June 18, 2013 by lucieromarin
At the spiritual banquet of faith, mental prayer is the broccoli. It is one of those green vegetables that must be consumed daily, month after month, year after year, before you can appreciate eating it. Sometimes, the problem with it was just its method of preparation; you switch from boiling to steaming, and suddenly the thing makes sense! When the day comes in which you can look upon your packet of two-minute noodles and say, “Ew; I need vegetables,” you know you’re on the cusp of adulthood. Some people develop such a taste for it that they become raw vegans (renouncing sugar as well!) and go into special communities where they can live off the stuff and consume it all day long. Most of us are not going to become contemplative monks and nuns, but we all have it in us to eat moderate daily quantities of healthy greens.
This is one reason that I’d never suggest dropping mental prayer as a way of recovering from burnout. Like the fine arts, or ballet, or music, prayer simply cannot be learned quickly, except by a special grace. It’s not a caffeine-fix. Like healing physically from years of bad eating, mental prayer is a long-term investment in long-term health and long-term happiness. And you have to look after yourself long-term. It’s the caffeine-fixes and sugar-highs that have to go.
The other reason is that all the liturgy in the world cannot replace alone-time with God. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we should stop going to Mass! (For one thing, you’re not going to be able to receive the Blessed Sacrament any other way, unless you’re on exceptionally good terms with St Barbara, and about to be martyred.) However, where burnout is a side-effect of feeling that we exist for the sake of our communities, and that, therefore, we should be used up by them, mental prayer is the reminder that we exist primarily for God. It’s the reminder that there is a right way to put yourself first in your spiritual life. Obviously the service of community is important – but God is more important, and He wants to talk to you occasionally when there aren’t other people around throwing their two cents into the conversation.
The same does not hold true for the inherited written prayers that are part of Catholic devotion, which can be taken up and set aside according to individual need. Reciting prayers is nice, but…well, there’s two kinds of prayer that irk me. One is the kind I heard in the New Mass as a child, in which the Collects went something like: ‘Dear God. You are good and kind. Help us to be good and kind like You.’ Seriously, this is not sustaining. The second irksome kind of prayer is the badly-translated French-trad kind, which is something like: “Mindful, alas! that we ourselves have had a part in the shameful and shocking outrages that afflict our wicked society, we cast ourselves at the foot of Thy Great Throne and beseech….” etc etc (Actually, there is a third kind of irksome praying, but it isn’t really Catholic; it’s the extemporaneous kind that Protestant converts made popular because there was no one around to stop them. It goes, “Dear Lord…I love you so much. I thank you that you saved me…” at which point people like me wail inwardly, “Grammar!!!!!” But we’re talking about recitable prayers here.)
So, what does someone recite, who never wants to recite any of those prayers again?…okay, my first suggestion is so obvious it’s laughable, but I want to say something about the psalms. I think it’s okay for a lay person suffering from burnout to take a break from the Divine Office. I also found it really, really helpful, while on that break, still to read three psalms a day, and read them in order. You experience the psalmist’s progression through the depths as well as the heights of spiritual experience. Reading and praying three a day keeps the liturgical flavour, but is more easily absorbed into a busy or exhausted life than are the Hours – even the Little ones.
For those with a fiery streak, who like to think about being wrapped in power and channeling the forces of nature and praying against witches and wizards, a great alternative to the abovementioned prayers is the Lorica of St Patrick. Here’s a metrical version, and here, if you’re feeling Catholic-wizardly, is the Latin. (Don’t worry about the reference to spiritual battles. Latin is fun.)
The spirituality of this prayer is so un-French, it’s wonderful! Okay, I know, prayers that sound half-sci-fi aren’t for everyone. Truly, though, if you need to relearn that prayer is about knowing God and about being made powerful by Him – well, here you go. (Also, a ‘lorica’ was a mystical garment with superpowers; why wouldn’t you want one of those?) I should add that the stanza about praying against heretics and women will be quietly edited from some Catholic prayer-books. Well, that’s fine. It remains a strong, hopeful prayer; not everyone recovers from burnout with invocations against the dark arts!
You won’t need it for the rest of your life, but if you’re feeling down, try it for a week or so. See what happens.