OF course, one of the great obstacles and seeming tensions between one’s interior life and the exterior demands of one’s vocation, is time. “I don’t have time to pray! I’m a mother! I don’t have time! I work all day! I’m a student! I travel! I run a company! I’m a priest with a big parish… I don’t have time!“
A bishop once said to me that every priest he knew that had left the priesthood, had first left his life of prayer. Time is love, and when we stop praying, we begin to close off the “propane” valve of the Holy Spirit that fuels the flames of both love of God and neighbour. Then the love in our hearts begins to cool, and we begin a sorrowful descent toward the earthly plane of worldly passions and inordinate desires. As Jesus said,
They are the people who hear the word, but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit. (Mark 4:18-19)
And so, we must resist this temptation not to pray. At the same token, how much time we spend in prayer has to suit our state of life. Here, St. Francis de Sales offers some timeless wisdom:
When God created the world He commanded each tree to bear fruit after its kind; and even so He bids Christians—the living trees of His Church—to bring forth fruits of devotion, each one according to his kind and vocation. A different exercise of devotion is required of each—the noble, the artisan, the servant, the prince, the maiden and the wife; and furthermore such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual. I ask you, my child, would it be fitting that a Bishop should seek to lead the solitary life of a Carthusian? And if the father of a family were as regardless in making provision for the future as a Capuchin, if the artisan spent the day in church like a Religious, if the Religious involved himself in all manner of business on his neighbour’s behalf as a Bishop is called upon to do, would not such a devotion be ridiculous, ill-regulated, and intolerable? —Introduction to the Devout Life, Part I, Ch. 3, p.10
My spiritual director once said to me, “What is holy is not always holy for you.” Indeed, the one true and infallible path of holiness is the will of God. That is why we must be careful to discover, with God’s help, our own particular way to the Way when it comes to the interior life. We should imitate the virtue of the Saints; but when it comes to your prayer life, follow the Holy Spirit who will lead you down the path most suited to your present state of life.
In this regard, how do we deal with interruptions and distractions within one’s prayer-time, especially as parents with small children, or when the phone rings, or someone shows up at the door? Again, follow the infallible path of the will of God, the duty of the moment, the “rule of love.” That is, follow Jesus.
…he withdrew… in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick. (Matt 14:13-14)
Of course, we should do our best to choose a time when we will most likely not be interrupted.
The choice of the time and duration of the prayer arises from a determined will, revealing the secrets of the heart. One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time: one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2710
When we are alone with God, we should keep distractions like cellphones, email, television, the radio, etc. at bay. But if a diaper needs to be changed, or if your spouse calls for help, or a friend knocks at the door needing to talk, then recognize the face of Jesus in them, coming to you in the disguise of another’s poverty, another’s need. Generosity in this moment will only serve to increase the Flame of Love in your heart, not dispel it. And then, if possible, return again to your prayer and finish it.
Isn’t it comforting to know that Jesus was also distracted by others? When it comes to the difficulties in prayer, we have a Lord who totally understands.
Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Heb 2:18)
Of course, the most difficult if not painful aspect of prayer is the mental distractions that assail us as we try to pray, whether privately or at Mass. These can be either the manifestation of our own passions, or temptations from the powers of darkness. How to deal with them is often not to deal with them at all.
The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction… To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2729
Here is the key: it is possible to pray, even in the midst of distractions, because our “secret” place of meeting with the Lord is in the depths of the heart. Let them knock at the door… just don’t open it. It is possible, too, to “pray always”, even when we can’t pray in solitude, by doing the duty of the moment—even the smallest of things—with great love. Then your work becomes a prayer. Servant of God Catherine Doherty said to parents in particular,
Remember that when you do the duty of the moment, you do something for Christ. You make a home for Him, in the place where your family dwells. You feed Him when you feed your family. You wash His clothes when you do their laundry. You help Him in a hundred ways as a parent. Then, when the time comes for you to appear before Christ to be judged, He will say to you, “I was hungry and you gave Me to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was sick and you looked after Me.” —Dear Parents, from “Moments of Grace” Calendar, March 9th
That is, how could He say you neglected to be with Him in prayer, when you were in fact caring for Him?
So, even if the cold winds of distraction blow against the ‘balloon” of your heart, they cannot penetrate the interior, which remains still and warm—unless you let them. And thus, sometimes prayer, seemingly tossed about by these winds, can remai n fruitful by simply keeping the “pilot light” of desire lit, a desire to do His will in everything. And so, we can say to God:
I want to pray and reflect, Father, but a great throng is at the door of my heart. So right now, know that I love you, and place my mere “five loaves and two fish”—that is, my desire—in the basket of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, that you may multiply them according to your good will.
One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2710
SUMMARY AND SCRIPTURE
The time we devote in prayer should be in proportion to our vocation. The distractions we endure are an opportunity to prove our love for the Master.
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. (Matt 19:13-14)
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