Quieting the Heart in Prayer
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
─ Luke 10:41-42
There is great anxiety and fear in the world right now. Can you feel it? I can.
Many people are greatly troubled at many things. I am hearing again and again from people that they are on edge. People are overwhelmed by what is going on in the world, in the Church, and in their families. There is a sense of mental and spiritual oppression, of a heavy weight pressing down on us, a sense of foreboding.
The constant bombardment with terrifying news about the pandemic; the widespread confusion over public health measures; the growing polarization of our politics; news of turmoil and war overseas; the seemingly endless parade of scandals within the Church, etc., etc.
The heat of this historical moment is leading to dissension in families, among friends, and within communities. More and more I hear from family members who lament that in the past year or two communication has broken down with their children, parents, or siblings. These relationships seemed relatively free and easy not so long ago. Now, it feels as if every conversation is a minefield in which the tiniest misstep will set off an explosion.
I will not pretend that the answer to all of these problems is easy or straightforward. It takes great wisdom to navigate a time of turmoil. The practical problems we face are complex far beyond the ability of any of us to adequately sort through or solve. However, I would like to take the opportunity to exhort everyone to use these pressures and these anxieties to drive them towards the only remedy that truly works, and the one that we are so often tardy in reaching towards.
We are Slow in Turning to Prayer
“This is that which most of all hinders heavenly comfort,” writes Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ, “that thou art slow in turning thyself to prayer.”
Yes, we are too slow to turn ourselves to prayer. For most of us, prayer – if we pray – is something that we scarcely squeeze into the spare moments of the day. On many days, we may even find that the day has gone by, and we have not prayed at all. At least, not really prayed.
Perhaps we sat with the Scriptures for a few minutes in the morning. Perhaps we even made it to Mass. But if we are honest, we will admit that we were deeply distracted. Perhaps we had already checked our Facebook or our Twitter accounts and seen something that made us anxious, or angry, or sad. Instead of the peace that comes from resting with the Lord, like St. John on the breast of Christ at the Last Supper, our minds were already going a million miles a minute.
We must recommit ourselves to prayer. And if we have never had a solid habit of prayer, we must make the effort, now, to learn how to pray, and to carve out the space for real, contemplative, silent prayer.
“But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret,” said Christ. (Matthew 6:6)
Do you have a private space in your house, even just a corner of your room, that is set aside for prayer? If not, why not? Prayer is not a thing that can be done amidst the hurly burly of daily life. Christ Himself, when He wanted to pray, went away from the crowd, into the desert. Often, He dedicated the most silent hours of the night to prayer; the hours when He could be entirely alone with His Heavenly Father.
We must learn to pray as Christ prayed. Not with many words, but with our innermost heart. “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” asked the two disciples after the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus. (Luke 24:32) Do our hearts burn within us when we too encounter Christ in prayer? Or are we too filled with distractions and fears to hear the voice of Christ speak Truth with the “small still voice” that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb, after the noise of the wind and the earthquake and the fire. (1 Kings 19:12-13)
Seek Silence: Physical and Interior
Over the past few years, I have many times given spiritual retreats using Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book, The Power of Silence. This modern spiritual classic has a great deal to offer those of us who are being swept up into the chaos and disorder of this age, and whose hearts are consequently deeply troubled and restless.
Cardinal Sarah makes it clear that if we are to find the peace of Christ, then we must secede, both spiritually and physically, from the culture of noise in this modern world. “How can man really be in the image of God?” Cardinal Sarah asks at one point. “He must enter into silence. When he drapes himself in silence, as God himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven, or, rather, he allows God to manifest himself in him.”
The world is fractious, chaotic, noisy; the public space is so much consumed by the dominance of our passions, by the pursuit of pleasure and of power. Human beings are born with a great hunger in their hearts. And because we are born in Original Sin, that great hunger so easily goes awry. Instead of our hearts aiming at God like an arrow to the target, our appetites rove about, looking for things to consume. It is this that brings so much sorrow to our lives.
The only answer is to remake our hearts by forging them in the crucible of God’s loving presence. And the only way to do this is to enter the burning heat of prayer. Authentic prayer. The kind of prayer that is only possible when we set everything else aside, and when we seek God with a singlemindedness.
If there is such a lack of peace in the world today, and even more importantly, if there is a lack of peace in our hearts, it is first and foremost because we are not peaceful. This is what Thomas à Kempis says. “Keep thyself first in peace and then thou wilt be able to bring others to peace,” he wrote. How can we bring peace to others – to our families, to our churches and communities – if we ourselves are not peaceful? It is a very good question. World peace begins with heart peace. Heart peace leads to familial peace. Familial peace leads to peace in the community and in our nations. There are no shortcuts.
Do you wish for peace in your family? Then first cultivate a spirit of peace in your heart. Seek the face of the Prince of Peace Himself, the meek and gentle shepherd who lays down His life for His friends, who on the very cross, as He drew His dying gasps, prayed for those who murdered Him. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
In the hours when He was most persecuted, when the wolf was closing in for the kill, Christ repeatedly emphasized peace. “Put up your sword,” He told St. Peter. “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) And yet we who claim to be followers of Christ are so quick to anger and recrimination towards others, sometimes simply because they have dared to have a different opinion than us.
The Prince of Peace is waiting for us. He is waiting for you in your room when you wake up in the morning. Before you do anything, before you check your phone, or look at the news, set aside some time for prayer. Open the Scriptures and read the Gospels. Read Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence, or Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, or any of the great spiritual classics. Don’t be afraid to kneel at your bedside, or to light a candle before a crucifix or an icon. Our houses are meant to be domestic churches. God is present in our homes, but we must consciously introduce a sense of the sacred in them.
Lay Your Worries on the Lord
We are all facing many anxiety-inducing questions right now: What will happen with COVID? What will happen with the Church? How will we make the right decisions, or know what to do in these confusing times? How can I respond calmly and lovingly to my family member or friend who is angry with me, or who is making choices that I fear will harm them? How can we preserve our freedoms?
“Have patience and be of good courage, comfort will come to thee in its proper season,” writes Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ. “What does that solicitude about future accidents bring thee but only sorrow upon sorrow? ‘Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.’”
Christ in the Gospel asks: “Which of you, by worrying, can add one cubit to your life’s span?” And again: ‘[O]ur heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:27-34)
It is natural and human to be anxious and afraid. Even many of the saints admitted to being anxious about various things. And yet, they differed from us in that they engaged in combat with these temptations, training themselves to place all things in God’s hands, and to fear no evil.
There is a hidden gift in these anxious times. And the gift is this: That the various troubles may drive us to our knees, recognizing our powerlessness to control the unfolding of events. We cannot control a virus. We cannot control our family members, or the media, or our politicians. We cannot fix the Church. But we can bring peace into the world by becoming more Christ-like. That is how we change the world for the better. So let us resolve today to spend more time in prayer. Pray for the Church. Pray for the world. Pray for a Culture of Life. Pray for peace.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.