March 23, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The battle to overcome difficulties in prayer

John F. Fink(Twenty-second in a series)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that prayer “always presupposes effort.” Then it’s even stronger when it says: “Prayer is a battle.” We have to fight constantly
against ourselves and, as the catechism says, “against the wiles of the tempter who does
all he can to turn man [and woman, I presume] away from prayer, away from union with God” (#2725).

C.S. Lewis understood that. “Prayer is irksome,” he wrote. “An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish.”

And he cites the following to show that this feeling is universal: “The fact that prayers are constantly set as penances tells its own tale.”

Obviously, this isn’t as it should be. It should be a delight to have a conversation with God. Just to be in God’s presence should thrill us. That is, after all, what we are looking forward to spending eternity doing—living in God’s presence. Why does it seem like a penance now and what should we do about it?

The answer, of course, is that we haven’t yet been perfected. After we get our spiritual bodies, we won’t be afflicted with all the stuff we have to endure with our physical bodies, with all their limitations.

Now we’re preoccupied with finding our physical pleasures, those things that delight our senses. Once we have our spiritual bodies we will no longer be concerned about our physical senses.

Until then, though, prayer is a battle. The battle is to confront the difficulties we experience in prayer.

One difficulty is spiritual dryness when our heart seems separated from God and we have no desire for spiritual things. Many canonized saints experienced dryness.

St. Francis de Sales wrote that if we should happen to find no joy or comfort in meditation to “open your heart’s door to words of vocal prayer.” In other words, ask God for his help.

“At other times,” he wrote, “turn to some spiritual book and read it attentively until your mind is awakened and restored within you.” And if this doesn’t work, he said not to worry about it.

Spiritual writers identify another difficulty in prayer as acedia, which is spiritual torpor or apathy. This, I think, we must overcome through willpower.

Another reason for difficulties in prayer, of course, is alluded to in that quotation with which I opened this column: the wiles of the tempter.

Often, it is the devil who suggests that we really would get more out of that television program than we could from prayer. He doesn’t have to tempt us with sinful inclinations, just convince us that something else is more important.

If prayer is a battle against the devil, perhaps one of our greatest weapons is the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel in which we ask him to “defend us in battle” and “be our safeguard against the wiles and snares of the devil.” †

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