Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Why Men Don't Pray
by Fr. Thomas D. Williams, LC
Ask any catechized Catholic whether prayer is important, and he will immediately assure you that it is. He may even enthusiastically spout a series of reasons why we should pray. Then ask him how much he prays. He will probably look at the floor, shift his weight nervously from foot to foot, and murmur an inaudible excuse as to how tough it is these days...with work and all...and the family...
If prayer is so wonderful, why do so few people—especially men—practice it with any regularity? Prayer is the sort of thing we all know is necessary but never seem to find enough time for. Despite our good intentions, other urgent affairs always seem to take precedence over prayer time and effectively crowd our prayer.
This nearly pandemic neglect of prayer undoubtedly has multiple causes. The following list presents six of the more common rationalizations I have heard (and used!) over the years. Like most good excuses, each of these bears an element of truth, but also an element of falsehood. Unmasking them may help us overcome them.
1. “I don’t have time to pray.”
No one has time to pray, really. The idyllic notion of “free time” simply doesn’t exist. We all have twenty-four hours in a day, and we fill those hours with something. Yet in these twenty-four hours some men pray and others don’t. Why is that? Here a glance at Christ’s life can prove illuminating. The first striking feature of Christ’s prayer life is not the way he prayed, or what he said, but the fact that he prayed. Simply put, Christ was a man of prayer. Since Jesus was God, we may think that he wouldn’t have needed to pray. And yet in the Gospels we find him praying all the time: in the morning, at night, alone and with others.
We don’t have much disposable time in our hectic lives, but the same was true in the case of our Lord. His days were packed with activities (just as ours often are): foot travel from town to town, long hours of preaching and teaching, visiting people, listening to their questions and problems, curing the sick, and so forth. True, he didn’t have a wife and kids, but he did have twelve needy Apostles and a vibrant ministry that occupied his waking hours. The Gospel relates that Jesus was so busy that sometimes he had no time even for eating (see, for example, Mark 3:20, 6:31; John 4:31). How many of us can say that? And still, he always had time to pray. Or, to be more exact, he always made time to pray.
This seems to be the key to Christ’s prayer life. He made it a priority. He preferred prayer to other good, wholesome activities. He specifically set aside blocks of time to speak with his Father in prayer. And if he did this, it was because he was convinced of his need for prayer. It’s not that he had “nothing better to do,” but rather that for Him prayer was not a filler activity but a priority.
Prayer doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t spontaneously occur like breathing or our heartbeat. It doesn’t impose itself on our organism like eating and drinking. If we don’t make time to pray, it simply won’t happen. Sure, on occasion we can spontaneously be moved to direct a word or two to our Lord, but a vigorous, constant life of prayer and union with God is more the result of hard work and willpower than chance occurrence.
We often allow other “urgent” activities to displace prayer in our lives. The more work we have to do, the less time we leave for prayer, under the pretext that we simply have no time to pray. Our Lord teaches us by his example that the contrary is true. The more we have to do, the more we need prayer. The bigger our business decisions, the more transcendent our choices for our family and future, the more we need prayer. Meetings, strategic planning, and careful consideration are important, but they don’t match the impact of prayer. Otherwise, what value does all our work have? The psalmist reminds us: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
2. “I don’t know how to pray.”
Sometimes we deal with prayer the way we would attempt brain surgery or glass-blowing. It can seem so daunting that we approach it with exaggerated reserve, as if we needed a PhD in spirituality in order to pray. We think that prayer requires extensive training to master complicated techniques. And since we “don’t know how” to pray, we don’t do it.
Even if we do attempt prayer, we may quickly abandon it out of discouragement. Knowing that we possess no special spiritual credentials, we may feel that our prayer is second-rate, that we aren’t doing it right, and that God surely has more interesting people to listen to. If we compare our ramblings, say, to the soaring spiritual poetry of John Donne or Teresa of Avila, we can’t help but feel more than a little inadequate.
These considerations would be valid if God were a professional prayer critic whose primary concern was the technical perfection of our performance. But God isn’t a critic, or an Olympic prayer judge, but a Father. Think, instead, of a small child who brings home a crayon drawing from school for Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day. A child’s drawing will lack the technical expertise of the practiced artist, but will charm a mother or father’s heart more than a work by Raphael or Rembrandt. Its value to a parent does not depend on its artistic merits, but on the effort and love invested in the work, and the fact that it is done by a son or daughter. In a similar fashion, God is predisposed to be delighted with whatever we offer him, by the mere fact that we are the ones offering it. Sincere manifestations of our desire to please him, however imperfect, do indeed please him.
Others simply don’t know what to do during prayer time. Like an adolescent boy calling a girl for the first time, many would-be prayer practitioners quickly run out of topics of conversation and end with a clumsy and premature good-bye. Such failed attempts sometimes lead to the abandonment of prayer, with a shrug of the shoulders and resignation to the sad fact that “I guess I wasn’t made for prayer.” In these cases, some revert to the rote recitation of standard formulae, which, in spite of their real value, often leave one with the vague interior nagging that prayer should somehow be more than that.
We mustn’t be afraid to dive into prayer, and to stick with it once we have begun. We learn to pray by praying. We learn to love by loving. We make progress when we get out of the theoretical stage and move on to the active. We will make more progress in prayer by praying than by reading 100 good books on prayer techniques, just as we will learn more about swimming by jumping in the water than by sitting on dry land consulting swimming manuals. But we must persevere despite setbacks. Prayer is an act of love, a lifting up of the heart to God. The more we do it, the more natural it becomes.
3. “Nothing happens when I pray.”
Our prayer can often feel ineffectual. We experience no interior heat, hear no angelic choirs, see no flashes of light, and often get no quick answers to our problems and queries. Yet we would be wrong to think that nothing happens when we pray. True, we may not get the result we expect, but something happens nonetheless. In the first place, even without its many consequences prayer is good. Spending time with God is never time wasted, but time well spent. We should find it very strange if a young man valued time spent with his girlfriend only according to the productivity of their time together. And a girlfriend treated in such a way could rightly feel used. Surely God must often feel used if we see him only as a sugar daddy whose sole purpose is to grant us favors. God is worth loving for his own sake, regardless of the favors he bestows.
But prayer does bring favors as well. Things do indeed happen every time we pray. They may not coincide exactly with our expectations, but that doesn’t mean that our words fall on deaf ears. Remember that prayer is not meant to “bring God around” to our way of seeing things. We do not present ourselves before our Maker armed with convincing arguments like an attorney pleading a case. Nor do we say a magic word and expect an automatic result. In prayer we praise God, place our needs before him, thank him and enjoy his company. And he in turn transforms us. We may not feel it right away, but all experienced pray-ers know, that God answers every prayer we utter. True, he does so in his own time and in his own way, but that is part of the adventure of living a personal relationship with your Creator. By persevering in prayer we experience the special delight of discovering, little by little, how wonderful and unexpected God’s responses are.
4. “I get along fine without prayer.”
Though most of us would vehemently assert the necessity of prayer for the Christian life, in practice it often seems that we can get by all right without it. Some writers compare the spiritual life to our bodily existence, such that what eating, breathing, and sleeping are to the body, prayer is to the spirit. Yet like all analogies, the comparison only goes so far. If we fail to sleep at night, the effects make themselves immediately felt on our next day’s performance, whereas a day without prayer often produces no such immediate consequences. Parallels to eating and breathing seem even more forced. Neglect of prayer often produces no evident harm, especially in the short run.
Yet the absence of prayer does produce negative effects in our life, just as its presence produces positive ones. They are often gradual effects, but real ones nonetheless. Removing prayer from the Christian life is like trading in a color television for a black and white. Life without prayer slowly becomes a drudgery. It dries up, grows dull and sad, and saps our energy and enthusiasm. Prayer doesn’t only affect prayer time; it affects every moment of our lives and colors them with excitement, depth and meaning. Prayer means going through life in the company of the One who loves us, instead of trying to wing it on our own. Though it seems we can get along without it, how much richer and colorful life is when we travel it in God’s company through an active prayer life!
5. “I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t pray.”
Often these days people make the pseudo-sophisticated claim of being interested in “spirituality” but not particularly big on “religion.” Personal prayer is out; “spirituality” is in. Forgive my bluntness, but spirituality without religion strikes me as the ultimate cop-out. Like live-in lovers who want all the benefits of marriage with none of the commitment, chasing “spirituality” in lieu of religion substitutes a sham for the real thing. What in the world does it mean to be a “spiritual” person? For many, it seems to be nothing more than a justification to feel somehow engaged with the transcendent without those bothersome demands of a personal God. Instead of having to adore one’s Creator and live up to his expectations, we would rather lower the bar, creating a comfortable little spiritual world under our own control. That way we feel “spiritual” but are accountable to no one but ourselves.
Those advocating a religion-free spirituality remind me of what Holocaust victim Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer, a Christian theologian, described cheap grace as “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance....It is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross. Cheap grace is grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” This is why people who pursue religion-free spirituality become victims of fashion. They end up following the most popular guru-du-jour for a little while, until the novelty wears off. Then they have to find another one, and another. They are trying to get into shape by eating potato chips when what they really need is some hearty meat and fresh vegetables—spiritual nourishment, not junk food.
Christian revelation can be uncomfortable, since we must give up the reins of our lives and allow Someone else to be God. The last word is his, not ours. Yet letting God be God is also immensely liberating. The weight of the world sits on his shoulders, not ours. He is the Savior, we are not. And in our personal lives as well, he has the solutions even to our most difficult problems. Christian prayer recognizes God for who he is, and accepts him on his own terms. It doesn’t try to downsize him to our own measure, or to replace authentic discipleship with a vague, feel-good spirituality.
6. “I am an active sort, not a contemplative.”
Many men find prayer difficult and naturally prefer action to contemplation. We are practical, even pragmatic, and figure we can leave the praying to others who like that sort of thing. We may even consider prayer to be a less “manly” activity. Besides, isn’t doing good to others the essence of true religion? And all that precious time wasted in idleness, couldn’t it be better invested in fruitful activity? Well, no. Both prayer and action are essential to the Christian life, but prayer takes precedence. Prayer is not idleness, and as odd as it may seem, prayer provides more good for the world than all sorts of human activity.
There was a saint who once tried this excuse on Jesus, but it backfired. You probably remember the Gospel story of two sisters, named Martha and Mary, who invited Jesus over to their house (See Luke 10:38-42). While Martha bustled about preparing supper and waiting on her guest, Mary sat “idly” by at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. Martha finally reached the end of her rope and came over to Jesus in a huff. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Yet rather than acknowledge Martha’s complaint, Jesus defends her sister. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you worry and fret about so many things, yet few are needed, indeed, only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.”
Good and worthwhile as activity is, prayer is more needful still. It is prayer, after all, that gives meaning and worth to action. Prayer is, as one writer puts it, “the soul of the apostolate.” Our activity would be an empty shell, a “gong booming or a cymbal clashing” (1 Corinthians 13:1) without prayer, without personal contact with our Lord. No number of good works, no matter how useful, can compensate for our lack of prayer.
Some have gone so far as to accuse contemplatives of escapism. Instead of getting their hands dirty with hard work, contemplatives would hide away in their safe, inner retreats. I think that those who indulge in such criticisms must never have tried praying. Once we strip away its romantic trappings, prayer is really hard work. Beautiful moments of inner peace and consolation do indeed sweeten the task, but ongoing struggles against distractions and listlessness are just as common. Of the three types of work—physical work, intellectual work and spiritual work—spiritual work is the hardest. Wasn’t it that great woman of prayer Saint Teresa of Avila who said that for a long period of her religious life she would have preferred to do anything rather than pray? Her exact words were these:
And very often, for some years, I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to spend in prayer be over than I was to remain there, and more anxious to listen for the striking of the clock than to attend to other good things. And I don’t know what heavy penance could have come to mind that frequently I would not have gladly undertaken rather than recollect myself in the practice of prayer (The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, pp. 97-98).
Far from being a dreamer’s escape, prayer requires a good deal of mettle, which many of us lack. Again, without courage we won’t get very far in the Christian life, even in something as basic as prayer.
Prayer is a Christian duty, to be sure, but even more it is a privilege. Our God is not an unapproachable legislator or a distant, indifferent watchmaker, but a Father personally interested in his children. Christ revealed to us a God who listens, a God who has counted every hair on your head, a God who hastens to give good things to those who ask him. The same almighty Lord who spoke a single word and all things came to be, now bends his ear to listen to every word that you utter. Let us take to heart the words so often repeated in the liturgy: Let us pray! There is simply no better use of our time.
(Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, is dean of the Theology School at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University and author of Spiritual Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be.)