Some of the elderly to whom I bring Communion as well as the sick express regret that their age or illness makes it difficult for them to pray. In years gone by they were busy at work and raising kids and prayer was difficult then. But now that they have the time they regret they cannot concentrate enough to pray. Others struggle to be able to read any longer. Still others find that their memory has faded and prayers, once well known, are now gone and requests for prayer cannot be remembered.
Indeed as the mind grows weaker prayer becomes difficult and distracted. What to do? I usually suggest just a few things.
- Sighing– There is a beautiful passage by St. Augustine in his Letter to Proba wherein he speaks of the power of sighs and tears in prayer as more eloquent than words: This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech. He “Places our tears in his sight“, and “Our sighs are not hidden from Him,” (Psalm 38:9), for He has established all things through His Word and does not seek human words. (Letter 130 “To Proba” Chapter 10). Hence this great saint reminds us to sigh often in prayer. Now sighing is linked to longing, longing for relief for our self or others, longing to be with God, longing for things indescribable. Hence I often advise the elderly to sigh more that to be anxious about what words to say or thoughts to form. A sigh often contains them all. For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit…(Rom 8:26-27). To sigh with concern and longing is worth more than any words.
- Holding the Rosary – For many of the elderly or sick praying a full rosary is difficult. Even a decade may present challenges. In such cases it well suffices to hold the beads as though one were simply holding Mary’s hand. This is prayer. Sometimes late at night I too adopt this prayer. Perhaps I have been awakened and feel troubled by some sort of dream or anxiety. And yet I am not awake enough to concentrate on specific prayers. At times like these I just hold my rosary beads until sleep once again comes. It is very consoling and as if I were holding Mary’s hand.
- A loving glance– It is good to have a picture (or crucifix) of our Lord, the Blessed Mother of other saints near at hand or on the wall. For the sick and elderly who have trouble praying a simple and loving glance is a rich prayer.
- A general offering of our very weakness – When we are sick, infirm or of advanced age we clearly have a sacrifice to offer God, the sacrifice of our very infirmity. Just a simple act of the will from time to time asking the Lord to accept our weakness and humble state as a sacrificial offering. Here too sighs are often all that is necessary in expressing this intention and joining our suffering to Christ’s own, once upon the Cross: Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church (Col 1:24).
Perhaps you could add to this list?
Finally, a word of encouragement to those who do suffer. The Lord is especially close to those who suffer and because of this your prayer is especially powerful. Do not fear the lack of eloquence, sighs are more. Just trust that God’s has a special ear for you on account of your sufferings. A simple loving glance, a sigh, holding your beads, this is all it takes. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds (Sirach 35:17-18a). Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly (Psalm 138:6). The LORD is close to the brokenhearted, whose spirit is crushed he will save (Psalm 34:19). Though the LORD scoffs at the scoffers, Yet He gives grace to the afflicted (Prov 3:24).
This video of people praying has music by Palestrina that expresses musically a kind of musical sigh. As the harmonies build, experience the yearning and sighing of the soul to be with God. The text that is sung is from Psalm 42:1: Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus. (As the deer longs for running water, so longs my soul for you, O God). The Composer is Palestrina. The Choir is the Cathedral Singers Directed by Richard Proulx (RIP)