesty of the Lord and await His call.

However, none of these things is a complete prayer.

Even the simplest utterance of the Jesus Prayer or the Sign of the Cross is a way for us to find the ground upon which prayer can occur, but the rest is up to the movement of the Spirit.

Just as the efficacy of works can only function through the action of grace, so can the power of prayer only work through the action of the Spirit. Our prayer needs to be completed for us.

Does the Mass, the highest and most perfect prayer of which man is capable, function through our own powers? Are we not merely collaborators with the Priest and the people of God in the greater Work of Christ in the Mass? Is the Mass ours, or Christ’s?

What’s true of the Mass is true of personal prayer. We are not the only power driving our prayer.

It’s a mistake to think that the action of God in prayer is limited to His response. In fact, half of prayer itself is the action of God, before we even get to the response. We would not even have the desire to pray without grace. Our will and intellect cooperate with grace. We can ignore grace or we can build on grace, but we can neither create it nor demand it.

The intimacy with God which we seek in prayer is a gift on top of another gift. The prayer itself was the first gift, and as St. Paul says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.”

What’s the result? That “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Sighs too deep for words. That’s the prayer that comes from the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice. Words may open the path for us, or dispose us to the action of grace, but in the end, the prayer of Spirit lies beyond words. It’s merely a sigh: the sigh of the lover, answered by the beloved.

Mental Healing and the Psalms

There are many ways through the dark valleys of depression, and prayer must be one of them. The problem is that the depressive often cannot even stir to perform regular prayer. Simple tasks become a burden. Prayer routines fall by the wayside. Commitments are left undone.psalter

And with each little failure, the walls close in tighter and the sufferer sinks deeper.

Perhaps one way through the dark valley is to follow the trail laid down by our ancestors with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Psalms have within them the entire range of human emotion and experience. If the regular routine of prayer no longer works for us, if the liturgy of the hours or the rosary or whatever discipline we try to follow has become a drudgery and burden, then we have to find a new way to speak to God and, more importantly, let God speak to us.

Fifty-nine psalms—more one-third of them—have elements of Lament. It would appear, on the surface, to be utter folly for the person in the midst of a soul-crushing sorrow to enter deeper into a world of despair. That appearance is deceiving, however.

The laments are more than that. They are a dialog between man and God. They are a howl of sorrow, yes, but they are also a plea, a thanksgiving, and a sigh of hope and trust.

Psalms by category, from Verbum Bible Software

Psalms by category, from Verbum Bible Software

Perhaps we need a Depression Psalter: something to give voice to pain, speak to God, and express our hope. It could be part of our cold reboot of the soul, as we dispense with old habits, including habits of prayer, and engage cross and the desert head-on. Let me begin with Psalm 13. It opens with a question that, as so often in the psalms, is an accusation:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

You can see in the repetition of “How long” the urgency and pain of the psalmist, while parallelism builds gradually sharper accusations against the Lord. A common feature of Hebrew poetry is to say the same thing twice in different ways, which has the effect of both echoing and amplifying points.

At first, the speaker asks how long the Lord will “forget” him, suggesting that his distress is not the direct action of God, but mere neglect.

In the next line, however, God has chosen to actively “hide thy face.” God has not forgotten the speaker: God has deliberately turned away from him. These mounting accusations are a more circumspect way to accuse Yahweh for his present plight

The pain in our souls and the sorrow in our hearts is as good a depiction of depression as you’re likely to find. This is De profundis clamavi: a cry from the depths.

Finally, we have the characterization of the enemy who is exalted over us. We can read “enemy” in many ways. It could be the world, the flesh, and the devil (mundus, caro, et diabolus): the inverted Trinity that leads us into darkness. Any one of these things may be at the root of our depression: stresses of life present and past (the world), challenges from our body from illness or temptation (the flesh), or the evil one himself, who must not be discounted as the root of some cases of severe depression.

But I think it may be more useful for those who suffer from true clinical depression to see the enemy as the depression itself. It’s not unusual to give personality and even character to depression. That’s why it’s called the Black Dog. This runs the risk of placing the depression outside ourselves rather than something that springs from within, but it can also be useful for understanding and confronting the forces pulling us down. In prayer, confronting our depression as an Other, an enemy, is just one way to reach out to God and articulate our pain. It says that we are not our illness, and it will not define us, and it allows for us to plead for this enemy to be driven away.

The next section is a prayer for help. We are asking for deliverance from the enemy, in this case, our depression.

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him”;
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

The Hebrew word translated as “lighten my eyes” means to shine, dawn, or give light. It is a powerful way of asking for darkness to be driven away, but it also suggests enlightenment and spiritual wisdom. We are asking God not merely to drive away the pain, but to give wisdom to our souls so we may live better, and to bring the Light Himself to dwell within us.

And to make the stakes clear, God is warned that our very lives are at risk. Major depressive disorders are, in fact, a serious, life-threatening condition. Too many people today fail to understand this.

Again, we have the personification our of our pain as our “enemy” and our “foes.” We are pleading with God not to let them triumph.

The final section is common in Psalms. It’s a prayer of trust, hope, and gratitude for all the Lord has already given and will give:

5 But I have trusted in thy steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

This is key. Trust and rejoice! Whatever bears us down, the Lord bears us up. The Lord’s love is steadfast, and He will save us. We cannot despair.

However slender that reed of hope is, we must hold onto it and not be swallowed up by the darkness. We must trust and hope in the Lord. We must never give up on Him, even when we’ve given up on ourselves. If the Psalms teach us nothing else, they have to teach us that much.

How I Pray: Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight is the Sacramental Preparation and Education Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver. He is also the founder and editor of New Advent, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary on May 1st.

Read more entries in the How I Pray series.kevin-door

Who are you?

My name is Kevin Knight, editor of the New Advent website, staff member of the Archdiocese of Denver and loyal servant to the true emperor, Jesus Christ. Father to two wonderful sons, husband to a wonderful wife. And I hope to have my reward not in this life, but the next.

What is your vocation?

On paper, I look like a “professional Catholic”, but my true vocation is to be a family man who quietly seeks sanctity in ordinary life.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

Ideally, it would include daily Mass, daily spiritual reading, daily mental prayer, a daily Rosary, and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?

I achieve it less than ideally, and I can get frustrated when my daily duties keep me from getting to Mass and visiting our Lord. I always think of something that Fr. John Hardon once wrote:

It is impossible in human terms to exaggerate the importance of being in a church or chapel before the Blessed Sacrament as often and for as long as our duties and state of life allow.

I very seldom repeat what I say. Let me repeat this sentence. It is impossible in human language to exaggerate the importance of being in a chapel or church before the Blessed Sacrament as often and for as long as our duties and state of life allow.

That sentence is the talisman of the highest sanctity.

But I recognize the peril in cultivating this type of frustration, so I try to sanctify my daily duties and find joy in my state of life as much as possible.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

My favorite devotion is to pray the Rosary after reading the Gospels.

Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?

No. I really don’t. My favorite place to pray is in a quiet church but I also like to pray silently throughout the day. And ever since giving up my car radio for Lent a few years back, I’ve found my car to be a surprisingly great place to pray.

Do you use any tools or sacramentals?

I love the RSV Bible with audio that can be found in the EWTN and Lighthouse smartphone apps. I also love Magnificat — both the app and the print version. And wherever I go, I carry a rosary and a pocket Bible.

What are your relationship with the Rosary?

I love it and pray it daily.

Is there one particular book or spiritual work that has been particularly important to your devotional life?

Frank Sheed’s treatment of the Most Blessed Trinity in Theology and Sanity. Everyone should read it at least once and then meditate on it as much as possible.

What is your current spiritual or devotional reading?

The Gospels, which I carry in my pocket and try to read often.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

The guardian angels. I try to cultivate a friendship with my own guardian angel, and I like to greet other angels silently as I meet people throughout the day.

What is one prayer you find particularly powerful or effective?

A couple of times recently, I’ve had a couple of particularly tough prayer intentions that seemed hopeless on a human level. I offered them to Our Lady Undoer of Knots and was amazed at how quickly and completely the problems seemed to resolve themselves.

Also, I try not to be superstitious about it, but St. Anthony has never let me down when I’ve asked for his help in finding a lost item.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences in your prayer life?

Yes. While I can be lazy and inconsistent in every other part of my life, I never skip the Rosary. I started praying it regularly on December 8, 1991, and I’ve missed only one day (when I was sick) in twenty-three years. This is purely a gift from God, and it definitely does not happen through my own diligence.

I’d like to see ________________ answer these questions.

Dan Burke and Anthony Lilles of Catholic Spiritual Direction.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes. If you’re still reading this, please say a prayer for me!

How I Pray: Melanie Bettinelli

Melanie Bettinelli headshotMelanie Bettinelli is a homeschooling mother of five who blogs at The Wine-Dark Sea.

Read more entries in the How I Pray series.

 

Who are you?

I’m a wife, a stay at home mother of five kids ages 2 to 8, a homeschooler, and Texan expat wondering yet again this winter how I came to be living in frosty New England.

I’m also a bibliophile and blogger and former adjunct English professor. My passion is literature, particularly poetry, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, and Shakespeare. I’d better stop there before I write a bibliography. I have an MA in Irish studies. I enjoy art and quilting and gardening even though my thumb isn’t very green.

What is your vocation?

My baptismal vocation is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. My primary vocation is wife to Domenico. I’m also mother to Isabella, Sophia, Benedict, Anthony, and Lucia. Lastly, I’m a teacher and a writer. At this stage in my life my teaching vocation is manifested in homeschooling my own children and I find time in the margins of my days to write, mostly on my blog.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

Hmmm. I’m not sure I have an average day. I have the ideal and then I have whatever I actually manage to accomplish with the day as it presents itself. But I can tell you about my ideal, which is really pie in the sky.

I try to hinge my day on the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning and Evening prayer as the bookends of my day, squeezing in the Office of Readings and, when I can, one of the daytime hours. I adore ending the day with Night prayer, but often it comes down to a choice between that and Evening Prayer because I didn’t pray Evening Prayer at the appropriate time and don’t want to miss it.

If I have the time I like to start off the day sitting quietly in bed reading Morning Prayer, either silently to myself, or out loud accompanied by one or more of my children. I love praying the Liturgy of the Hours with my kids and they often love to sit and pray with me. But if that doesn’t happen, and recently it hasn’t been, then I try to listen to the divineoffice.org podcast while I’m making breakfast and doing my morning clean up after breakfast. It’s not ideal as I’m often distracted and interrupted. Some days I’m lucky if I paid attention to part of a psalm and one antiphon or I just prayed the Invitatory Psalm which starts off the first hour of the day.

If I listen to the podcast then sometimes the kids do too and join in. Most times they just ignore it and chatter and shout and argue over it. Still, even if we all seem to ignore it somedays, I like to have it as the background noise of our mornings. Better than many other background noises, you know? I know they are absorbing it, though, even if they don’t seem to notice, because I hear them repeat phrases, they have favorite bits, they ask questions. My favorite is hearing my toddler pray. My  two year old recites along with me: “Lord, open my lips…” and “God, come to my assistance…” She knows the beginning of Psalm 95 and of the Benedictus. She likes to repeat antiphons.

I try to pray the Angelus at noon and six— and sometimes try to get the kids to pray it with me— I have alarms set on my phone to remind me to pray and sometimes I even hear them. I also have an alarm at 3 and if I’m paying attention I’ll squeeze in an abbreviated version of the Divine Mercy prayer (my own truncated version is just the invocation: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.” Then instead of a whole chaplet I just say three (or five or ten) repetitions of “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” (Normally you’d repeat it fifty times, ten for each of five decades of the rosary, but I’ve usually got small children waiting for me to get back to story time.) Then I end with “Holy God, Holy Mighty one, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” It’s easy to get hung up on the need to either pray the whole chaplet or not pray at all, I figure my truncated version is better than not doing it at all.

I find that for me as a mother and homeschooler the line between my own private devotions and catechesis for the children is often blurred as any given prayer time might become an occasion for teaching and teaching about the faith is often a moment of encounter with Christ and an opportunity for meditation on the mysteries of the faith. 

Then of course there are our family prayers: we pray together at meals when we are together, sometimes at breakfast and lunch, always at dinner.

And then at bedtime we have a nightly prayer routine with the children, My husband says a short doxology, which we all repeat: “O God, we adore you, we bless you, we praise you” followed by a blessing for the children by name and invocation to their guardian angels. Then we all say an Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and Act of Contrition. Then we pray petitions. My husband usually prays a fairly set list with additions as they come up: for the souls in purgatory, for the pope and our bishop and priests, naming current and former pastors, then for religious brothers and sisters, naming individual religious and particular communities we have ties to, we pray for those who have asked our prayers. Then each child adds his or her own petition. Sometimes we chant the response, “Lord, hear our prayer.” Sometimes we just say it. Then each family member lists one or two or three things to thank God for. We try to end with an invocation to the saint of the day.

Some of my daily prayer is informal, chatting with God at various points in my day. I have a few prayers I like to say, a prayer to St Joseph for my husband, a prayer for my children. I pray for friends and family as I receive requests for intercessory prayer, often through Facebook. I sometimes pray while doing laundry or washing dishes or cooking dinner. Either just mental prayer, spending time with God, listening to the divine office podcasts, praying for particular intentions, or uttering short spontaneous prayers.

I also try to read the day’s lectionary readings, either to myself or to the children.

My favorite way to end the day is to stay up after all my family are in bed and to spend the last moments of the day in that precious quiet and peace and to find solitude with God.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?

The above looks like an ambitious list. It is an ambitious list. But no, I don’t achieve even half of it on an average day. Many days, almost none of it. It’s not all that unusual for me to get to the end of the day and to think back over it and realize that I’ve utterly failed to pray and all I have to offer is an apology and a resolution to do better the next day. It is what it is.

It’s not only that I’m busy. I’ve also got my vices to contend with: I’m selfish and when I can snatch a bit of quiet, I often opt for entertainment more than prayer.  Acedia is a daily struggle for me. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and berate myself for failing to meet my prayer goals for the day, but of course the real goal is simply to grow in closeness to God so the real failure is to fail to communicate with Him at all. My course of last resort is to at least touch base with Him in the quiet of the night after all my family are asleep and I can spend a few moments with Him.

About failure, I try to do what I can and hope that God will take care of the rest. I’ve been in sort of a rut lately, having a hard time getting myself to sit down to pray. And sadly Lent hasn’t really made a dent in correcting that. I know from experience that it will likely pass. But even when I’m really being lax, I never go through a day without talking to God, even if it’s just an offhand, I’m sorry I didn’t really get to you today. And there’s always this sense I have that even if I neglect him, it’s *Him* I’m neglecting. His presence is the elephant in the room that I’m not dealing with. But no matter how distracted I get, He’s still there and I know he’s waiting patiently, eagerly wanting more from me.

I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours for more than a decade, beginning well before I was married, and I know from experience that for me there’s an ebb and flow. Sometimes it’s high tide and sometimes the tide is really low. And it’s to be expected that fitting it into life with five kids is a challenge. When you’re having babies every couple of years everything is constantly in flux. When my children’s needs and routines change I have to figure out how to change my prayer routine as well. So sometimes it feels like it’s always a new challenge. When I’ve got a nursing baby I try to use feeding times as the hard stops in my day to pray. Right now though I’ve got an older toddler who only nurses at morning wakeup, naptime, and bedtime and it’s become really hard to pray while she nurses so I’ve got out of that habit. I miss it.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

The Liturgy of the Hours is my primary devotion. I love the psalms and prayers. I feel like they speak to my soul more than any other prayer. I get to immerse myself in the Bible, in the prayer of the Church, to unite my voice and soul with all the other Catholics around the world who are praying the same prayers at the same time. And I love to think that Jesus and Joseph and Mary would have prayed the Psalms.

Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?

I pray where ever I can and whenever I can. I tend to develop habits and then shed them as circumstances change. I like to pray in bed, in my favorite chair, at the stove or kitchen sink. Sometimes I just drop to my knees where I am. I pray in the bathroom a lot. Maybe that seems sort of inappropriate but since I’ve got five kids sometimes it’s the only place I can be alone.

I like to pray alone, but I’ve also come to love praying with my children. So often when they engage with the prayers of the liturgy I find it deepens my own experience and helps me to be truly present. I love hearing their voices, seeing their spontaneous love for God, and answering their questions. Sometimes they teach me about God and their devotion spurs my own when it flags.

Do you use any tools or sacramentals?

I find my iPhone has totally replaced my breviary these days. It’s so much more portable. I use the iBreviary app and the Divine Office app for the Liturgy of the Hours. I use the Evangelizo app for the daily readings and saint of the day.

Our house is filled with devotional art. We have a crucifix and images of Mary and the saints in almost every room. And a prayer shelf with statues, relics, and icons. I like to stop and gaze at them at times and just let that be an occasion of recollection and prayer.

We used to use holy water nightly to bless the children, but seem to have got out of that habit in the last year or so. I’m not sure our current toddler remembers it at all.

What is your relationship with the Rosary?

I love it but I never pray it. I have several beautiful rosaries but they mostly sit in drawers or pockets or on shelves gathering dust. I know how to pray it, I feel slightly guilty for not praying it and for not loving it more, but it simply doesn’t speak to me the way the divine office does. It’s a struggle for me to pray and well yeah I just don’t do it and feel slightly guilty over neglecting it. But at least I’ve managed to teach my oldest daughter how to pray and she’s prayed it on her own several times, and even got my second daughter to pray it with her. So that’s a sort of success.

Are there any books or spiritual works that are important to your devotional life?

After the Liturgy of the Hours and the Bible my spiritual reading is a mish mash. Some of St Francis de Sales letters to lay people, especially to pregnant mothers, have really helped me in times when I’ve found prayer almost physically impossible. Father Walter Cizek’s book He Leadeth Me. Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth books. Some of St Edith Stein’s writings. The Chronicles of Narnia are sort of my spiritual bedrock and often the lens through which I approach the spiritual life. Tolkien’s letter to his son about the Eucharist.

What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?

The Gift of Faith by Father Tadeusz Dajczer.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

Absolutely, but, when it comes to the saints, I find that as I start to list my favorites I go overboard and don’t know when to stop. A few who have helped me in specific situations or who have chosen me: St Edith Stein, St Gianna Molla, St Therese, St Rose of Lima, Blessed Isabelle of France, St Augustine Zhao Rong and the Chinese martyrs, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, St Joseph, St Andre Bessette, and Takashi Nagai, whoI hope will someday be a saint.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?

Maybe. What’s unusual?  When I was a very little girl, my dad tells me, I came in from playing by myself in the yard and I was upset and said something about having been talking to someone. My dad was understandably concerned about me talking to a stranger. But then as he questioned me further, he realized I’d been talking to Jesus. I don’t remember this, but I think I’ve always felt that Jesus was a real friend, that God’s presence was real in my life. I’ve had periods of ignoring it, but never been able imagine God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care about me.

Also, I lost my second child to a miscarriage at about 10 weeks and then was told by my OB that the lab results were positive for uterine cancer. He insisted he wanted to do more tests because it was such an unusual diagnosis for someone my age. And indeed the follow up tests both showed negative for cancer. But while waiting for the results, I had a very dark week of being certain I was going to have a hysterectomy and that my first child was going to be my only one. During that time I was overwhelmed with how many people, not only friends and family but also complete strangers who heard about me via word of mouth on the internet, were praying for me.

It was this incredible experience of the Mystical Body of Christ, all these people I knew only online, all these strangers who didn’t know me at all. Their intercessions were very powerful. That loss and that scare have become a place of certainty, a moment when I was sure God was present to me through the intercession of other people. Some people pointed out to the all-clear diagnosis as a miraculous healing, but I think a false positive is within the realm of natural phenomenon. Nonetheless there was something mystical in the whole experience.

I would like to see __________________ answer these questions.

Erin Arlinghaus of Bearing blog.

How I Pray: Al Kresta

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.Al-Kresta

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.

How I Pray: Amy Welborn

Amy Welborn is the author of many books for Catholic adults, youth and young people. Those particularly related to prayer are The Words We Pray: Discovering the Richness of Traditional Catholic Prayer (Loyola Press), Prove it! Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor), Wish You Were Here: Travels through Loss and Hope (Random House) and Adventures in Assisi: On the Path with Saint Francis (Franciscan Media). 

Read other entries in the How I Pray series.

Who are you?

Amy Welborn, writer, teacher, mom. Lifelong cradle Catholic, formed in the 1960’s and 70’s, but knowing there was something more to spirituality than group hugs to Bridge over Troubled Water during prayer services…I kept digging.

What is your vocation?

I am a mother of five, ranging in ages from 32 to 10 AND a grandmother of one! The youngest two are still at home, one in school in 8th grade, the other homeschooled, probably for another year or two. I am also a former Catholic school teacher, parish employee and for the past two decades, writer, having written over twenty books for the Catholic market, as well as pamphlets, articles and columns over the years.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

My prayer routine is, like many parents, I imagine, quite closely related to my children’s lives and routines. My homeschooled son and I begin our day with prayer that is a mash-up of the day’s Mass readings and morning prayer, using either the Universalis website or Magnificat. As a family, we manage to work in a version of Compline once a week or so, but I read and pray it more often on my own. At least once a week we go to daily Mass. I pray the rosary two or three times a week, often (I admit) when exercising, and of course go to Sunday Mass and often other liturgies in area parishes, depending on the season and what’s out there: Vespers, Stations of the Cross, Benediction and Adoration and so on.

Much of my prayer life is ad hoc. I can’t walk into a room in my house without seeing a crucifix, statue or other type of religious image, so I live in continual spiritual conversation through the dynamic between what I am doing in my life at that moment (sweeping a floor, checking math work, writing an article) and the presence of God right here and now as expressed through a crucifix, an image of the Blessed Mother, a photograph of pilgrimage site, or an icon. My work immerses me in Scripture and the writings of the saints, which inspires moments of prayer and meditation, even briefly.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?

Well, I do what I do, and I know the spiritual consequences of not being consciously open to God. And nor am I under the delusion that “this is the best I can do right now.” I think there’s an honest balance to be reached between accepting the reality of our present level of intimacy with God, but also not accepting it. Shrugging and saying, “I’m just doing the best I can,” is an understandable reaction to scrupulosity, but it’s also not consistent with the traditional understanding of the spiritual life, which is oriented toward drawing closer and closer to God. I don’t beat myself over the head, but nor do I rest, self-satisfied. One shouldn’t do that in any relationship, least of all one’s relationship with God, right?

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

Not really. My prayer life is pretty much centered on the bigger-picture prayer of the Church – the Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and Eucharistic devotion.

The way I look at is this: We dither and worry about allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit in our prayer and in our lives and wonder how to do that. Well, the traditional – read, age-old, pointed-by-Jesus – answer to that is that the Spirit will be with us always, and that “us” is the Church as it has developed and evolved and responded through its history. So in order to hear, respond to and be led by the Spirit in prayer, the first thing I need to do is be in the place Jesus promised the Spirit would be: the Church.

When I pray Morning Prayer with my ten-year old at my side, or listen to the Scriptures and participate in the prayers at Mass, I am moved away from solipsism, out of my own quite limited and self-centered vision. Whether I want to or not, because I am praying those Psalms and other prayers developed by the Spirit-led Church, I pray to be led by God’s will, I pray to forgive, I pray for all those in need, I pray that I be open to God’s love flowing through me, I pray for humility. It may not be what I want to pray for, but I believe, because I believe the Spirit dwells in the Church, that this is what I should pray for. Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” (Romans 8) and he frames that truth in the subsequent faith that the Spirit assists us to pray as we ought. And the Spirit dwells in the Church and her tradition of prayer.

Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?

As I indicated above, my prayer is pretty closely tied to the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass as well as the rhythms of the day. But I also must say that simply moving through a day, aware of the suffering of others and the limitations of life on this earth, moves me to another simple, but continual sort of prayer.

Simply put: My husband died six years ago. My parents are deceased. I know so many people whose spouses, children and loved ones have died at relatively young ages, who are suffering from debilitating diseases and other difficulties. I know them in my own community, and social media makes us all so much more aware of suffering, doesn’t it?

Knowing this, aware of my own earthly mortality, and knowing that I have two youngish boys who are dependent on me right now, every morning that I wake up, healthy and able to care for them, the first thing I say is, “Thank you.” When I’m doing something tedious and boring, I force myself to pray, “Thank you,” because at least I’m here, and at least I’m able to keep going in some way and help someone in some way and I’m grateful. Of course, the deepest holiness comes in being able to say “Thank you” no matter what, and even, as St. Francis de Sales wrote, to thank God for the difficulties, so I hope that developing the habit of uttering prayers of gratitude during the day now will build up that attitude so that when physical limitations and other types of suffering make themselves felt, as they will, I will still be able to say, “Thank you.” In short – I pray this prayer of gratitude constantly, wherever and whenever so that I will be able to trustingly accept my own death and be at peace. To pray for a holy death is a venerable Catholic tradition and is not just about dying but about living as well. Building my life on a prayer of gratitude, I hope when it’s time, I’ll be ready.

Do you use any tools or sacramentals?

I pray the rosary, and I own a ton of them, but honestly, most of the time I pray it, it’s on my fingers!

What is your relationship with the Rosary?

I have written about this in my book The Words We Pray, but in brief, as a child of the 60’s and 70’s, I didn’t have much of a relationship with the rosary except as a sleep aide until I was well into adulthood, when it was re-introduced to me by a friend. I don’t at this point pray it daily, but a few times a week. I don’t find it boring at all to pray – it’s an important in helping me focus and quiet my spirit. In addition, because I have five children, my habit is to offer one decade for each of them as I pray. It’s convenient that way.

Are there any books or spiritual works that are important to your devotional life?

The Liturgy of the Hours. The Bible. Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. The letters of Flannery O’Connor, the great American writer who also suffered from lupus, as collected in The Habit of Being. The works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which are not simply theology, but deeply spiritual at their core.

What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I pulled Merton’s Sign of Jonas off the shelf while doing some cleaning, and read big chunks of it. It was interesting to me primarily as a way of contrasting the priorities of monastic spirituality and the spirituality of someone..who’s not in a monastery.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

St. Paul, St. Augustine of Hippo, Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal; In recent years, I have devoted a great deal of attention to St. Francis of Assisi, inspired by Fr. Augustine Thompson’s biography and then research for my children’s book, Adventures in Assisi. His understanding of what it means to imitate the humility of Christ has been very important – and sobering – to me. It’s not just about material poverty. In fact, Francis speaks far less of that than he does of fundamental spiritual poverty: emptying oneself as Christ did. Too often, my prayer life is very talkative and busy, which means it is ultimately centered on me and my sense of what is important. Meditation on the words and life of St. Francis teaches me to put God at the center of my prayer and allow myself to be filled by him. It might seem obvious, but how many of us begin our prayer, not in the way Jesus instructed us (to give honor to God first!), but with a recitation of how we are doing today?

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?

Well, all I can say is that the most intense prayer of my life occurred, not surprisingly, after my husband died suddenly in 2009. The prayer into which I was plunged in those months immediately following was revelatory in a myriad of ways and I can also say with absolute assurance that the healing that my family and I experienced since then was due, I’m sure, to the prayers of countless gracious, generous souls all around the world. It revealed to me the power of prayer and reinforced my responsibility to pray or others.

I would like to see  _____________ answer these questions.

Terry Nelson of Abbey Roads and Melanie Bettinelli of The Wine Dark Sea

How I Pray: Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB

Head shot booksMargaret Rose Realy is a contemplative lay hermit. She grew up near 8 Mile and Woodward outside Detroit, sharing a home with her maternal grandmother where the love of gardening flourished. Margaret reveals her love of nature, learning about the Creator through his creation, with a Benedictine spirituality in her books, columns, and presentations. She blogs at Morning Rose Prayer Garden. Her third book, A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac: Cultivating Your Faith throughout the Year, will be released on March 23 by Ave Maria Press.

Read more entries in the How I Pray series.

Who are you?

An excitable joyful worm…

What is your vocation?

…trying to make compost fruitful. I want to make purposeful what is discarded in the world.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

Throughout the day, or night when I’m awake, I chatter a lot with Our Lord, Mother Mary, my Guardian Angel, a saint—whoever will listen, really. I send up ejaculatory prayers at the slightest hint of intercessory need or in thanksgiving and gratitude. The prayer board in the oratory helps me keep track of prayer requests. I love morning prayer. It’s my time for coffee with Christ—usually half a pot over nearly two hours (I’m a slow starter in the morning). Then, as often as I can, I attend morning Mass. A couple times a week I pray the Office for the Dead. I also visit the Adoration Chapel with frequency.

When I became a Benedictine, it was (and still is!) a challenge to follow a regular prayer routine. I use a schedule matched to the monks’ at St. Benedict Monastery in Oxford, Michigan—the monastery to which I belong. The Divine Office adds structure to my prayers, but I struggle—mightily—not with stopping what I’m doing to pray but with the wrote manner of the Office’s construction. I’m accustomed to personal or affective prayers. The liturgical prayer of the Divine Office still feels stifling. I suppose any impulsive child accustomed to freely running about, would have a hard time learning to stay focused.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?

CGSA CoverThe Liturgy of the Hours? Still working on it. Living as a hermit, I often lose track of time and tend to be late more often than not for sext and vespers. I tried using a kitchen multiple-set timer to call me to prayer, but it shattered the silence with such force that the following adrenalin rush was counter productive. I need a soft bell…and I don’t own a cell phone on which to download an app.

When my focus wanes in prayer I imagine Mother Mary, like any parent would do, cupping her hand under my chin and gently turning my attention back to where it should be.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

When I use the home font of holy water and make the Sign of the Cross, I trace the sign on my forehead, lips, and chest and say, “Be in my thoughts, and on my lips, and in my heart. Bless my coming and my going, and these hands to do your will.” If I’m having struggles in my day, an extra dip and the words “Jesus, I’m lost and helpless without you.”

Adoration. There is no other place that brings so great a joy as being with Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. Second to that is Reconciliation every two weeks.

I am particularly devoted to the precious souls in Purgatory and enjoy saying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and the St. Gertrude prayer.

I love the rosary, pray it regularly, and am a daily member of a living rosary prayer chain for priests. I have recently added praying it daily for an end of the evil that is ISIS, for the conversion of the terrorists’ souls.

I am also devoted to the act of Spiritual Adoption. I don’t know if this is a teaching of our Church, though for me it is a long standing practice. It’s the taking on of another’s soul in prayer and petition for a year. I’ll light candles, say rosaries, bring them to Adoration, offer ejaculatory prayers all on their behalf—I try to hold them up to Our Lord and ask him to let them feel embraced in holy love throughout their days and especially in their trials. I try to never tell the person that they have been adopted, but sometimes, for their own reasons, they may need to hear that someone is praying for them 365.

Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?

My habit of prayer is with silence in the oratory at set times. The small altar is dressed in the liturgical color of the day with my grandmother’s fourteen inch1940s iron crucifix standing on top. In front of the crucifix is a hand-sized IHS medallion from a repurposed chasuble (I used to make altar cloths incorporating garment material). I place my hand upon it before beginning to pray. I recall how, for so many liturgies, this medallion was on the back of a priest as they offered Mass. I think about the millions of unspoken prayers from the congregation that were flung upon the back of the priest as he brought Christ to the altar. I am humbled to be able to continue its lineage of prayer.

Hanging above is the image of Divine Mercy, Our lady of Guadalupe, and an icon of St. Michale the Archangel.

When entering the oratory I lay my hand on the medallion, look to the images, ask St. Michael for his protection, and cheerily greet Mother Mary and Jesus, chattering with them a bit while I settle into my chair and prayer routine—opening the breviary for the Divine Office, my Rule of St. Benedict, and usually pick up the rosary beads.

Do you use any tools or sacramentals?

Any and all. They’re definitely a part of my prayer life.

What is your relationship with the rosary?

Love it.

The first memory I have of my grandmother is of her sitting on a small aqua velveteen settee looking out a window praying a rosary. I was quite young but perceived that she was—deeply—somewhere that I wasn’t. She noticed I was watching and silently motioned me to sit at her side. I remember being very still, feeling happy, and watched her leathery finger tips move over the blue crystal beads.

Not until I was in my 40s did I fully reconnect with the peace of the rosary. Now, I always carry one—old and wooden—hidden in my pocket, and pray it waiting in lines or for appointments, or handle it when in conversations for guidance. I frequently pull it out while I’m driving—lots of people get highway decades as I motor along.

I made rosaries for years. Each was imbedded with prayers as it was strung and once more before it was boxed up to be gifted or sold.

Like the crucifixes and images, there is one in every room.

I think my favorite rosary is the plastic glow-in-the-dark that hangs on the shade of a small lamp beside my bed. I love praying it as my last motion of the day. I don’t worry if I fall asleep while praying it, assured that my Guardian Angel or a saint will carry on. I look at it this way—I don’t imagine we are ever fully matured spiritually until after death. So we are always children, and if a child is resting in your arms and falls asleep mid sentence, would you mind it so terribly much? I thought not…

Are there any books or spiritual works that are important to your devotional life?

Daily readings include Magnificat, which has been at my side for over a decade, Divine Intimacy by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen OCD (moves me spiritually every single time), the Rule of St. Benedict, and the Liturgy of the Hours.

Also picked up with some frequency are the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Bible, and recently Manual for Spiritual Warfare. St. Francis deSales, Introduction to a Devout Life and St. Faustina, Divine Mercy are on my list to be read again. Gosh, it’s hard to not list everything!

What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?

I’m about finished with River Jordan’s delightful book, Praying for Strangers, and will read Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom after Lent.

In the tradition of the Benedictines, my assigned readings for Lent are McKeown’s book Essentialism (meh, business related, but hoping for insights), and Athanasius which I hope will help me with the Psalms.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

There’s a whole family of them that I pray with!

In the morning the litany includes Mother Mary, St. Benedict, St. Pio, St. Faustina, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Bakita, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Hildegard, St. Brigid, Bl. Mother Teresa, St. John Paul II, Bl. Margaret of Castello, and my Guardian Angel. Lately there are a lot of pregnant women needing prayers so St. Gianna Molla is asked to pray with me for their intentions.

One of my patron saints is St. Mary Magdalene who has been with me since I was four. A few years ago I was blessed by artist Richard Stodart and his wife Nancy with his image of this saint. I loved the image and emailed asking if they sold prayer cards or had an extra marketing post card—I shared that she had been a favorite saint since childhood. After a few emails were exchanged I learned that neither were available. About two weeks later, I was surprised when a large tube arrived containing a 16 x 20 signed and numbered litho from the Stodarts. Need I say that they will be prayed for well into my eternity?

A recent patron, St. Hildegard, about whom I have much to learn, is connected to my oblation. She was suggested by two dear friends when, three days before my Final Oblation, I was told of the requirement to pick a Benedictine saint for my name, and I had no idea who to choose! I trusted the Holy Spirit had planted Hildegard’s name in the hearts of each of those women—Elizabeth Scalia in New York and Joanne McPortland in California—and so went with this recently canonized Doctor of the Church.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?

Those remain between me and our Lord.

I would like to see _______________ answer these questions.

Cecile Richards (Ha!)

Anything else you’d like to add?

I must be deprived as a hermit—I’ve said far too much already.

Final comment: Prayer is the effort of one’s life, not so much the words.

The Three Pillars of Lent

We meet again, Lent, my old foe. This time I will have you!2015-02-18 12.52.52

I joke. I love Lent, at least since I’ve learned to meet it not as my Everest to be conquered, but as 40 days in the desert with Christ.

That’s a pretty tall order to fill, and our forebears in the faith used to do it with hard Lents that saw them eating one major meal a day and giving up meat, eggs, and diary for the entire period. Indeed, it’s a practice still followed by some our separated brethren in the Eastern churches.

That option is certainly open to modern people, but it’s probably not the ideal for most of us. Life has changed significantly. For long periods of history, people only had one major meal a day anyway, with dairy and meat not always on the menu for many classes.

Does this mean we’ve gone soft?

Of course it does, but it also means that getting back to that spiritual fighting weight is a formidable task made more difficult by a simple fact of modern life: the culture is not fasting. When Christendom was ascendant, everybody observed the fast in the same way. Today, if you want to observe, say, a medieval fast, you’ll be the odd one out. Even Catholics aren’t doing it that way. This has to make it more difficult.

I’ve tried the hardcore stuff with varying levels of success and failure, and found that, for me, the road through Lent is best taken one step at a time rather than with some grand itinerary.

The point of our time in the desert is to draw nearer to Christ. There are three ways to live Lent:

  • Carrying the cross with Christ by sharing a small portion of His suffering.
  • Emulating Him in acts of charity and kindness.
  • Drawing near to Him in prayer and spending time at His feet, learning from him through Scripture and spiritual writing.

And so, this is the way I make my Lent.

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
I observe the required fasting and abstinence, but I’ve found that giving up X or Y doesn’t really do anything for me. I make my fast day by day, choosing something each day to bypass and offering that up, in this season, for the deliverance of Middle Eastern Christians.

One day I may observe a full fast, while on another I’ll choose to forgo something I want. It works for me because it makes each item a choice and each choice is linked to an intention. “Forty days without chocolate” doesn’t work for me as well as reaching for a beer and saying, “No” to myself.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Whatever You Did to The Least of These, You Did to Me
Each day should be lived in caritas, but in Lent that charity should be more focused, more intentional, more deliberate. One kind deed a day should be a goal for every day, but in Lent, we should reach beyond and in so reaching, connect those acts to some intention. Sometimes, the most charitable thing I’m capable of on a given day is not throttling someone who richly deserves it, and that just doesn’t count.

I also don’t leave the house very much, which is common for freelancers. On those days, when an opportunity to do good doesn’t present itself, I plan to donate some money to a worthy cause.

This year, we’re planning to get the whole family out to do some works of mercy, either visiting the seniors or the soup kitchen. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, shelter the shelterless, bury the dead, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, warn the sinner, counsel the doubtful, pray for the living and dead, bear wrongs patiently, forgive, and comfort.

These things, too, we should do all year round, so Lent is our chance to make it intentional, reaching beyond ourselves and our comfort zones.

To best do this, I try to live Lent every moment I can, and ask myself, “Am I doing all I’m capable of doing, or simply doing what’s comfortable and easy for me?”

Could You Not Stay Awake One Hour With Me?
The devotional and prayer parts of Lent are easiest for me, and the ones I look forward to. It’s not a burden for me to take on an extra course of spiritual reading or prayer, and thus this part of my observance has no penitential aspect.

That’s okay. The fasting and abstinence is our cross and therefore our penance. Prayer and spiritual reading is for our growth, to help us draw nearer to Christ.

Naturally, this means observing the Holy Days, praying the Station of the Cross, and making a better effort at daily prayers, however we perform them.

For me, it means adding an extra hour of explicitly spiritual (rather than historical or purely theological) reading each day. My devotional plan looks something like this:

We’ll also do the daily readings as a family.

With the exception of the Bible and the Creed meditations, I plan to rotate through the other reading with no particular agenda, simply being guided by the Spirit.

If all this seems rather loosey goosey, it is, and intentionally so.
Over the years, I’ve made hard, structured Lents both well and poorly. This year, I choose to be led through Lent by the Spirit rather than drawing a map and an agenda and charging through with grim determination. I want to be open to the action of grace, and so I’ve chosen some structured elements and some general intentions. What this will mean in practice is uncertain, since

I’ve never tried it before. It could be a complete washout, as I fall into old habits.

The best things I can do to make a good Lent is

  • Remind myself daily of the season and its purpose.
  • Leave my comfort zone and put myself on a path so the Spirit can do his work.
  • Remember that this is not a mountain to be climbed or a marathon to be won, but a long walk into Jerusalem at the side of The Lord, and the best thing I can do on that walk is accompany him, emulate him, and be taught by him.

The best things you can do in Lent is a) be present to the Lord and b) be present to your fellow man, whether that means, for you, daily mass, the rosary, and a holy hour or five minutes of silent prayer at the end of a tired day; an hour playing cards with the elderly, or simply making lunch for your kids each morning. Lent finds us where we are. We yield, we act, we pray, and in unity with the communion of saints and Christians everywhere, we hold up these things as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.