A lesson in prayer

loth A lesson in prayerWhen I first started praying — when I was 28, after a life of atheism — I unintentionally fell into thinking of God as a glorified wish-granting genie. My prayers were all petitions for what I wanted God to give me or my family and friends. As I got to know more about prayer and the nature of God, I began to spend a little more time thanking God for the stuff he gave me and my family and friends that I’d requested. Eventually I even moved into throwing out some open-ended requests for guidance, asking the Lord to show me his will for my life. And for a long time, that was pretty much it.

But something slowly began to change when I started praying the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s something I’ve noticed in the back of my mind for a long time, but could never articulate until I read your fascinating comments to my questions about the Psalms last week. (If you haven’t read those responses, you really should — great stuff). After reading that comment thread, something finally clicked:

One of the first things that jumped out at me as different when I started praying the Liturgy of the Hours was that I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.” Other than when I prayed the Our Father at Mass, I wasn’t used to saying those words in prayer. I didn’t think through the implications at the time, other than to simply notice that it put me in a more humble mindset to end the day with an evening prayer like, “Almighty God, we give you give you thanks for bringing us safely to this evening hour…”

Then, around the time our new baby was born, I fell out of the habit of praying the Liturgy of the Hours. In fact, I fell out of having any dedicated prayer time at all. I simply tried to “pray without ceasing,” turning my thoughts toward God as I went through my days. That is definitely a great thing to do, and I don’t ever intend to stop doing that, but what I found was that when that was the only form of prayer I undertook each day, I drifted back into making prayer revolve around me-me-me! Prayers like “Lord, give me patience as I tell the kids not to jump on the bed for the SIXTH TIME…” are great, but when that’s what 90% of my prayers sound like I tend to fall into thinking that God is part of my plan rather than remembering that I am part of God’s plan.

It all clicked for me last Thursday, when Lauds (morning prayer) began with Psalm 143. I read:

The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.
Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.

I was having a great day and feeling strong in my faith, and thought that I definitely would have skipped this Psalm if I’d come across it as part of personal prayer. “This is totally not speaking to me!” I thought, half tempted to gloss over it and move on to the next one in hopes that it would be more relevant to my life. And then I remembered something that a commenter named Jasmine said in that post about the Psalms, which was echoed by many of you throughout the comment thread:

Remember that the ‘prayer of the Church’ [the Liturgy of the Hours] is for the whole Church. You will not identify with every psalm at every moment, so when you pray them think of all of the people in the world praying with you who DO identify with the psalm. Pray for them and on their behalf.

It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church. My mind immediately flashed to everyone all over the world who opened their day with the exact same prayers as I did that morning — my priest, all the priests and nuns in the world, all bishops, the Pope, my long-lost cousin the monk, all my friends and the other laypeople throughout the world who pray the Hours — and the wall that I’d unintentionally put up around myself was smashed.

As I had yawned through the psalmist’s cry of anguish, someone out there could barely utter those same words through trembling lips and tear-stung eyes. I thought of all the people praying the Hours in that state, and for the first time was conscious of our deep connectedness as we prayed in unison as part of the mystical Body of Christ. I began offering my prayers for them, which then led me to expand my prayers to anyone else in the world who was in pain at that moment. As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.

photo by bhsher

New here? Take a moment to introduce yourself, or say hi on Twitter at @conversiondiary.



Enter the Conversation...

44 Responses to “A lesson in prayer”
  1. Fencing Bear says:

    A wonderful insight! I've written a little about this myself, if you're still interested in suggestions for further reading: http://fencingbearatprayer.blogspot.com/2008/12/work-of-god.html. Thomas Merton is also always good, but I know you already know the Seven Storey Mountain. I love what he says there about his experience in learning to pray!

  2. Leigh says:

    Thank you for that post! I never thought of Liturgy of the Hours that way. In fact I always thought it was rather boring to be honest! Maybe I should look more into the book my mother gave me years ago that sits upon my shelf gathering dust!
    God Bless you!

  3. jrbaab says:

    Prayer in this sense, involves emptying oneself as Christ did. Becoming selfless is hard. This is a lesson for me, one that has not been easy to learn thus far. Thanks!

  4. Josie says:

    This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

  5. Josie says:

    This is beautiful! Please keep writing!

  6. James Tomasino says:

    Thank you so much for that post. I'm going to try that technique in my own praying of the Divine Office. After your earlier post about the psalms, their place and role in my life was really nagging on me. I have a feeling this will change things quite a bit. God bless.

  7. Bethany Hudson says:

    What a fantastic reminder, and a wonderful perspective to reflect on. I can so relate. I spent a lot of time in Protestant Churches, and while I learned many valuable things about prayer (such as how to pray aloud unselfconsciously and how to pray more spontaneously), I also found myself much more me-centric in my prayer life. When I returned to the Catholic Church, I found myself understanding Christianity in a communal sense again–something that I had not felt in my years of pursuing my faith in the Protestant tradition. I was so happy to be back home–with FAMILY–in the Church, and it was reflected in my prayer life, the prayer life I share with that family.
    ~Bethany

  8. camomiletea says:

    Interesting insight! Reminds me of all the prayers that talk in the 1st person plural… Our Father, Hail Mary ("pray for us sinners"), Chaplet of the Divine Mercy ("have mercy on us and on the whole world"), Prayer to St. Michael ("defend us in battle", etc.) I'm learning about prayer. Thank you for your blog!

  9. Emily says:

    This is so great, thank you for sharing it! I've been getting back into the practice of praying regularly, and like you, I'm "rusty." It's all about me. Or rather, it isn't, and you reminded me of that.

  10. The Burgess family says:

    very interesting! As a non-denominational Christian I've noticed the "me/I" focus in modern songs vs. the "we/our" focus in older hymns and it has bothered me, but I hadn't thought of it in terms of prayer also! thanks!

  11. Kris says:

    I'm usually very content to hang out in lurkdom, but I wanted you to know how much your post ministered to me today. I'm not Catholic, but I am a fellow believer who has been very self-centered lately. Thank you for this very poignant reminder that I am part of God's plan, He is not part of mine…and, it really isn't all about me.

  12. Judy says:

    Since I read your last post about praying the LOH, I have often thought of your comments when picking up my prayer book. I guess I should pass on my own thoughts since the problem you mention occurs for me too.

    There are two things that help me: the psalm prayer, although there isn't one for every single psalm, and the antiphons. I have learned to really focus on the antiphons to tell me what I should be meditating on while I pray the psalm; and the psalm prayer sums up what we have been praying for with that particular psalm. Also, some of the psalms have italicized comments right at the beginning, sometimes giving focus from a Father of the Church.

    We use the four-volume set of LOTH, and I'm not sure what version you are using. I don't know if every version has the comments I mentioned.

    Just to go on a little, my husband and I have prayed the LOTH regularly for a year and a half now, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Office of Readings. I used to pray it off and on, on my own, but I find that being able to pray it together makes a HUGE difference to me. If you can sometime do this with your husband, give it a try! It's truly marvellous.

  13. Dawn says:

    Yes, thank you for that.

  14. ED says:

    Eh, this post isn't about me, I'm going to skip over it . . .

    er . . . ah . . em . . . maybe that was about me, actually. ;-)

    Just found your blog (while looking for "Catholic doula", and then got side-tracked). Love the posts, love the comments just as much. This is definitely a blog worth subscribing to!

  15. Theophilus says:

    Thank you. I haven't picked up my LOTH today because I've been preoccupied and distracted. I have trouble realizing that it's not all about me and I'm not alone. Maybe I can still get EP in.

  16. Melanie B says:

    I was going to post this on your last Psalms post, but it seems even more appropriate here.

    An excerpt from the book I mentioned, The School of Prayer by John Brook:

    "Most of the psalms appear at first sight to be poems written by and for an individual, and that is often how we understand them. In fact the reverse is true. The primary setting of the psalms is not individual prayer but corporate prayer, liturgical prayer, the prayer of the Temple liturgy. Even those psalms which most intensely portray the anguish or thanksgiving of an individual were used in Israel's liturgy. That is why they are in the Book of Psalms. The psalms (and so the Office) teach us that individual prayer and corporate prayer are not two radically different ways of praying. Corporate prayer can be intensely personal, even though it is not private. The psalms express the deepest movements of the soul in words that are designed to be prayed in common in the great congregation, not in private. When prayed in private, alone, the psalms by their very nature join us to the whole body of Christ."

  17. JillS says:

    thank you…..I always feel lifted up in prayer when I read your posts. Your insights are inspiring! God Bless

  18. Jasmine says:

    I need to start taking my own advice. I've really been slacking on the LotH lately, and I don't have kids or a new infant as an excuse!

    So thanks very much for the reminder. And thanks for the little quote – it was a nice surprise. :)

  19. blissful_e says:

    Isn't it amazing how personal God is? He ministered to you as you ministered in prayer to so many others. Thank you for sharing this insight – it is such a blessing!

  20. Becca says:

    Thank you so much for taking time to congratulate me on my first pregnancy! I love your blog, and I wish I had your eloquence so that I could explain my faith to my non-believing friends the way that you explain everything. Please keep it up.

  21. Alicia says:

    Wow! I just found your blog by way of catholicmom.com. This is the first post a read and it is so poewerful! I am a fairly new "convert" to the church. Easter 2010 will be 3 years. I had christian beliefs my whole life but never "went to church" and it has been hard for me to know "how" to be Christian and Catholic. I love my faith and I thank you for helping me understand Liturgy of the Hours. I think I may start praying them! Thanks!!

  22. Rosita says:

    Thank you for sharing this insight. Like a few others of the commentors, I am Protestant, and that is one of the biggest problems that I have with the current state of the Protestant church…a lot of me/I where it should be us/we.

  23. By The Time I count to 3 says:

    You rock. I found you on accident a couple weeks ago and the timing couldnt have been better. This particular post was an inarticulated confusion in my own heart…thank you for the food for thought and the call to maturity in prayer.

  24. Maggie Dee says:

    Wow…beautiful post! The feeling of interconnectedness is one of the things that have repeatedly drawn me to the Catholic faith. I love the fact that we are saying the same prayers in Mass that Catholics all over the world are saying that same day!

    I've been a Protestant my whole life, however, our family will be starting the journey "across the Tiber" soon! The Catholic church is somewhere I never thought I would find myself. I am sooo glad that God is the one who directs my path and not me. His plans are so much better than the ones I could come up with on my own. :-)

  25. e2 says:

    Beautiful! This ties in so well with the whole "Catholic thing" in general. Having these wonderful sacraments and shared prayers takes us outside of our own needs and obsessions and into a world filled with others! I love being Catholic!

  26. Thomas says:

    I think this post is great and probably one of the most insightful ones I have read in a while. I never even thought about the Liturgy of the Hours in the form of a prayer that will have multiple meanings to all of those who say it. When I thought about it, it really made a lot of sense seeing as people all go through different struggles and triumphs on a daily basis. I think many of the prayers said in church could be interpreted along similar lines, don't you?

  27. Iona C. says:

    I've grown up Protestant and I can't say with any amount of certainty whether or not God is calling me to Catholicism just yet (though there are small steps that have been happening).

    Recently, I purchased a small booklet of novenas from a local Catholic church (just one of the small steps lol). I find that most of the novenas mention 'us' or 'we'. For the past few days of prayer I simply replaced such words with 'me' or 'I'… until I read this post.

    Thanks for your insight on a fact that I so easily forget. Though Christ and I have a unique and personal relationship, as a Christian I also have a dual identity where I am part of the larger BODY of Christ and not simply a lone ranger.

    God Bless!

  28. Katharine Grubb says:

    This Charismatic Protestant wonders if there is a Liturgy of the Hours For Dummies book somewhere?

  29. Owlhaven says:

    Thanks so much for this! I happened to find the 'yawner' bit of Psalm 143 deeply meaningful today, on behalf of a friend of mine. But still, it was a great insight to think of praying on behalf of people all over the world.

    Mary

  30. Melanie B says:

    "This Charismatic Protestant wonders if there is a Liturgy of the Hours For Dummies book somewhere?"

    Katharine,

    I'd recommend a great little book called The School of Prayer: An Introduction to the Divine Office for all Christians by John Brook. It's a small book that fits nicely in a purse or coat pocket and quite thorough. Written by a former Evangelical Protestant who became Catholic and addressed to all Christians, not just Catholics. I have found it to be very, very helpful.

  31. monica_divineoffice.org says:

    Me, like Ed or Alicia did not intend to spend so much time reading your blog but now, you have my full attention!
    I think that the same idea of a community in prayer is behind our work as voluntaries on creating divineoffice.org . We are growing and fell blessed that so many people are joining us in praying the LOH!
    Embrace your insight into the joy of praying with all the Christian community, is a wonderful, powerful filing.

    God Bless!

  32. Mr. WAC says:

    About a year ago, I dedicated myself to praying Laudes and Vespers every day. I have developed a great deal of spiritual benefit from this discipline, which might seem odd at first, as I pray the hours in Latin, and I don't understand much Latin.

    The prayers in Latin, made at the suggestion of a spiritual adviser, have mortified my intellect and increased my spiritual reliance on God's Providence precisely because I don't understand them. I know the psalms and canticles in general, and I read the Bible and pray other prayers in English. But the hours, the public prayer of the Church, when recited devoutly, praises God of its own accord, with or without my understanding. Trusting in this fact has brought me closer to God, and away from considering him a genii. Our conversations, wonderful as they were, have become more important when augmented by the prayer of the whole Church. I know that it might seem ridiculous to some to pray in an unintelligible language, but I am forced to know that the praises and supplications are heard by God, rather than understand such.

    Furthermore, the progressions and repetitions, the ancient texts, and the formalism of the hours connects me to the worshiping legacy of the Church, which alone perfectly praises and worships God on earth. I must rely on this knowledge while I struggle with foreign pronunciations, and that reliance helps me trust in God in all things.

  33. Jackie says:

    Profound

  34. Kerry says:

    I'm reading Kathleen Norris' book, Cloister Walk, and came to the portion about praying the psalms in the monastic community yesterday after reading this post. You both offered similar insights into the Psalms. . . I think God is trying to tell me something. LOL!

    If you don't mind, I'd like to link to this in my Saturday links post "Peter Piper's Picks".

  35. Jennifer says:

    This was so awesome I barely know what to say. These are the insights and revelations that make being Catholic such a privilege and a joy. We really are ONE body and we need each other. We need to carry each other, taking turns…when I am weak, you are strong, and then tomorrow I will carry you. And so it goes…
    Thank you for this wonderful post. Keep using your God-given gift!

  36. Aliocha says:

    Dear Jen,

    As your heart widens to beat at the compass of the whole body of the universal church (sentire cum ecclesia, the church fathers used to say)…

    please do remember the one final step of this movement of widening of the heart… reaching out to encompass even those that are outside… those who cannot pray the psalm with us, those of our brothers and sisters who are yet unaware that they are so… especially those who are lonely and suffering and despairing.

    We pray together in a universal flock, a huge and magnificent and messy and surprising and full of problems and heterogeneous legion of souls… but we pray for an even bigger group: every soul in the world.

  37. jsignal says:

    Excellent post. That is the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours. Thanks!

  38. Mila says:

    Tahnk you for this post. Now I’ll be more aware when I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, that this is an endeavor of the whole Church, and that I must be aware of all with whom I’m being united in this prayer. It’s easy, as you say, to turn every prayer into something about “me me me”. Sometimes we become robots, just going through the motions. Your reminder couldn’t have come at a better time.

Trackbacks

Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. [...] quite some time ago (maybe a year and a half?), and have since fallen away from. But, after reading this blog, it just took me by surprise that there are others that pray the Liturgy of the Hours, other than [...]

  2. [...] quite some time ago (maybe a year and a half?), and have since fallen away from. But, after reading this blog, it just took me by surprise that there are others that pray the Liturgy of the Hours, other than [...]

  3. [...] and me” mindset where I forget that I am part of God’s story (not vice versa), that my prayers should not be all about my own little world. At Mass I sometimes find myself irritable at the crowds and the packed parking lot, wishing I [...]

  4. [...] God, even if they sounded to me like something out of an insipid haikus contest. And I realize that prayer is not all about me. But, per the advice of my spiritual director, I also needed to be realistic about where I am in my [...]

  5. [...] Fulwiler, a convert from atheism, stumbled into such a trap, when she was trying to get the hang of praying the Divine Office.  The recitation of Psalm 143, in particular, wasn’t working for [...]