Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Finding a "Little Way" to Pray

Dear Theophilous,

Even the greatest saints suffer spiritual dryness from time to time. One of the best examples being St. Teresa of Calcutta, who suffered from a dark night of the soul that lasted for almost 50 years. If someone of Mother Teresa’s holiness had such a prolonged and laborious prayer life, then should it come as any wonder that the rest of us struggle in maintaining our own small prayer routines?

Prayer life is something I struggle with on a continual basis, a struggle I’ve reflected upon here before. There are times, very few and far between, when I feel as though I’m on top of my game; prayer comes easy and I come away feeling as though I would levitate like St. Joseph of Cupertino. Most of the time, however, I feel as though I’m simply ploughing through the routine of prayer, prattling of the words of rote prayers while my mind wanders to the troubles of the day – I’m going through the motions, but I’m really just mailing it in. And then there is the dark night of my soul, usually in the darkest and longest nights of winter, when my prayer train goes completely off the rails, and I will go for days neglecting my prayer life, my Rosary collecting dust just like the treadmill.

It was into this prayer darkness that a good friend Monica McConkey of Equipping Catholic Families recently shone a wonderful light.

Out of the blue I got a message from Monica asking me to check out her new e-book “A Little Way to Pray”, and I was moved by both her honesty with her struggles in the prayer life, and even more so by her determination to persevere in her growth in holiness. As I read Monica’s reflection a line jumped out at me, and I thought that is so me… that line so sums up my prayer struggles:

More often than not, the moments I’m overwhelmed and frustrated and in most need of prayer are the moments I forget to pray and just continue to struggle on my own.

… As I look back on my day, my week, or my month, I can see the wisdom in this one line. Monica shares the every day struggles she encounters when prayer could have (and should have) seen her through – laundry, dishes, meals and homework; and I can see all the times when prayer could have (and should have) seen me through life’s daily challenges – an unmotivated student, a difficult colleague, household chores and little time for myself. In the moments when I most needed to pray, to look to God for help, I pushed ahead on my own, got frustrated, becoming the man that God never intended me to be.

Knowing one has a problem is half the battle. Knowing that one struggles in prayer will only lead one into a deeper prayer life. Knowing that one has to hand over those troubles to God is the first step closer to Him.

In the tradition of Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Monica calls these little hiccups of life her Little Way to Pray, using them as prayer prompts in:

  • Sinfulness
  • Weakness, and
  • Littleness.

This is something I’ve thought of before. Struggling with a temper that can erupt under stress, I have sought out Bible verses to recall when I can feel my blood pressure rise. I figured if I just turned to God before I hit my breaking point, then I would become the quiet, docile saint I so long to be.

Unfortunately, like every great intention, things never go according to plan. Monica shares how she did not instantly become the earthly saint she intended (something that takes great courage to admit), and I, myself, will still blow my top, only to immediately resent it, beating myself up for days with lingering resentment.

But we can’t become discouraged, nor does God want us to give up. We are called to persevere in our quest for holiness. We will never achieve sainthood in this life, but this life is to be a time of preparation for when we are ready to enter into God’s Kingdom.

In The Little Way to Pray, Monica has created a tool to help in times of prayer struggle. In the beautiful way as she always does at Equipping Catholic Families, she has created fridge posters and pocket cards of prayer prompts … those little things in life that we can use to help remind us to turn to God in difficult times, both big and small. My favourite being:

Here I am in all my littleness. Please take care of this, because I can’t.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Having a Mary (not a Martha) Christmas

Dear Theophilous,

Each year Christmas seems to blow our home through like a tornado… There’s a low dark rumbling that grows in intensity through December that culminates in a whirlwind of family visits, a race to open presents and a multicourse gourmet meal on Christmas day. Once the dust has settled my wife and I will collapse amidst the stacks of dirty dishes, the detritus of shredded gift-wrap and already forgotten toys, our glazed eyes asking, “What just happened?”

What just happened (what tends to happen every year) is a Martha Christmas. Not a Martha Stewart Christmas, but a Martha Christmas, as in the sisters Mary and Martha whom Jesus visited (cf Lk 10:38-42). When Jesus visited the sister’s home, Mary sat at the feet of Our Lord, hanging on every word he said, while Martha was distracted by her many tasks. (Lk 10:40)

Too often this is what happens to us during the Advent and Christmas seasons – we are distracted by our many tasks in bringing the holiday together for others. There are presents to buy, lists to be made to make sure no one is forgotten, a house to be cleaned, a tree to be decorated, a meal to be planned, groceries to be bought, a turkey to be stuffed and the trimmings to be fixed – the distractions can be endless. The temptation to become Martha can be overwhelming.

When all is said and done at the end of Christmas day, which are the memories we will want to cherish – running around the kitchen or laughing with family? fighting the crowds at the mall or holding our children, their faces lit up from the simplest of gifts? Wouldn’t we much rather have been like Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to what he was saying (Lk 10:39), relishing in his presence in those around us, than running around distracted like Martha, missing out on what is really important.

This isn’t to say that we need to completely abandon the trappings of Christmas – absolutely not, they are very much a part of celebrating the Lord’s birth; we just need to be careful not to let the distractions of the season take over. Too often at festive family gatherings, one or two people do all the running around while the rest sit back and enjoy. Just as Martha begrudged Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, we too can begrudge being sucked in by the distractions of the day and not being able to enjoy the Christmas merriment.

There is a time and a place for festive preparations, but we shouldn’t let them take over. In the years that come, we won’t recall every gift that was given or received, but we will cherish the memory of the laugh we shared with family and friends. The greatest gift we can give each other is our time and presence, these things don’t run on batteries, nor will they fade, shrink or give us heartburn – they will give us joy.

This year at Christmas, we need to recognize those special moments when Christ comes into our life through others, and like Mary, we need to chose the better part, which will not be taken away from us. (cf Lk 10:42)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent - Learning to Wait

Dear Theophilous,

A Google search for instant gratification produces “About 2,920,000 results in 0.59 seconds”. I know it’s true, because Google told me!

For all the advantages brought about by our modern technology (coupled with Google) – so much information in the blink of an eye, there are an equal number of disadvantages – so much information in the blink of an eye. Thanks to Google, we have become used to having our every musing answered faster than we can type (or say) it – yes, Google will even auto-fill your search query based on the first few letters you type.

In North America we have become a society of instant gratification – we will wait for nothing or no one.

Case in point: every time I return a piece of evaluated work in class (homework, test or project), a handful of students will begin asking, “What’s my mark?” They need to know instantly where they stand every step of the way. (Frankly, if they took the time to do the quick math and compare it to the other marks they have received, they should have a pretty good idea of where their mark is at).

This need for instant gratification goes beyond immediate recognition of our personal performance. In a consumer society where most are blessed with access to instant credit and an overabundance of material goods, we have become accustomed to catering our every whim as it occurs to us… I’m thirsty; I grab a soft drink from a vending machine… Hunger is sated with chips or chocolate from the machine right beside… I need new shoes/clothing/car/you-name-it – I head to the mall and pull out the credit card without a second thought (or even easier, shop online and get overnight delivery).

But the Catholic Church is different. In this holy season of Advent, the Church tells us we need to wait.

And that’s hard!

Advent teaches us how to wait.

Through the four weeks of Advent we repeat the mantra – We wait in joyful hope for the coming of Christ. Christmas is coming, but it’s not here yet. We’re itching to celebrate, but we can’t just yet – we need to wait.

Any parent who has been brave (or foolish) enough to take a child shopping in December knows the pain of being harassed the whole time for every toy and trinket the child sees. As much as it strains our nerves (and sometimes we crack), the in-store response is almost always, “Just wait, Christmas is coming.” after which we try to turn a deaf ear to the child’s pleas. The forced waiting doesn’t end there, once the gifts are bought and wrapped, they sit under the tree taunting tortured children who are reminded they need to wait until Christmas morning to unwrap them.

It doesn’t get much better as an adult. The temptation to buy something for oneself is great, but we know we need to wait. The harder waiting comes Christmas day, as we smell the turkey roasting, we want to dive in, even before it’s cooked through and carved.

Yet, as we all know… Good things come to those who wait!

So through December we wait… We wait to see if anyone noticed the sweater we really wanted… We wait to see the joy-filled faces of children as they rip open gifts on Christmas morning… We wait to sink our teeth into the crispy skin of a turkey drumstick… All very good things worth waiting for.

Yet as good as all the festive trappings of Christmas are… we sometimes lose sight of something still greater worth waiting for in Advent – the coming of our Saviour.

This said, much like all the good things at Christmas, we want the instant gratification of Christ coming now too. We want to enter the joy and peace of heaven now, skipping the toil and anxiety of life here on earth. We want all of the goodness that Jesus offers us without putting in the time and effort He asks us to. We want the 896,000,000 results in 0.67 seconds for Jesus (thanks Google).

Unlike the department stores that jump into full-out Christmas mode the moment the last piece of Hallowe’en candy is handed out, the Catholic Church doesn’t dive headfirst into Christmas. Instead, we take four weeks to get ready, to prepare and to wait.

This waiting can take many forms… In our home we wait for Advent to begin before putting up our tree. Many families have the tradition of waiting until after midnight Mass before placing the baby Jesus in the manger of their Nativity scene. Some will prayerfully recall the world waiting for the Light of Christ, the light of the Advent Wreath piercing their darkened home. We know something fantastic is coming, and the waiting helps build our anticipation, which will burst with joy at Christmas.

As much as it kills us, all of this waiting (for gifts and turkey and visits with friends & family) is good for us. Like the good father that He is, God knows what’s best for His children, so He asks us to wait for His Son. This forced waiting of Advent helps us grow patience; patience that is badly needed by the child wanting a toy, an adolescent needing to know their mark, an adult who can’t wait even half-a-second for a Google search.

We live in a world of instant gratification; a world where folks can cater to their every whim. We live in a time when people are self-sufficient, meeting their own every need, where cash is king and others are expected to jump on command. We live in a world where people don’t like to wait, not even for God.

But we are an Advent People – so we wait.