Prayers for the Road(kill)


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.

6 thoughts on “Prayers for the Road(kill)

  1. Amanda says:

    This reply isn’t a proper response to the post – but I was thinking about it after reading it, and had some questions. First, though, is ‘mental prayer’ just what Anglicans would term ‘prayer’, or have I misunderstood? If so – here’s the question – are you saying that one might normally prioritise the mass, the liturgy over prayer? And if so, is that because of the Eucharist? Or other things too?

    The reason I ask is because it suddenly occurred to me that if the liturgy is so important, it is a lot clearer to me why changing it mattered so much. For Anglicans – the ones I knew, anyway – church services really weren’t so important, because it was prayer and the personal relationship with God that mattered. They weren’t broccoli, but the joys of freshly-baked bread and fine wine rolled into one. I suppose I was assuming the same thing about Catholicism (although accepting the different interpretation of the Eucharist gives a different meaning to the Mass) and so not really grasping the importance of liturgical change…

    • Cojuanco says:

      I believe what she means is silent, contemplative prayer, praying ‘in your own words’, almost as if your mind is simply talking to God as a close friend – sharing your frustrations, your joys and so forth. Though nothing wrong with the Rosary or the Paternoster, of course! Just that one might need other forms of prayer too. The Jesuits tend to emphasise this point a lot, especially with the Exercises.

      As to Mass, well, the Church considers it in a way several prayers wrapped as one great prayer (the missals they have at Latin Mass here have a quote from Pius X which basically urges people to treat the Mass as such). It is also the summit of Catholic life for the simple fact that it brings us literally face to face with God (you intuit rightly that this is because of transubstantiation). Even if you do not receive, you’re connected with a sacrifice both ever ancient in that it is the same sacrifice as the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and that is also happening in an eternal now – it is actual time travel in a way. So yes, the Mass is important for the Catholic (and Orthodox and I believe the Orientals) in a way that it will never be for Anglicans.

      As to why people were sensitive about what was the most radical change to the Mass since Trent (and the Tridentine Mass was also a radical change to the Mass), without changing the essential parts, well, many people are naturally conservative, and will stick to the way things are even when it is objectively necessary (Pope Benedict said as much with the way the Latin Mass had become in the 60s). But yes, even necessary changes to the Mass can be jarring for people for whom the Mass is the summit of their religion, as it is with mine and Lucie’s.

    • lucieromarin says:

      Possibly they are the same thing: mental prayer takes a few forms, but in general, its key characteristics are that it is silent, mostly interior, and involves one’s own words. It’s possible to start it with a meditation written by someone else, but this meditation should lift the mind and heart into personal and private expressions of love for God. This is in contrast to liturgical prayer – which is the public worship of the Church – or privately recited prayers, such as the Rosary or popular devotions. And, yes, you’re right, Mass is prioritised in the sense that it is the prayer, the ultimate prayer, because it is Christ’s own offering of Himself. The Mass is the worship of the whole Church, in which Christ is offered in sacrifice; mental prayer is only my worship and the much lesser sacrifice of me.

      Catholics are obliged to attend Sunday Mass; we’re not obliged to practise mental prayer. If someone in your life stops going to Mass, it’s a catastrophe; if someone else says, “Oh, I’ve dropped mental prayer,” a lot of people won’t be alarmed. The former is like no longer wishing to be identified as Catholic; the latter just means you wish to be a little less devout, or differently devout. Having said that, we are meant to practise it; the saints say that holiness is impossible without it. It’s just that this importance isn’t so widely known; most of us are more aware of the Rosary or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I’d heard of it by my mid-twenties, but without a spiritual director I’d never have understood how important it was. So, yes, in practical terms, many Catholics who would die before they’d miss Sunday Mass will content themselves with recited devotions in their private prayer lives, without feeling the pang of missing something. Every devout Catholic I know knows that Mass is supremely important; only some of them understand and/or believe mental prayer to be important, and some of them – like me, for most of my life – don’t even really know what it is.

      Maybe its more broccoli-like for those of us who have come to it fairly late in life precisely because we’re so used to being buoyed up by the liturgy, which does a lot of the work for us! We also have a rule – I don’t know if Anglicans have this – that you have to remain in prayer for a set time (it’s different for each person). So if things are going well, you can’t go over time enjoying the sweetness, and if your prayer is very arid – too bad. You have to stay there till the allotted time is up. Gosh, I’m making it sound grim.

  2. Amanda says:

    I’m reeling from this information! I had assumed that prayer meant the same thing to everyone, and that it was the only really important way of being Christian (for lack of a better phrase), for all Christians. I thought the rest was mere formalism. My own experience was of engaging in ‘mental prayer’ from – well as early as I can remember: just talking to God in bed at night, often until I fell asleep. We were encouraged (I’m talking about a voluntary Christian group run by some evangelical visitors to the school in the middle years of primary school – my own family was not religious) to use the Lord’s Prayer as a model, in terms of what we ought to remember to say, and I think there was another basic structure that we were also given, although I can’t now remember the details. There probably was a sense of duty about it, and a proper amount of time to spend as a minimum; I remember phases of thinking that one ought to do it kneeling on the floor before getting into bed, which had a vaguely penitential, and therefore more compelling, feel. I don’t know exactly where that idea came from. This form of prayer is even now really the only thing that still seems natural to me about religion and uncontaminated by institutions, patriarchies and hierarchies, so it is a revelation, even a shock, to discover that you people have such a different perspective. I suppose it was so fundamental that I never thought to ask. Now I’m even wondering what other Anglicans did, and whether I began this so young that I did my own thing without it occurring to me that there was a different way of doing it. I always thought that the formal prayers, the using of the words of others (including the Lord’s Prayer!) was a bit lazy and not enough on its own although one should say it every day as a preliminary – so even if I was very tired, I would make myself add further things after saying it. It was also, I should say, an extremely comforting thing, and I almost always felt that I was being heard sympathetically. It was only later that the interventions of organised religion began crushing the life out of that feeling.

    How extraordinary!

    But thinking some more… Isn’t it the case that Catholic religious writers and thinkers, medieval ones, anyway, prioritised a direct, meditative and sometimes mystical engagement with God? Obviously the Eucharist played an important role for some of them (although if you read St Francis and others like him, it sounds as though they think that the Eucharist isn’t being properly appreciated even by those in orders, much less everyone else), but [ecstatic] contemplation seems even more central to their relationships with God. Would that now be considered more a quality of a saint than of an ordinary believer? I suppose one of the reasons I hadn’t had my sense of the role of prayer challenged before now is because I thought that’s what I was seeing in these writers.

    Has any of this been affected by the splitting apart of what are now called ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ ways of being religious?

    • lucieromarin says:

      I guess it depends a little on what we mean by ‘prioritise.’ Saints of every century urge us to pursue contemplation. Achieving that state might be considered the quality of a saint, but pursuing it is certainly open to (and, the saints would say, the duty of) every believer, no matter what his state in life is. But to try to reach that union through prayer alone, without the Mass, would be tantamount to trying to reach Christ without Christ, because it is primarily through the Mass that the graces won on Calvary are distributed throughout the world. This is why we offer daily Mass, rather than just Sunday Mass. It’s why the devotions given to us through approved private revelations all involve going to Mass and receiving Communion, and it’s why one of the requirements for gaining a plenary indulgence is participation at Mass. The centrality of the Mass is the reason why Catholics devised so many ways to smuggle bread and grapes into prisons and concentration camps. It’s also why the expression, ‘a practising Catholic,’ is usually understood to mean a Catholic who goes to Mass, though of course the reality comprises more than that. I suspect that part of the reason some writers focus on the degrees of contemplation and union in personal prayer is because the centrality of the Mass was so taken for granted that no one needed it explained. People might not have understood why the Mass was important, but they understood that it was, if that makes sense, while they didn’t understand what they needed to about mental prayer.

      The Mass is the crux of everyone’s relations with the Church. There’s schism between us and the Orthodox and between us and the Anglicans, but we still accept Orthodox orders and sacraments as valid (though not licit) because the Orthodox didn’t change the sacrificial character of the Mass. The reason why my friend’s Calvinist community only celebrate a ‘Eucharist’ four times a year is to avoid looking like they say Mass. Weekly Communion, they say, ‘looks too Catholic.’ I also suspect(though I could never prove this), that even though ‘lectio divina’ is an ancient Catholic practice, some Catholics might eschew it because it looks to them like private Bible-study, which they think is something that ‘only’ Protestants do, because they don’t have the Mass. This, too, is why making the Mass look more Protestant (which some of the liturgical experiments of the seventies were felt to do) was such a great scandal to so many.

      Pope John Paul II called the Eucharist ‘the source and summit of Christian life.’ Going to Mass means you’re Catholic; going to Mass and practising mental prayer means you’re a Catholic with a particular commitment to the spiritual life. Receiving Communion should elevate your private prayer, which will, in turn, by drawing you closer to God, enable you to make more fervent Communions, and so on, ever upward.

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