Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Speaking of being overwhelmed and it impacting your prayer life, I got some great advice from my spiritual director recently. I was describing the many occasions on which the words I read seem to fly right through my brain without seeping in at all, explaining (okay, whining) that it often seems like I'm going through the motions at prayer time. He pointed out that setting aside time for God is always time well spent, even if it doesn't bring great insights or consolation, but sympathized that it's difficult to keep going when your prayer life is so dry. He pointed out that our intentions matter when we pray: Is our intent to connect with God on an intimate level? Or is it to just check a block of time off our daily schedule?
He reminded me that it's important to place ourselves in the presence of God before we begin to pray. It sounds like an obvious thing to do, but when you're busy and overwhelmed and your private prayer time usually involves keeping one ear tuned for any screaming that may erupt downstairs, it's surprisingly easy to skip that step. So how could I make this happen? How could I enter prayer more conscious of God's presence than of the million tasks that await me once I'm finished? For answers, I turned to my old buddy St. Francis de Sales.
Sure enough, Introduction to the Devout Life had all the answers I needed. The famous collection of letters of spiritual direction, written to a reader whom de Sales addresses as Philothea, contained a very specific set of instructions for beginning your prayer time the right way:
St. Francis de Sales' four steps for putting yourself in the presence of God
1. [Cultivate] a lively, attentive realization of God's absolute presence, that is, that God is in all things and all places. There is no place or thing in this world where he in not truly present...Blind men do not see a prince who is present among them, and therefore do not show him the respect they do after being told of his presence. However, because they do not actually see him they easily forget his presence, and haven forgotten it, they still more easily lose the respect and reverence owed to him. Unfortunately, Philothea, we do not see God who is present with us. Although faith assures us of his presence, because we do not see him with our eyes we often forget about him and behave as if God were far distance from us...This is why before praying we must always arouse our souls to explicit thought and consideration of God's presence...When you prepare to pray you must say with your whole heart and in your heart, "O my heart, my heart, God is truly here!"
2. Remember that God is not only in the place where you are but also that he is present in a most particular manner in your heart and in the very center of your spirit. He enlivens and animates it by his divine presence, for he is there as the heart of your heart and the spirit of your spirit. Just as the soul is diffused throughout the entire body and is therefore present in every part of the body but resides in a special manner in the heart, so also God is present in all things but always resides in a special manner in our spirit. For this reason David calls him "the God of his heart," and St. Paul says that "we live, and move, and are in God." Therefore in consideration of this truth excite in your heart great reverence toward God who is so intimately present in us.
3. Consider how our Savior in his humanity gazes down from heaven on all mankind and particularly on Christians, who are his children, and most especially on those who are at prayer, whose actions and conduct he observes. This is by no means a mere figment of the imagination but the very truth. Although we do not see him, it remains true that from on high he beholds us.
4. The fourth method consists in the use of simple imagination when we represent to ourselves the Savior in his sacred humanity as if he were near us, just as we sometimes imagine a friend to be present and say, "I imagine that I see such a one who is doing this or that," or "I seem to see him" or something similar. If the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is present, the Christ's presence is real and not purely imaginary. The species and appearance of bread and like a tapestry behind which our Lord is really present and sees and observes us, although we do not see him in his own form. Do not use [these techniques] all at once, but only one at a time and that briefly and simply.
As with everything else in St. Francis' Introduction, I found this advice to be exactly the kind of practical wisdom I needed to hear. I'm hoping that I'll be able to look back on 2013 as the year that I got my prayer life back on track -- and, as my spiritual director pointed out, it all begins with placing yourself in the presence of God.