“Give me a person of prayer, and such a one will be capable of accomplishing anything.” — St. Vincent de Paul
Last week while I was away giving a retreat, and taking time to go over my notes before the next Conference, my mind was unexpectedly drawn into the story of the “woman at the well.”
I was going to be speaking a bit about the primacy of divine initiative in all things (aka grace) and the consequent need for Christians to be first of all receivers before they are givers. In this context, I planned to focus on the need for a vibrant personal prayer life. As I reflected on this, and asked the Lord for light, I had a clear awareness of the fundamental need I have to cling to prayer in my life and work. But let me say, and anyone who attempts to cling thus will no doubt nod in agreement, that the commitment to pray thrusts me at once into what the Catholic Catechism aptly calls the “battle of prayer.”
In my experience, so many of those who work for the Church — myself included — find themselves drawn away from prayer. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s what I’ve witnessed. Why is it so? Well, my own personal take is that the temptation to abandon prayer for such “ecclesial professionals” largely comes from one of two sources. Either it emerges from their (usually) subconscious belief that if they are doing good for God they have a good excuse for not praying, or it comes from the sometimes painfully dissonant struggle that erupts as their personal faith in God clashes with their outer experience of the all-too-human church institutional.Though there are many other temptations that can lure ordained, religious and lay professionals in the church away from prayer, and while it’s a spiritual maxim that the Evil One perpetrates a sleepless conspiracy against all pray-ers, the effects of not praying on ecclesial ministry can be devastating, e.g. burnout, anger, cynicism, loss of faith, hope and charity. As Pope John Paul II once said, “Christians who fail to pray are at risk Christians.”
I had a priest early on in my church career share with me this memorable ditty,
If you don’t cling to God in prayer, you’ll fall down flat in despair; if you don’t pray oft for grace, you’ll wind up flat on your face.
Who needs the drink?
I shared with the retreatants two weeks ago a remarkable reflection I heard at another retreat I gave several years ago for lay ecclesial ministers (who in this case were all women). I had asked these women to take the story of the woman at the well and pray it over in lectio style, i.e. slowly, deliberately, prayerfully, being attentive to what happens deep within as they pray every line, and open to a spontaneous colloquy with Christ. Then we came back together after 45 minutes and those who felt moved to do so shared their insights. One woman, who was a very competent and well respected leader in the local church, shared this brief but extraordinary reflection which she wrote out and gave me permission to (anonymously) share.
…I read the words, “And Jesus said to the woman, ‘Give me a drink…'” When I got to this line, I suddenly felt anger well up. That surprised me. My first thought was: “O God, not you too?” My whole life is already about people needing things from me; when do I get a break? My children, my husband, my parents, my church and now: God! Can’t I get a break? Then I read on as the Samaritan woman protested, somewhat like I had, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Maybe I could have asked the same question this way, “How can you, God, ask me, a creature, for a drink?” But then I persevered and kept reading, and when I came to the words of Jesus, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water,” I began to weep my heart out. I felt Jesus tell me: “I am not here to take from you, I am here to feed you, to care for you. Only if you come to me to receive will be you be able to give to those who need you. Come to me.”
I added to her amazing insight only this,
The beauty of God is that, while he loves us and desires our love, he doesn’t need us. God created us for our good, not his; he asks for our praise and thanks not because he’s a sycophant, but because to do so, as the Eucharistic prayer says it, “profits us for salvation.” What a relief.
I also shared, as I so often do, the old Latin adage, nemo dat quod non habet, “you can’t give what you don’t have.” That goes for everything in life, but most especially it goes for the spiritual life.
Prayer, just do it
The director of my 8 day Ignatian retreat in 2012 hammered me on my proclivity to “white knuckle it” and try to “go it on my own” when life gets hard or high paced. It’s a temptation that most often eats away at my commitment to personal prayer. He reminded me of St. Francis de Sales’ doctrine of proportionality in prayer,
Every one of Christ’s faithful should spend at least 30 minutes a day in quiet prayer, unless he is to be very busy that day. Then, 60 minutes. If not, your soul will not be centered. Your work will not be God’s work, only yours, and the work of a fragmented man at that.
Years ago, I was waffling about my career direction and shared my lack of surety with my wife. She had noticed that I had, for several weeks, ceased being faithful to my early morning prayer time. I would sleep in. I’ll never forget it. She grabbed me by the tie and looked me in the eyes and said with a terribly firm love,
I need you to be a rock for this family, and when you don’t pray you can’t be that. I need you to be a man of prayer.
It was my Rocky-Adrian moment.
At that moment I received the grace of prayer that has never left me. Truly. I believe that’s a grace from the sacrament of our marriage and the extraordinary faith and love of a great woman who never ever minces words.
So, the message? Drink deeply of Christ in prayer faithfully, daily, or…you’re on your own.