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A reader struggles with scruples about prayer

Friday, April 11, 2014 12:59 AM Comments (16)

Perhaps you can take a moment to touch on a topic that I haven't seen covered on your blog before, or explicitly in any of the Catholic things I have read.

It's related to the issue of pain and suffering, but it's from the perspective of a believer.  I find that as I've gotten older, and have become more convinced of the power of prayer, I am tormented by guilt over the suffering of others.

By which I mean, I ask myself how I can sit at dinner and laugh at my husband's jokes, when, right at that very same moment, innocent babies are being aborted in droves.

I read today that a five-day old baby was abducted from her home in Wisconsin, and now I can barely function.  I want to remain on my knees permanently in supplication and beg the Lord to re-unite her safely with her family.  The trouble comes because I have my own family to care for, and a job to attend to, and I eventually get distracted by something or someone in my immediate life.  Then I am tormented by guilt that I let that poor lost baby slip from my prayers for even one moment, or that I enjoyed a single moment of humor when terrible things could be happening to her, and her family is suffering such anguish.

At the same time, that is not the only horror in the world -- there is so much suffering everywhere I look that I dread turning on the TV.  I should be praying for all of it, constantly.

Peter Kreeft once said that if we truly knew how effective prayer was, we would fall to our knees in prayer and remain there (paraphrase).  My trouble is that I truly do believe that prayer is effective, so I feel like any moment I have not devoted to prayer and fasting for the suffering of others is a sinfully neglectful and self-obsessed waste of time.

Do you have any thoughts on this? How can Christians reconcile feeling glee/enjoyment/relaxation in life when there is no doubt that contemporaneously, someone in the world is suffering something horrible?

Thank you for your time.

I think you should probably talk to a priest or spiritual director.

The fundamental attitude undergirding all of human existence, through all the ups, downs, trials, tribulations, sufferings, evil, and triumphs is, according to revelation, to be thanksgiving, not torment, guilt, and anguish over never doing enough.

We know this because Jesus tells us so and lives it. (Recall that Jesus himself, facing the worst evil that would ever be committed in the whole history of the human race, offered thanks on the night he is betrayed--knowing full well it is the night of his betrayal.) Eucharist, that is thanksgiving, is the source and summit of our lives as Catholics.  “We do well always and everywhere to give You thanks and praise” is what we pray in the Mass. 

It sounds strange to say this, but one of the tricks the devil can pull on us is to make us obsess over prayer and repentance. How?  By making us hagridden with the fear that we have to save ourselves perfectly, that we and not Jesus bear the sins of the whole world and that everything depends on us and we’re not doing it perfectly.  It is a curious appeal to our pride that tempts us away from the only thing the devil is ever trying to tempt us away from: trusting Christ.

Evil has always been going on in the world since the Fall and will continue to go on till the Second Coming.  It is not sinful to take joy in the good things of the world, but rather part of God’s good pleasure for us.  We are supposed to be thankful for a husband’s jokes and a good meal and the other gifts God gives us.  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

But this cannot be done if it is approached in the spirit of hagridden, servile, guilty fear that the devil so delights in trying to impose on us by over-emphasizing the ‘pray constantly’ bit.  God does not mean by this that we are to live in perpetual torment for failing to bear all the sins of the world.  The Church already has a Messiah who has done that.  You don’t have to.  What is more, you can’t do it.  And for precisely the reason you give: You have family, friends, and responsibilities and these are enough.  They are not distractions.  They are the things you *should* be attending to.  The terrible stories you read about in the news and the myriad acts of evil that come floating to you on the media everyday—if they destroy your peace in Christ, make prayer a hagridden burden of guilt, and pull you away from works of virtue and the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23))—are to be handed firmly back to God with a brief prayer such as “Take care of this person in the Name of Jesus” and then firmly relinquished to his care.

The devil always goes for our weak spots.  If yours happens to be being a doer and caretaker for others, he’s happy to exploit that and heap up on your shoulders a mountain of guilt.  Anything that takes you away from Christ is good enough for him.  My wife is tempted to similar things sometimes.  Christ reminded her in prayer that the job of a midwife is not to cling to the baby in fear for it, but to hand it to the Father.  Seems like it might be a word for you too.

One book you might find useful is Simon Tugwell’s Prayer in Practice.  The tradition of the Church is that prayer, while reasonably frequent, should be brief.  God is not going to play Simon Says with us and tell us, “Oh I would have helped that kidnapped baby, but you got distracted with your duties to your family for a second so now that child will die.”  That is not our God.  That’s what some kind of vindictive Olympian deity might pull, but not Jesus.

Padre Pio, following his Master, says “Pray.  Hope. And don’t worry.”  That’s pretty much it.  And my bet is that any spiritual director, confessor or priest will tell you pretty much what I just said.

But of course, if I’m wrong and either left something out or added something a spiritual director says you should ignore, listen to him, not me.  But do talk to a priest or spiritual director.  You obviously have a beautiful heart that seeks to love other people and God to the best of your ability.  My suspicion is that this is exactly why the devil would harry you like this:  you are a menace to him.

God bless you!

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.