Friday, May 28, 2010

Struggling with prayer

In the past, I've gotten in a little trouble for my complete honesty on my blog. I'm a bit more open, I guess, than many people. That means that once or twice things have come back to me from friends pretty far magnified from things I said on the blog. That hurts, especially when it's usually not me they're going after, but other people mentioned on here. People feel like they have to step in and "protect" me from situations on my blog. The fact is, if I'm comfortable putting something on my blog, it's because I've already got the situation under control.

For awhile I was less open, but that just didn't work for me. This blog is nothing when it is not honest. Sharing my deeper thoughts is what this blog has always been about. Yes, I know anyone could wander in off the internet and read this. I don't mind that, because I have very little I care to hide. If Joe Smith in Tuscon reads my blog and discovers that I felt ashamed over how I handled labor -- why should I care? I'm finally to a point where I've realized that people who judge me when I share my struggles with them aren't really friends, and I don't care what they think. Most people who read my blog read it because they like me and care about me, and therefore they don't waste time judging me for the things I say.

That's my rationale, and I hope it works. In any event, I intend to continue being open on here, and today I'm even going to take it a bit further and talk about my spiritual life. This is something I don't often do, in part because I was once forbidden from talking about it at all. Yes, I know I'm not going to get the kind of advice on here that I would get from a priest, but I'm not looking for that, any more than I'm looking for medical advice when I tell you my back hurts. My purpose is to share my struggles so that others who struggle with similar things won't feel alone. I believe that it is completely right for us to bear each other's burdens and share our own victories and defeats.

The fact is that I have been struggling in my spiritual life for a long time. I began to have some interest in that sort of thing when I was about eleven or twelve. I occasionally prayed the rosary on my own, and my mother and I said parts of the Divine Office together. I enjoyed praying. More importantly, I made my faith my own. I think it's silly when people assume that "cradle Catholics" just accept their faith as a given and never question it or consider it rationally. My mother told me that we only have faith in God because our reason tells us that God exists and is trustworthy. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, up in my treehouse where I did all my thinking, and I proved the existence of God to myself. It's not something I could likely prove to others, but my simplest proof went like this: "The grass is so beautiful. It is like a gift. That means someone must have loved me to put it here for me -- it is far too beautiful to have just happened. The person who put it there is the same who made this tree and that beautiful lake I can see on the horizon. That person is God." And then building from that foundation up and up, to the Bible, to the Catholic Church, and so on. It made and still makes perfect sense to me, and every time I question it, it still stands up just fine.

Then came a time in my life that I guess I'm still not willing to talk about, not here. It concerns something very controversial, something I have such mixed feelings about that I'm not willing to come out and cause trouble by arguing with people whose opinions I still do respect. Suffice it to say that, for the sake of my spiritual growth, because I thought God wanted me to, I put myself into a very strict environment, which ended up being way too strict for me. I was required to pray, which made it no longer a joy but a chore. The more it became a chore, the less likely it was that my "prayer time" was actually spent praying. Yet I had to pretend I was praying, because I didn't want to get into trouble. I absolutely loathe hypocrisy on principle, yet it was becoming a habit.

When that time period ended, I was a very changed person. I tried to keep up the "prayer life" I had had before by being extremely strict with myself -- even stricter than others had been. Yet the more I tried to force things, the less my heart was in it.

Finally I gave up. I was going to keep praying -- because through all this I still had my belief in God, as well as my desire to keep up a relationship with Him -- but I would have no schedule, no set times to pray, no specific requirements. I was just going to do it.

Most likely, this is just what the doctor ordered; however, I am naturally an extremely undisciplined person, so the eventual result was that prayer time dropped slowly out of my life. If I remembered, I was praying a few short prayers a day and that was it. The rest of the time I used to pray -- even as a child -- had gone by the wayside. I felt very resistant to most forms of formal prayer, even resistant at times to going into a church. The more time separated me from the hard time in my life, the more hurt was surfacing. I had, in fact, gone through a lot at the hands of religious people -- people who I even now believe meant very well! It was hard not to associate all the hurt I felt with my faith ... to blame God for how terrible I was feeling. Yet I knew, deep down, it wasn't His fault. So I tried to pray -- and failed -- and felt terrible that God had led me forth from so much sadness into a wonderful and happy life, and I seemed to be incapable of returning anything to Him, not even a word.

Yet my exterior life kept getting better and better. As I stopped being so strict with myself, I also stopped judging others. I let people get close to me, and I loved them. When I loved them, it was all so easy ... none of this "forcing myself to be charitable" nonsense -- I would have done anything for the people I loved, just because I loved them! And I found ways to manage all the responsibilities in my life, while still leaving time for myself. Letting myself relax and enjoy myself was wonderful -- and it also made it easier for me to "live for others" all the rest of the time.

Still, I knew I needed God. When a hard time came along, I knew I would be helped by turning to Him. Yet when things got hard, I seemed even less likely to pray than when I didn't need it! It was like the time that I knew ginger tea would help my morning sickness, but the sicker I was, the less appetizing it smelled. The more I needed God, the further I let myself get from Him. During the year between my graduation from college and marrying John, I was struggling almost constantly, and yet by this time I was praying barely at all. I felt like a huge hypocrite, teaching in a Catholic school and yet not doing a single one of the things I advised the kids to do. A few things got me through: Mass, frequent confession, and stopping by the church to make visits when I was out. In the state of mind I was in, I couldn't just visit the school chapel -- someone might see me, and didn't that make me a hypocrite, just praying so people would see me? (Yes, I know this is irrational!) But if I happened to be passing the church, I would slip inside and just sit in silence. No rosary, no Bible reading, just silence. I couldn't even say much to God, because I didn't feel like just spilling out all my troubles -- I didn't even want to talk about my troubles! But I could sit and soak up the peace, and so I did. When a created being comes to deal with his creator, you would think everything would always go according to the creator's terms, but God lets us meet with Him on our terms. He doesn't send us a bill; He will take whatever we can spare, and if that is nothing, He will accept nothing and still give all we need.

When I married John, he really put me to shame. When I had met him, I had judged him as "not being very spiritual," compared the tons and tons of devotions I was doing. But he was now the one who was always asking me if I wanted to drop by the church with him, if I wanted to go to confession, if I wanted to do the stations of the cross. Whether I came or not (and he never pressured me), he would go himself. Every time he would offer, I would think to myself, "I really should go. He puts me to shame, doing all these things while I'm doing nothing. He's giving me a perfect opportunity, it would be wrong not to take it." And the instant I would start thinking that way, I would start to feel obligated. Which, of course, would make me not want to go. (See how complicated I make things?) Eventually I began to come along, just for company, not to participate in this or that devotion, but just to sit and be at peace. To drink up the peace that I was being offered, even for just the five minutes I could keep myself quiet before all my other thoughts got me distracted. I wouldn't complete a single decade of the rosary, but it didn't matter because I was putting in the time. I was showing up. It "counted."

When Lent came around I decided I really should take up a morning and night prayer again, and start reading the Bible more. I managed the morning prayer. In the car, on my hour-long commute, I would ask God to help me be a better teacher. The words were awkward because I had almost forgotten how to talk to God, and I was always second-guessing myself for fear I was just pretending to talk to Him -- saying what I thought one was supposed to say, instead of what I really meant. It is so hard to talk to a friend if you've always been told exactly how to interact with them, and what the right and wrong ways are! But eventually I just started rattling off to Him about what was on my mind. I had been told not to do this, but I decided that, if I couldn't focus because of my distractions, I should just make those distractions the subject of my prayer. Sometimes I even did the same on the way home -- even though I had no specific resolution to do it then.

Now that Mark is here, I feel like I've hit a small breakthrough. When I look down at him sleeping peacefully, I want to pray, in the same way that I want to be kind to others instead of forcing myself to. I just feel such an immense gratitude ... that and so much to ask for. I pray for him to be kept safe, for him to be happy, for him to take a good nap today, for him to grow strong and healthy. I want so much for this little boy, but I know that my wants are what God expects me to want ... He has made me with a natural love for my son that makes it easy for me to "do my duty" by him.

Sometimes I get scared that I "love my family more than God" or that I would be bitter at God if His will involved something I don't want. But I don't think this is so. I think I just love my baby intensely because it is right for me to, and that I love God through my husband and son, not one instead of the other. I was taught to avoid "attachments," only to find that my attachments are the very thing that are making me close to God again. My strict ways of denying everything I wanted were turning God into the enemy. Instead, when I see how very many of my natural desires are exactly what God wills for me, I love Him and thank Him for giving me such a wonderful way to serve Him.

I used to think a vocation would be something I didn't want, something that I would do out of pure generosity because I would hate doing it. Instead my real vocation is something that I love, something I enjoy almost every moment, where even the trials and crosses seem fitted to what I can do. Isn't it silly that I had to be told that it is possible for God's will to be the exact thing I wanted? John told me this once, long before we were married, and I realized it is true. Instead of seeking out what I didn't want, I prayed to God to bless the path I took and to let me know if it was the wrong path. And God opened the doors that it took for me to marry the love of my life and have the child of my dreams.

I don't think I need to stress out much about prayer. When I change a diaper or wash a dish, I am glorifying God because I am being what He created me to be. (See this poem.) Prayer time is just so that I can become more aware of this, and become renewed to continue doing it. It isn't a barren requirement, just there to make me feel guilty. It isn't something I have to put down the baby or stop washing the dishes for. It's a running conversation of gratitude to the one who has given me so much.

I only hope that when hard times come next, I won't be running from God like before. I know I haven't really fixed all my issues ... that it's a process and always will be a process. So long as that process is headed in the right direction, I know I'll be okay.

1 comment:

some guy on the street said...

There's a kinship between repeated rote prayers and army drills; indeed you might even say that the Rosary was the drill march of the Church Millitant. And the *point* of army drill and all that is so that you have an automatic behaviour to fall-back on when your higher reasoning is in retreat under the abuse of cannon fire and flares and stray shrapnel etc.; one forms a *habit* of saying Ave, Maria and Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos, so that when you're under fire you can still, automatically, call on these mighty saints --- indeed, in the Divine Comedy we meet a French (I believe) soldier who is saved precisely because in his last moment in this life he got so far as to pray Ave Maria in the heat of battle.

Now, I may be reading your story wrong, but it seems your deliberate devotions weren't so much drill as exhausting; that your prayers were made not so much from devotion, nor to keep your prayer life strong, but as an end unto themselves. Of course the best thing in the world to do is to praise God, so it's easy to suppose that approved prayers should always be good; but prayers themselves are a created thing, so we should be careful not to put prayer in God's place. It's not the prayers themselves that will sustain us, but God working through them.

All that is exhortation. You might think it nice if I had some advice to go with it, I suppose... so would I! Maybe just to contemplate Him in His Divine Simplicity? That is, we can only approach Him from where we are. But then, I shouldn't play at spiritual director, poor young sinner that I am.

Anyways, be assured that I'll be praying for you and John and Mark; God bless!

(oh! oh! this is very good, so far!)

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