Prayer is not always easy, and even the Pope knows it.
In his general audience address on Wednesday, the global Catholic leader said the difficulties faced in prayer are common to all Christians, and encouraged believers to recognise these difficulties and persevere in prayer.
Francis’ weekly message focused specifically on three of those common difficulties: distraction; times of barrenness; and slothfulness.
Distraction is the first problem that emerges for those who pray, according to the papal leader: “You start to pray and then your mind wanders, it wanders all over the place; your heart is here, your mind is there… distraction from prayer”.
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But Pope Francis said “prayer often co-exists with distraction”.
Distractions are not guilty, but they must be fought. In the heritage of our faith there is a virtue that is often forgotten, but which is so present in the Gospel. It is called ‘vigilance’.
“Indeed, the human mind finds it hard to dwell for long on a single thought. We all experience this constant whirlwind of images and illusions in perpetual motion, which accompanies us even during sleep. And we all know that it is not good to follow this inclination to disorder,” he said.
Francis noted that the battle to “achieve and maintain concentration” relates to more than just prayer. Developing a sufficient level of concentration is also required for study, work and even athletic competition.
“Distractions are not guilty, but they must be fought. In the heritage of our faith there is a virtue that is often forgotten, but which is so present in the Gospel. It is called ‘vigilance’. And Jesus said, ‘Keep vigil. Pray’,” Pope Francis said.
“… since we do not know the day and hour of His return, all the minutes of our lives are precious and should not be wasted on distractions. In a moment that we do not know, the voice of our Lord will resound: on that day, blessed will be those servants whom He will find industrious, still focused on what really matters. They did not stray in pursuit of every attraction that came before their minds, but tried to walk the right path, doing good and performing their own task. This is distraction: the imagination wanders, it wanders and wanders… Saint Teresa used to call this imagination that wanders in prayer “the madwoman in the house”; it is like a madwoman that leads you here and there … We must stop it and cage it, with attention.”
I said it’s not an interruption, You couldn’t have picked a better time
‘Cause I was just talking to Jesus, Come over and give it a try
– ‘Talking to Jesus’ by songwriters Brandon Lake, Chris Brown, and Steven Furtick.
The second difficulty Christians face in prayer is the experience of trying to pray when feeling spiritually barren or dry. Francis referred to the Catholic Catechism (a concise explanation of Catholic beliefs that includes quotations from many papal encyclicals, church council documents, and the Scriptures that is used as a handy reference for Catholic teachings) which defines barrenness as a time when “the heart is separated from God, when there is dryness, with no taste for thoughts, memories and feelings, even spiritual ones. This is the moment of sheer faith clinging faithfully to Jesus in his agony and in his tomb.”
“Barrenness makes us think of Good Friday, at night, and Holy Saturday, all the day: Jesus is not there, He is in the tomb; Jesus is dead, we are alone,” Francis said.
“And this is the thought that gives rise to barrenness. Often we do not know what the reasons for barrenness are: it may depend on ourselves, but also on God, who permits certain situations in the outer or inner life. Or, at times, it can be a headache or a problem of the liver that stops us from entering into prayer. Often we do not really know the reason.”
This is terrible: one cannot pray, one cannot feel consolation with a grey heart! – Pope Francis
But the papal leader encouraged those who feel spiritually barren or dry not to allow the feeling to overwhelm them – even in the face of life’s “many grey days”.
“… this ‘feeling down’ reaches the heart and it sickens… and there are people who live with a grey heart. This is terrible: one cannot pray, one cannot feel consolation with a grey heart! Or, one cannot emerge from spiritual barrenness with a grey heart. The heart must be open and luminous, so that the light of the Lord can enter. And if it does not enter, wait for it, with hope. But do not close it up in greyness,” Pope Francis implored.
Thirdly, Francis turned to the issue of slothfulness – “a real temptation against prayer and, more generally, against the Christian life”. Again, Francis referred to the catechism which defines sloth as “a form of depression due to lax ascetically practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart”. Sloth, he reminded, is one of the seven deadly sins, because “fuelled by conceit, it can lead to the death of the soul”.
“True progress in the spiritual life does not consist in multiplying ecstasies, but in being able to persevere in difficult times: walk, walk, walk on… and if you are tired, stop a little and then start walking again. But with perseverance,” he said.
“Let us remember Saint Francis’ parable on perfect joy: it is not in the infinite fortunes rained down from Heaven that the ability of a friar is measured, but in walking steadily, even when one is not recognised, even when one is mistreated, even when everything has lost its initial flavour.”
“Believers never stop praying,” Francis asserted – even when their prayers resembles those of the biblical character Job who vocally protests God has treated him unjustly.
In fact, Francis says, those kinds of prayers are especially important as it shows believers relating to God as a father – a father that you can get angry with. And the same is true of prayers that ask “why God?” in the same way that a child does of their father.
“The father starts to reply, but he [the child] interrupts with another ‘Why?’. He simply wants to draw his father’s attention to him; and when we get a bit angry with God and start asking why, we are attracting the heart of our Father towards our misery, towards our difficulties, towards our life,” Francis explained.
“But yes, have the courage to say to God: ‘But why?’. Because at times, getting a bit angry is good for you, because it reawakens that son-father, daughter-father relationship we must have with God. And He will accept even our harshest and bitterest expressions with a father’s love, and will consider them as an act of faith, as a prayer.”
Coincidentally, Eternity notes that Pope Francis is not the only person who, in recent times, has encouraged Christians to persevere in their prayer lives. In one similar example, Old Church Basement, the new album release from Elevation Music and Maverick City features a song called ‘Talking to Jesus’ with a similar encouragement about prayer – albeit delivered a little differently!