“Hut-two-three-four, hit the floor and pray some more. Sound off.”
Do you pray? Sometimes it’s easy to pray and, at other times, it’s a challenge to buckle down to the work of prayer.
Have you ever thought of prayer as work, or even as a battle?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2725) tells us, “Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. … prayer is a battle.” The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults says much the same, referring to prayer as both “work” and “spiritual combat” (chap. 35).
So who or what are we battling against when we pray?
- Sometimes the struggle comes from the world around us. From distractions to a secular mentality, there is much in modern life that seems to pull us away from prayer. There’s individualism that advises us to trust ourselves and pulls us away from trusting in God. There’s consumerism that urges us to keep things for ourselves rather than share with others. Just think of the many messages on TV, billboards or pop-up messages on your cell phone or tablet that pull you away from a prayerful attitude. No doubt the same thing happened in Jesus’ day — without the cell phones and TVs, of course, but with just as many daily distractions. Perhaps that was why Jesus often went away by himself to pray.
- Sometimes we battle with ourselves. We get discouraged. We let ourselves worry too much, or let doubt overwhelm us. Everyone gets discouraged and tired. The catechism even calls this a perception that our prayer has failed: “discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness … disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride, … our resistance to the idea that prayer is a free and unmerited gift; and so forth. The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray?” (n. 2728).
- And, yes, sometimes we battle evil when we pray. St. Paul reminds us that we need to “stand firm against the tactics of the devil” (Eph 6:11). These tactics are sometimes easy to spot — when innocent people die in random shootings. Or poor people are killed in storms because they had no decent housing.
But sometimes evil is more subtle — like when we’re tempted to gossip, especially in a moment of anger. We may not always recognize evil as evil, but we can certainly tell when it’s around. As Pope Francis said in a book he wrote in 2010 (“On Heaven and Earth”), the devil is known by his fruits: “His fruits are always destruction: division, hate and slander.”
Talk about work. We have to overcome all these things, and many others, just to pray. Prayer just isn’t as easy as we might have thought — although it’s always easy to pray, or at least to try to pray. As Pope Francis also said, “Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.”
So what helps make prayer less of a battle and easier to do? There are many suggestions. Books have been written on the topic. Early in the days of the church, Paul offered the picturesque suggestion of donning the “armor of God” for our battles of prayer. This armor (Eph 6: 11-17) included the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness , the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, (the word of God).
These words may sound a bit too militaristic for most of us, but Paul was a colorful writer and he wanted to grab people’s attention. However, his main point — made right after all that armor talk — still resonates today: “With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit.”
There it is. Just as with any work, prayer is easier with help. Never forget forget that you have help whenever you pray. The Spirit guides us. Jesus prays for us. The saints pray with us.
And what if you think you can’t pray at all? Don’t worry. The Holy Spirit will take over whenever we need that kind of help, too. As Paul also said, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Rom 8:26).
So, even if prayer seems like work, like a battle, or even a bit like drudgery sometimes, just persevere. Off you go. You aren’t alone. You have plenty of partners, co-workers in the vineyard or fellow soldiers in arms if you will. And the best partner of all is always right there beside us: Jesus. Remember, he told his disciples: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults”; Catholic News Service; and catholicity.com.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in spring 2014.