Drudgery or Delight? – On The Proper Perception of Prayer

How do you think of prayer? Is it another thing you “have to do” among many other things on your list? Or is prayer a time where you refrain from doing? Is prayer a requirement you regret or a rest that you relish? What is prayer for you?

The danger in answering questions like these is that we answer them the way they “should” be answered rather than answering in a simply honest way. But the fact is, many struggle with prayer and experience it with a lot of negativity: boredom, distraction, drudgery and so forth.

The fact is prayer is tough. We are very sensory by nature and used to seeing and hearing the one to whom we speak. To encounter God in silence and without sight is unfamiliar, jarring and challenging. Some use icons or pictures, some a prayer book, some pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But in the end, the eyes of the flesh cannot see, only the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith. This is not only difficult, it is obnoxious to our flesh (i.e. sin nature) which demands to see and hear on its own terms. And the flesh wages war on the on our spirit (cf Gal 5:17) and like a fidgeting child protests all through prayer.

Of course the best way to address this problem is with honesty. Without honesty we don’t really have a spiritual life. A true journey to God requires that all the masks come off, all the little lies we like to tell our self, all the deceptions be set aside. Start with honesty.

Praying out of What is – When people tell me they have a hard time praying I say, “Then THAT is your prayer.  Tell God how absolutely bored you are when you pray. Tell him that you would rather do just about anything than pray to him. Tell him that when it occurs to you that you should pray, or some crazy priest reminds you to pray, that your heart sinks and you put it off and put it off. Tell God you hate praying…..And do you know what you are doing as you tell him all this? You are praying!”

Yes, this is prayer.

“But father, but father, I can’t talk to God like that!” “Why not?” I say. God already knows that this is how you feel. It’s a pretty silly thing to sit in front of God wearing a mask that he can see right through: but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account(Heb 4:13). Five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than two hours of a prayer of rhetoric and “stained glass” themes that we don’t really mean. Pray honestly, talk to God about what is really going on.

The Book of Psalms is the prayerbook of the Bible and it has God for its author. And notice how plain spoken the psalms are. Every emotion and experience are grist for the prayer mill: Joy, serenity, victory, thanksgiving, petition, anger, anger at God!, rage, vengefulness, disappointment, loss, grief, fear despair. It’s all there and more. There are even psalms that ask God to kill or harm my enemy: 69, 109, 137, even the beautiful 139 ends with the request that God slay the wicked. But these are feelings we honestly have from time to time and God wants us to talk to him about them. If the Book of psalms is a directive for prayer (and it is), then God wants us to speak to him about everything, even the darkest and most sinful of things. Prayer is conversation with God. But it has to be honest.

And something starts to happen when we become really honest in prayer. Little by little, it becomes more relevant to us and we even start to like it a bit. Now don’t tell your flesh that! But your soul starts to breathe, starts to exhale. When all the little self-imposed and unbiblical rules about prayer and the things we’re “not supposed to say to God”  get set aside, the soul enjoys a freedom, and the honesty is refreshing.

And little by little, prayer is not so much another thing to do as it is a rest from all our doings. It is a time to rest, to exhale, to sigh, and to refreshed by the simple fact of being honest with someone who loves us and who we are growing to love. Some one who, Before ever a word is on our lips, knows it through and through (Psalm 139:4). Prayer is freedom to be honest, rest from the labor of wearing masks and the restless anxiety of what others think or expect, prayer is a sigh of truth, rest from the contradictory demands of an often phony world.

Consider this description of prayer from St. Anselm:

Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God…. (Proslogion, Chapter 1).

Yes, speak to God. Be honest. Tell him what is really happening. If you need a good manual to assist, get a good Bible or copy of the psalms, one that gives a title or brief sentence describing the content of the psalm. Find one that suits you this particular day and read it, slowly. Before long, as the weeks and years tick by you’ll be speaking on your own, in psalm-like honesty. Some of us even grow silent over the years as words no longer seem necessary or even possible: cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).

And when words seem difficult to come by, just sigh. St. Augustine says, This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech (Letter 130, to Proba).  It may seem a strange thing, but sighing is very relaxing, and much is released from the soul by it.  I have often thought of Gregorian chant as a musical sigh to God and it brings great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant. Most evenings just before bed I go through the passage to the Church and sing (sigh) the proper antiphon to our Lady. This time of year it is the Alma Redemptoris Mater.

So pray. Pray honestly. If words are hard, sigh or just sit quietly. But pray, watch and wait for the Lord. It’s not work, it’s rest.

I have often thought of Gregorian chant as a musical sigh to God and it brings great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant. Most evenings just before bed I go through the passage to the Church and sing (sigh) the proper antiphon to our Lady. This time of year it is the Alma Redemptoris Mater.

There is another old hymn that speaks of the delights of true and honest prayer. It is the old classic, Sweet Hour of Prayer and its lyrics are, in part:

  1. Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
    That calls me from a world of care,
    And bids me at my Father’s throne
    Make all my wants and wishes known.
    In seasons of distress and grief,
    My soul has often found relief,
    And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
    By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
  2. Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
    Thy wings shall my petition bear
    To Him whose truth and faithfulness
    Engage the waiting soul to bless.
    And since He bids me seek His face,
    Believe His Word and trust His grace,
    I’ll cast on Him my every care,
    And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
  3. Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
    May I thy consolation share,
    Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
    I view my home and take my flight.
    This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
    To seize the everlasting prize,
    And shout, while passing through the air,
    “Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”


28 Replies to “Drudgery or Delight? – On The Proper Perception of Prayer”

  1. Thank you for this heartening (and challenging!) post.

    Do you have older posts you could remind of, about intercessory prayer, to add to it? (If not, would you think about writing one, sometime?)

  2. When I was a little girl my prayers where more pure. Today I experience highs and lows. Dry seasons and fruitfulh seasons. I think for me the key is don’t stop no kmattwewr what season of life.

  3. What a beautiful post. I find myself more and more like I used to be as a child … talking to Him, crying, pleading, praising, singing throughout the day. Being ill has brought me closer to God. It is the Rosary I find difficult to concentrate on even though I like praying the Hail Mary. I often doze off. I love that song Sweet Hour of Prayer … my mother had an album with Jim Reeves singing it …

  4. We have a tendency to make things harder than they really are, like self-imposed overly-formalistic rules about prayer. Yes, it is good to pray the standard prayers because, when we pray them, we pray with the entire Church, but simply talking to God in a personal way, letting Him accompany you by your side throughout the day, is essential.

    I’m reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, who would spend his entire day in a running conversation with God. Sure, there were the formal Sabbath prayers, but mostly his prayer consisted of just talking to Him.

    1. Oh, and part of that just talking to God consists of you shutting up once in a while and letting Him get a word in edgewise. When we complain that God is silent and never says anything to us, part of the problem is that we spend too much of our time speaking and not enough of our time listening.

      1. Not a classic like “Fiddler” but I like the thief from the movie “Ladyhawk” who also spends a lot of time in conversation with God. When coerced by the soldier to help in his quest, the thief says, “No offense sir, but I talk to God all the time, and He never mentioned you.”

    2. Your mention of Tevye reminds me of a song by Jimmy Dean about how he was driving along a country road and stopped to get out for a stretch and take in the scenery. He heard a voice nearby and strolled over only to find a farmer standing in a field having a chat with God about the weather; the latest harvest and wound up thanking God for the new preacher whom He’d sent.

  5. It has taken me a long time to get past the “ought to” forms and realize that my prayers are as personal as I am. I now delight in the prepared prayers that I have collected, that give better words to my sentiments than I do, but I have also learned the habit of little prayers, throughout the day that are just bits of conversations with my Father, my Mother and my friends. I am beginning to understand the deepest prayers that come without words when I am too sad or too happy to articulate anything–and the all-purpose “As You know and as You will, Lord, have mercy” has taught me greater trust and understanding. Most of all- oh! how I have learned to use songs that play constantly in the background of my day as a launching pad for my own prayers. He who sings (even badly, as I do) indeed prays twice. And all of this gets me through the times when it seems that all these prayers go out into emptiness because I am learning that silence is not a void at all….it is just silence and it has a purpose if I am patient.

  6. I have to confess that I find ‘structured’ prayer (like the rosary) incredibly difficult and, though by the grace of God I endeavour to pray the rosary every day, I pray distractedly and often have temptations of all sorts (believe it or not) arise while I am praying and have to combat unbidden sinful thoughts while at prayer.
    In short, it often is an agony to pray. I often feel discouraged after prayer because so many advise that our prayer must be fervent in order for God to be attentive to them and I can barely manage to recite mine much less attain to ‘fervour’.
    With so many promises and blessings attached to the recitation of the rosary I really want to continue this practice but am tempted to think there is something radically wrong with me if I cannot enter into the proper spirit of the prayer.

    1. The power of the prayer of the rosary is amazing! What other power is out there that would fill your mind with “sinful thoughts” in order to make you stop saying it? When I have those thoughts during prayer, I say a quick “prayer” such as “Satan, get behind me” or “Saint Michael, defend and protect me.” You are correct that the promises and blessings attached to the rosary are many. So much so that Satan would love you to stop saying it. You are doing something right, Bosco! Do not stop. Apparently when you say the rosary, Satan is listening. Kick his you know what!

    2. Bosco, keep at it! Take comfort in the fact that it must be very important and pleasing to God if it is met with such strong resistance, distraction and temptation that are not of God!

  7. I believe the squirrel is praying that my dad won’t ping him with an air gun for raiding the bird feeder.

  8. Bosco, you are not alone brother!

    As a practical matter, cutting back on caffiene has helped me. We sometimes forget the obvious.

    “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis De Sales has some exercise – based on Psalm 139 – which I have found very helpful. The exercises are designed to help remind us as we begin praying, that God is around us, inside of us, knows us better than we know ourselves, looks down on us from heaven and is actively listening to us, that he can see us and hear us. After six months or so of using the exercises as I begin prayer, with only a few short words and in just a few moments, I can place myself in the presence of God and thereby drive out most of that distraction.

    “Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence is another good (short) book to read.


  9. Thank you, both Woody and Tim, for your thoughtful advice and insights. What I have begun to do is to first offer any prayers I might say to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary asking that whatever defects or inattention which might arise in my prayers be burnt away so that my prayers will be perfected in Their Hearts and thus become wholly acceptable to God.
    And then I have to trust that this will be so for then the struggle of prayer begins in earnest. It may sound mad or even sinister, but I frequently have thoughts…self-accusations almost palpable…that I am wasting my time; that I am merely a neurotic on his knees; etc.
    Then the counter-arguements begin…’these self-accusatory thoughts are a temptation to discouragement’; ‘a moment of trial which must be endured and overcome’, etc.
    A kind of combat in my head while at prayer! It is mortally wearying.
    I’ve tried reading Scripture before reciting the rosary. I’ve tried reading various theological works on prayers and meditation and so on. Jacob wrestling with the angel, I suppose, but which sort of angel would it be Woody? (The last remark was just a weak attempt at humour, Woody.)

    1. I got it! Good one. Just keep praying, though. Don’t stop, no matter what. It is better to say that rosary in or with distraction than to not say it. And if you’re like Jacob, you are with the right kind of people! God bless and keep you, Bosco.

  10. Very nice post. Thank you. I’ve only recently started a very slow process of returning to the Church and praying in earnest so I’m very thankful for resources like this.

    Your post brings up an interesting point that helps me nail down some of the problems I run into when trying to pray. You talk about the honesty required to have a personal and intimate conversation with God. Unfortunately I struggle most with the very notion of “conversing with God.” I have brief, spontaneous moments in which I feel an overwhelming sense of love for God (which is one reason I came back to the Church) but overall I have a hard time even conceiving of God as an ‘other’ with whom to talk (although it’s not for lack of trying).

    Perhaps it’s because I became involved in Buddhism for a while but I often feel more comfortable with the concept of silence than with the concept of talking to God. I like to take walks and clear my mind. I’ve also started to learn the rosary and other ‘structured’ prayers but while I love them for the focus and structure they give, I worry that I’m still missing the whole point. I’m worried that I’m unconsciously bringing a more Buddhist understanding of impersonal meditation to bear on what should be a personal relationship.

    Does anyone know of any resources that would be helpful? Are there any basic introductions to Catholic prayer, particularly any by the Saints?

  11. Thank you, Monsignor.
    I will start my daily swim with the Hail Mary, trying to synchronize my stroke with the words. That Hail Mary silences the internal”directives” that suggest my exercise is vain self-indulgence, not purposeful use of the hours. This “aerobic” prayer can be only an adjunct to more directed and purposeful prayer time.

  12. The section which begins, “But Father, But Father” (please pardon my editing) fits my most urgent need. Most of my adult life I would pray a known prayer upon ocassion; such as the Our Father; and – once in a long while – a plea for something that I had an urgent and extreme need for. I had the impression that requests were only for a very special need; mostly from the fiction that I saw in magazines (some very decent and family oriented) in the nineteen seventies. Fictional priests and ministers in short stories seemed to be constantly harping on the need to not bother God except for one short formal prayer each day and a request once or twice a year, and only if the need was urgent. As an aside; these fictional characters were usually exerting great time and patience to explain that the miracles of the Old Testament didn’t really happen but, were parables for instruction.
    I kept on running into (and getting upset by) these themes and would consider going to church more often to see if that was really the latest theology but; my life wasn’t very organized.
    At any rate, since I finally became active in a congregation a few years ago, I’ve begun learning to pray an impromtu prayer as I go; as well as the short traditional ones and the rosary. Three of four of the shorter traditional ones in the morning seem to just set my day off right and are very “delightful.”
    The rosary, however, is very exciting when the right mood is in place or if it is particularly inspiring on that occasion. But I’m still getting used to it and haven’t fully overcome the drudgery aspect at other times. Rosary always feels good to some degree.
    However, the prayers I devise as I go are sure at early level. They seem to start out well then something doesn’t seem to come out right and I correct with, “well You know it’s not quite that but this and sure You knew but I had to be honest and um um better get going so … etc.”
    I have been graced with a talent for words but this is a whole new territory just chock full of pit falls and stumbling blocks. So thank you for that section which I commented on at the beginning of this rambling post.
    Anyhow – summation – if I have the slightest doubt if I’ve done it right; which is usually; I wind up with, “as Thy Will be done. Amen”
    As for visuallizing I am a bit fortunate there. As long as I can recall back into my childhood I enjoyed the unseen aspect because it helped me feel just how special God si.

  13. so many advise that our prayer must be fervent in order for God to be attentive to them

    Fervent? That’s not a word I would use (partly because it is a bit ambiguous, meaning different things to different people). I would say instead genuinely loving, humble and “poor in spirit.”

    Speaking of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, remember who it is that she has appeared to, each time asking them to pray — children and lowly peasants. Neither Juan Diego or Bernadette or Jacinta or Francisco or Lucia were especially grand in their prayers, rather, they were simple and humble. Prayer is a “communication” with God, that is, “communion” with Him in an interactive, living, loving relationship. Simply pray with truth and love, open yourself as you would to any loved one sitting next to you, and that love will be reciprocated.

    Formal prayer has its place, but intimate and intensely personal prayer does as well. There is a time for interacting with God at something of a distance, knowing one’s place, as a subject would with his king, but there is also a time for being intimate and familiar, holding His hand or climbing into His lap, as a three-year-old would with his mom or dad.

    Sometimes that intimate and personal kind of prayer might consist of saying and doing nothing. Simply emptying yourself of thought, making a space for Him. When we pray in an active manner, the mind is going, going, going, and the world (and sinful thoughts) might intrude. Instead of fighting against such instrusions with even harder prayer, leaving you mortally wearied, try simply laying aside all thought — pray with your heart, your inner essence, rather than your head or lips. Sacred silence is prayer too, and you might be more successful in attaining inner peace that way.

  14. My wife & I are involved with monthly Eucharistic Adoration (typically 23 hours from the end of one day’s morning mass until ten minutes before the start of the next day’s mass).
    Borrowing from St. Francis de Sales, “visualize yourself in an antechamber near the King’s throne room. You may be a messenger. The King may or may not give you something to do; but He will know that you are (or were) there.”
    I find myself bothered by distractions – whatever is currently troubling me. Is a child sick? Has an adult grandchild quit going to Mass? The distractions form prayer, however poorly I can concentrate. Thank Jesus for whatever is going on in my life. Thank Him for the gift of Himself in the Eucharist. Thank Him for what He is doing in my child’s or grandchild’s life.
    When traveling, we try to say a rosary. The Luminous mysteries can be a source for meditation. Why did JP II include the Baptism of the Lord? (One answer: Jesus, as an adult human, though w/o sin, voluntarily unites Himself with sinful humanity.) Why did JP II include the Wedding Feast at Cana? Think about each mystery while saying the Hail Marys in the decade. How can I use the subject of the Mystery to ask the intervention of God in the situation that is bothering or distracting me?
    Just a couple of ideas.

    1. TeaPot562, your post reminded that distractions during prayer can be an opportunity for growth in virtue. It seems to me that distractions during prayer could be one of Gods ways of helping us grow in the virtues of humility, patience and perseverance just to name a few.

  15. Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth procliam praise for thee (Daily opening in the Office of Readings – LIturgy of the Hours . Liturgy of the Hours is a great way to pray daily. In addition to the LOH, I personally say the Stations of the Cross 5 times a day. Being retired I can do that. I say an Our Father and Hail Mary for each of the 14 Stations, then I add a 15th ‘Easter’ prayer. Each time I say the Stations, I say 30 prayers. The Stations usually take about 12 minutes. At the end of the day I have spent my hour with God (5X12=60). At the end of the day, I have said 150 Our Fathers and Hail Marys (to match the 150 psalms). Some people love the Rosary. I am a Passionist. Christ told St. Bridgett he suffered 5,480 wounds. and if a person would like to honor each individual wound, say 12 Our Fathers, and Hail Marys for one year to total 5,480.

    Prayer is an exercise, it has to become habitual. The Stations of the Cross are not as difficult as the Rosary. I prepare for my last hour by exercising prayer, and making prayer habitual, so that during my last days, and last hours, prayer will be my habit. I hope when I die, I will be dying with prayer on my lips. That is my reason for learning how to pray. The key to prayer is obedience to a time allocated for prayer. I always say a set of the Stations at the 3p.m. Hour.

    A quick prayer using the Rosary is the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. This easy prayer can be said while taking a walk, or at almost any time. It is simple, and takes only about 10 minutes. The indulgences granted are many.

    1. It is true that I have been more focused praying the Stations of the Cross during Lent and sometimes when I feel like doing them (on Fri) and also the Tue/Fri rosary. Perhaps I too am a “passion” person without realizing it.

      I hope, like you, that I, too, may die with prayer upon my lips. God bless you.

      ps: I don’t really understand indulgences. These are for people in purgatory, right?

    2. Grandpa Tom,

      Thanks for your heroic example, however, I just can’t imagine a Passionist not being a Marist as well?

      O God come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me….

  16. These comments about distractions remind me of a technique I used years ago: when a distraction barged into my head during prayer, I would identify what there was in that distraction that I could be thankful for. Like: some urgent bill to pay = thank you Lord for giving me the money to pay it; something a person had said to me = thank you Lord for that person, & so on.
    Somehow I have dropped the habit so thank you Lord for this posting that reminded me.

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