By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
Monica complained to me in session. “I don’t have the kind of time for prayer that I used to. With the kids, my husband, and everything else, there just isn’t enough time in the day to say the rosary as often as I like, or get to Mass a few extra times a week like I used to. I feel like God is getting short shrift.” Sound familiar? It doesn’t have to be that way. I want to say up front though, that this article is not about how to improve your formal prayer life. Don’t get me wrong, I encouraged Monica, and I encourage you, to be conscientious about looking for opportunities to participate more fully in the sacraments and more regularly in formal devotions. There is a great treasure of grace to be found in these things. When we take time for these familiar prayers of the family of God, we unite ourselves to a Tradition that is ancient and true, and the words and the forms speak profoundly to our souls. That’s why they’ve stood the test of time. That’s why we long for more of them.
Becoming a Prayer
But most of us miss out on what I believe is the meat and potatoes of our prayer life and that an exercise I call “praying our family” or “praying our marriage.” You see, most people think of getting the kids through homework, paying the bills, doing the dishes, extracting the banana from the DVD player (don’t ask), and the quadrillion or so other household activities, domestic chores, and relational tasks as the things we have to get through so that we can get to prayer time. If this is your attitude, boy, are you missing out. I used to spend almost every lunch break from second grade through college sneaking into the Church so that I could spend a little time with the Lord. I would just sit and be with him and take in his presence. I loved those intimate, quiet times with God. But as a married man with a family and a business–though I still try to get there as often as I can–I just don’t have the opportunity to do prayer that way anymore.
I used to feel badly about this, until I realized that in this season of my walk with Him, God was calling me to a new kind of prayer. God was telling me that it was time to stop thinking of prayer as something I did, and start thinking of it as something I am. St. Francis de Sales wrote that of all the great examples of holiness that St. Catherine of Siena (a 14th-century Saint who experienced extraordinary mystical occurances in her life) displayed, the visions, the locutions, the wisdom; nothing touched him more than that of the sight of her turning the meat at the spit, or cleaning the house, or clearing away the dishes after meals (all chores or tasks she was given to carry out in her everyday life). He explained that she did these things with genuine love, and imagined herself serving dinner to our Lord, or clearing away the plates of the apostles, and she tried to display that same love and respect for the family she was serving as she would if these holy guests graced her home. Similarly, St. Frances of Rome once said that even if we were in the presence of God Himself at the altar, if word came to us that we were needed at home, we should leave him at the altar and rush home to tend to our family. Likewise, many readers will be familiar with the secret of holiness distilled by St. Therese of Lisieux (a great saint of the 20th century who died young but grew to great holiness) “Do small things with great love.”
Making Yourself an Offering
It occurred to me that at this time in my life, I gained the greatest spiritual benefit not by running out of the house and leaving my family to go and pray, but by praying through my service to them. I began to test it out. I would remind myself that getting up off the couch to play with the children when I was tired was not just a nice thing to do, but an opportunity to practice the virtue of generosity. I would tell myself that when I had a choice between doing the dishes without being asked or reading that great book I wanted to finish, washing the dishing would be an excellent way to practice charity and love for my wife. I would remind myself that speaking lovingly to my children–especially when they got on the last tip of the last split-end of my last nerve–I was practicing patience. This morning, I had a chance to sleep in. My first counseling session didn’t start until ten. Unfortunately, my wife had an appointment at 7:30 am. Having had to stay up until 2am the night before finishing a project, I must admit my original intention was to kiss her on the cheek when the alarm went off and go back to bed. It wouldn’t have been a crime. Nobody could have blamed me. But, as I lay there, covering my head with the pillow, I felt God knocking at the door of my heart. He wanted me to show my wife how special she was to us. I asked him how, and he told me to get her something for breakfast since she was running late and might not have time to eat. I got up.
I’m not looking for a medal. It was only a bagel and juice. But maybe you’ll understand that, tired as I was, I like to think of that bagel as my Morning Offering. And based on how it came about, I don’t think I’m deluding myself. We all know that prayer is conversation with God. But what is the point of that conversation? It is to invite God into our everyday lives and to invite him to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. What better way to do this than by practicing the virtues, the gifts and fruits of His spirit, which manifests His face to the world? We are told that we are made in God’s image and likeness, but what does that mean? Does it mean that we have God’s nose, or his green eyes, or dimple on his left cheek? Of course not. We see God’s face, not in the mirror, but in the acts of love we witness, the moments of generous service we experience, the times we feel cherished. When we see those qualities manifested in this too cold, too cruel, too busy world, we see his face as clearly as if he was standing there staring right back at us.
Pray Your Marriage & Family
Considering that, how better to invite God into my world than to ask him for the grace to show his face to my wife and children through my service, my love, my patience? When we actively work to do this (And it is work. Try it.) prayer transforms itself from something that we do into something–for that brief moment–that we are. And lest you think I’m making all this up, just remember that marriage is a sacrament. Everything you do in the context of that relationship has been consecrated by God. Just as bread and wine become “divinized” and transformed in the Eucharist, so to do the mean tasks of domestic life become extraordinary moments of prayer when we connect them to the grace of the our marriage and see those same activities as conduits of peace, patience, fortitude, love, hope, and more. So, yes, make time to go to a daily mass or two if you can. Say the rosary as often as you are able. Participate in as many of the formal prayers of the Church as you can. But the next time you feel like you prayer life needs a shot in the arm, instead of running to find the car keys, or a quiet place to be alone, jump into the fray, and invite God to consecrate this moment. Ask God to teach you how to “pray your marriage.” You’ll be glad you did.