Catholic Spiritual Growth Plan - Do Not Fall Into This Prayer Trap!
Having a spiritual growth plan is the best way to grow in your relationship with God. Establishing a daily prayer routine is a key part of any spiritual growth plan. But we are really going to struggle to establish a daily prayer habit unless we can avoid falling into this trap. You do want to establish a daily habit of prayer, don't you?
Feeling Like You Have to Be Good at Prayer
As people work toward establishing a daily habit of prayer, they all too often fall into the trap of inadequacy. They feel they are not up to the task of approaching God in prayer every day. "I'm just not good at prayer," we tell ourselves. They think that if only they were more eloquent, or more disciplined, or more holy - then they'd be able to pray every day.
Do you ever feel that way? You're just you. You're not Saint Teresa of Avila, who levitated in prayer and fell into ecstasies. Your'e not Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope John Paul II, who became absorbed in prayer for hours despite his busy schedule. You're just you.
Unfortunately, this trap is very powerful in its ability to keep us from doing the one thing that could make us more disciplined and more holy - trying.
Jesus, Teach Us to Pray
One reason we think we're not "good at prayer" is that we don't understand what prayer really is. Jesus, Teach Us to Pray clarifies what prayer is - and what it is not. This easily read book is full of wisdom to get you on the right track!
Signs You May Be Falling Into This Trap
Perhaps you're already well aware that you are falling into this trap. Sometimes our inadequacy is obvious. But human beings are pretty darn good at self-deception too. We hide inadequacy with overcompensation. We hide inadequacy with complacency.
So we often need someone to point out for us when we're falling into a trap. Here is how you know if you are falling into the trap of inadequacy:
1. Praying long, drawn-out, fancy prayers. Surprisingly, using too many words to pray can be a sign of inadequacy even though it masks itself as inadequacy. This kind of prayer can be an overcompensation for inadequacy. No, there is no magic number of words that tells us a prayer is "too long." What matters is this - is your prayer a true, intimate connection with God or is it just words? It doesn't matter if your prayer is "spontaneous," read, or recited from memory. If your heart is connecting to God it is true prayer. If you are just reciting words, you are a "clashing gong or clanging symbol."
2. Insecurity in praying out loud - it amazes me how uncomfortable most Catholics are praying out loud. This is especially true if they are asked to give a spontaneous prayer. Now, discomfort in this case is often just because Catholics aren't used to making up our own words for prayer - and that's OK (again, the heart is most important). But it can also be hard to get anyone to lead a Rosary or to read a scripture verse. This is a clear sign of a feeling of inadequacy.
3. Boredom in prayer - Boredom in prayer really has two possible sources, but both sources can be a sign that you fell into this trap. The first source of boredom in prayer is a lack of true relationship with God. Now, this does not necessarily refer to some sort of emotional connection (though sometimes it does). It refers to a deeper understanding of what prayer is. It refers to your participation in the quest to come to know God more intimately and to your ability to listen to his Spirit share God’s life with you. The second source of boredom in prayer is the lack of confidence in prayer that comes from firmly establishing prayer as a habit. Before an action becomes a habit, performing the act requires effort on our part. That effort is not fun, so it can sometimes be emotionally interpreted as boredom.
4. Reverting to prayers of petition - Another sign that we are not comfortable in prayer is always reverting to prayers of petition. Prayers of petition (which means prayers that ask for something from God) have their place. They can be a very good thing since they can express trust in God as provider of what we need. But always asking God for stuff is a problem for the same reason that boredom in prayer is a problem - it can indicate a lack of confidence in prayer that would allow us to connect with God on a deeper, more intimate level.
Why It's So Easy to Fall Into This Trap
If you are falling into the trap of inadequacy in prayer, don’t feel bad. It’s a common malady among Christians, and especially among Catholics.
It’s common among Christians because Christianity is really the only religion that demands so much of prayer. What other religion sees prayer as an act of intimacy with God? Most religions assume such intimacy is not possible. Intimacy with God comes to us only through the grace won for us by Jesus Christ. In most other religions, prayer is simply a formula used to appease the god or to ask favors. So the bar is set higher for Christians, and that means it’s going to be a challenge.
Catholics are especially vulnerable to this trap because of the way we are taught to pray. We are taught as children to “say our prayers” as a duty to God. Now, as children this is perfectly fine. I’m teaching my own children the same thing. To me it’s like teaching them to get into the habit of daily prayer - which is where you and I are starting as adults. The problem is that there is no graduation from this level of prayer in adulthood. So most adults are still approaching their prayer as a duty. They are rarely ever taught prayer as an act of intimacy with God unless they seek the higher levels of spiritual growth through a spiritual director or by reading the works of the saints. Again, this is not an indictment of the KIND of prayer that we do. Praying the Rosary, reciting the Memorare, reading the Liturgy of the Hours, and doing spontaneous prayer can all be done in a way that is just duty or in a way that seeks intimacy. It’s a matter of the proper attitude of the heart. And if we’re never taught that attitude - if we’re never taught how to transform our prayers into an act of intimacy - we are bound to be caught but the trap of insecurity in prayer.
Prayer is Part of Our Everyday Life
When we isolate prayer from our everyday life and see it as a mystical experience, we miss the point and set up false expectations. God can make prayer a mystical experience, but God is waiting for us in every aspect of our lives. In Deep Conversion Deep Prayer, Father Thomas Dubay reminds us that prayer is part of our total walk with God and cannot be separated into an isolated experience.
How To Get Out of This Trap
But there is no reason to stay in the trap, even if it has sprung on you. There are a number of things you can do as you work to establish the habit of daily prayer.
Before you do any of this, ask the Holy Spirit to aid your prayer. He is the assistance that Jesus sent us. As the personification of love there is none better!
1. Become a student of prayer, not just a dabbler.
As you find the habit of daily prayer getting easier, it’s time to take your prayer deeper. Study the spiritual masters of our faith - like Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Therese of Lisieux.
2. Be karate student not a literature student.
A student of karate learns the philosophy and the theory of karate for the sole purpose of putting it into action. A literature student learns the philosophy and theory of literature for its own sake. When it comes to prayer, work hard to put what you learn into practice. The best way to get out of the trap is to pray!
3. Approach prayer with the wonder and awe appropriate for intimacy with God.
The God of the universe is inviting to for a tete-a-tete. While your relationship with Him shouldn't be led by emotions, you can bring emotion to the table. Being aware of what you are called to do in prayer will inspire you to work through the grind of establishing the habit. It will give you the hope you'll need to get through the dry periods of prayer. And it will help you to put any "consolations" you receive in prayer (emotion or experience that verify God's presence) into perspective. Every prayer is an invitation to intimacy with God.
4. Recognize that on one hand your feeling of inadequacy is appropriate.
Who is worthy of approaching God? Not even the greatest saint can claim worthiness, except by grace. But your inadequacy is a good thing! It helps you to approach our Lord with humility and receptivity. Never should we approach God as if we could control him through our prayer - that's the main sin of paganism. We should humbly approach God open to whatever He will give us - which will mostly be Himself.
5. Recognize on the other hand that your feelings of inadequacy is nothing more than growing pains.
You will grow more comfortable with prayer the more you grow in intimacy with God. What at first is a burden will someday become "coming home."
What today is a burden tomorrow will be "coming home."
Have a Spiritual Plan
Having a spiritual plan is a great way to avoid falling into this trap and many others. Father Thomas D. Williams offers one of the clearest explanations of the spiritual life I have ever read. He also offers an outline for developing a plan for spiritual growth.
This link is to the Kindle edition because unfortunately this book is no longer in print!
Your Next Step
Even with this advice, it can be difficult to get out of a trap by yourself. Reading the spiritual masters and becoming a student of prayer may sound like a great idea . . . until you try wading through one of those books without any guidance. The best place for that guidance - unless you're ready for a spiritual director - is From the Abbey's courses on prayer. The "Practical Prayer" course for beginners helps you establish a daily prayer habit with training, support and accountability to help you get through the "grind." The "Spiritual Path" advanced course in prayer guides you through the teachings of each of the spiritual masters and helps you to apply their teachings to your life.
You can also get started with a FREE online video tutorial called the "Keys to Spiritual Growth." This tutorial introduces you to five important areas of spirituality that you need to nurture in order to grow in intimacy with God. Just go to www.fromtheabbey.com to register and I'll get your free online video tutorial out to you!