Do you often feel as if you are too busy to pray? In other words, there simply does not seem to be enough time?
(And by pray, I mean apart from public prayer—alone with God, on a regular, daily basis.)
Don’t be embarrassed. It’s a common enough occurrence—even among monks!
A fairly high percentage of those who come to me for spiritual direction are very busy people. They are not only active Christians, but have a good deal of responsibility as deacons, or DREs, youth ministers, or school principals. A few have been monks. And many of the others, of course, have families who also demand a good deal of their time and energy. These people are probably not unlike yourself in some respects. They are good people, doing the best they can, doing very good work (a little stressed out, perhaps. Aren’t we all, right?)
Almost invariably, when they come to see me, they begin the session by recounting their recent successes, or failures, or challenges, when it comes to their work or ministries. Later on, some go deeper, but I think it’s interesting that so many of us begin there—with our work—when discussing our lives. For some, unfortunately, it also ends there. They are simply too busy to pray, they say. Outside of their work, ministries, families and friends, their public worship and parish activities, they are seemingly unable to find the time on a regular basis to simply be alone with God in prayer.
I propose that—especially in this fast-moving, smart phone-fixated, Twitter-rampaging world—that such an outlook is a recipe for burnout, spiritual and otherwise. As Christians, we cannot survive for long dwelling on the surface of life, reacting each moment to whatever is in front of us. We need to regularly pause and plunge beneath the surface, drawing on the divine life-breath of peace, courage, and wisdom that should undergird our faith and sustain us when we resurface. Without doing this, we not only endanger our own spiritual well-being, but also, quite possibly, that of those to whom we minister and care for. We cannot give what we do not possess, right?
Cyprian Smith, an English Benedictine at Ampleforth, has written about this common but faulty perception that one is too busy to pray in his book The Path of Life:
Prayer is the most important single element in a monk’s life. His vocation is primarily to prayer, rather than to any other form of activity, however good. At first sight, we may be tempted to think that this is the point at with the monk’s path diverges most sharply from that of the ordinary Christian. How many Christians, living outside the monastery, consider prayer to be the most important thing they do? How many see it as being what their lives are really all about? Will they not rather say to themselves, consciously or unconsciously: “Oh, all that is for monks. I have no time for that; I have too much to do.”
In fact, however, the monk’s life is less different from that of the ordinary Christian on this point than is generally supposed. Wherever Christian life is genuine and deep, prayer is at the heart of it. That is as true outside the monastery as it is within in it. If we often forget this, that is because we tend to see Christian life as being essentially concerned with “doing good” or, even worse, with “not doing any harm.” This is a great mistake. Our life as Christians is not about doing anything, but about being something.”
This something is namely being mediators, sharing in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as his mystical Body in this world, establishing peace and reconciliation where there had been disharmony and enmity, so that God may be all in all (cf. Ephesians 2:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:28).
We cannot be mediators who center and reconcile the world as the Body of Christ, Smith goes on to say, unless we are ourselves centered on God in our individual hearts. This is what prayer is—rooting ourselves in God alone. Unfortunately, however, we often tend to reflect our activity- and productivity-based culture by approaching prayer—if we engage in it at all—as simply a means to an end, as merely a tool to achieve something of greater value in our estimation.
Smith goes on to write:
Many people, consciously or otherwise, think that their work and their other various activities are what matters in life, and that prayer merely provides the energy needed to pursue these activities. Work is the end, prayer the means. But this is quite wrong. Our prayer is the most important thing we do, and our work, if truly unselfish and spiritual, flows out of it and back into it. … We enter into prayer simply for the sake of praying, simply for the relationship with God which it establishes.
Genuine prayer, then, no matter what form it takes or how “effective” or “ineffective” it may seem, is simply opening our hearts to God, surrendering to God, as Christ did on the cross for our sake. As Christians, prayer must be at the center of our entire lives.
With this in mind, let’s take another look at the Gospel reading from this past Sunday, the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Mark 6:30-34):
The apostles gathered together with Jesus
and reported all they had done and taught.
He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.
People were coming and going in great numbers,
and they had no opportunity even to eat.
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
People saw them leaving
and many came to know about it.
They hastened there on foot from all the towns
and arrived at the place before them
When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.
There are a lot of things we could focus on here. For some context, you might recall that a little earlier in the same chapter (Mark 6:7-13), Jesus sent out the apostles in pairs and gave them authority over unclean spirits. For the first time, they were out on their own spreading the Gospel, and Mark tells us they preached repentance, drove out demons, and cured the sick. Additionally, before sending them out, Jesus told them to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick”—no food, no money, no extra clothes. They were to rely solely on God’s providence.
So, in Sunday’s Gospel, they have just returned from their journey. They are excited—and understandably so. They had been doing God’s work! Full of apostolic zeal, they report to Jesus “all they had done and taught.” But Mark’s text also tells us that the apostles were so consumed with this activity, with all the people coming to them, that they even neglected their meals. They were disregarding their own needs—something no human being can sustain for very long.
Although we’re not told so explicitly, there likely was some pride involved on the part of the apostles. Just think if you suddenly had the authority to expel demons and cure sick—how powerful that would make you feel! Their mission had been a huge success! “Jesus, look at what we did!” Perhaps they had forgotten the source of that power – and why they were doing those things. That would be only human.
Notice how Jesus responds. He doesn’t congratulate them, as they (or we) might expect. Instead, he says, perhaps with a little smile on his face: “Come into the desert with me.” Jesus knows the importance of prayer and what his mission is really all about. Numerous times, we are told throughout the gospels, he leaves everyone and everything behind to go off alone to some deserted or lonely place to pray. His relationship with the Father was paramount.
So, in this scene from Mark’s Gospel, he is inviting his apostles to do the same—to re-center themselves in God the Father—to make time for prayer in the midst of all their activity. “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” It’s important and necessary. As you might recall, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus told a flustered Martha: “You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
So, gently, perhaps playfully, Jesus is reminding his followers to keep their focus on God rather than on their own efforts, important as the work might be in building God’s Kingdom. In John’s Gospel, he tells his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches. …Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book Seek That Which is Above, commented on this passage from Mark:
Whereas the apostles are positively beside themselves and, full of zeal and self-importance, neglect their meals, Jesus brings them down from the clouds: “Enjoy a little rest for a while!” One can sense his quiet humor, his friendly irony, as he brings them down to earth.
… Any kind of hectic activity, even in religious affairs, is utterly alien to the New Testament picture of man. We always overestimate ourselves when we imagine we are completely indispensable and that the world or the Church depends on our frantic activity. Often it will be an act of real humility and creaturely honesty to stop what we are doing, to acknowledge our limits, to take time to draw breath and rest—as the creature man is designed to do.
… I want to suggest that we revise our catalogue of virtues, as it has developed in the Western world, where activity alone is regarded as valid and where the attitudes of beholding, wonder, recollection and quiet are of no account, or at least are felt to need some justification. … It is necessary for us to leave our busy world behind from time to time and go in search of the breath of creation, in order that we may meet God and thus find ourselves.
As with the apostles in Mark’s account, Jesus’ first concern is not with the success of our work. Rather, he is primarily concerned with the well-being of all his followers, and our relationship with the Father through him. For our own good, he is giving us permission to pray as he did—to enter at least partially into that creative rest which God alone provides, and which we will experience in its totality in the Promised Land of heaven. As the prophet Isaiah beautifully said, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (30:15).
OK, you may be thinking to yourself: “But if you read the rest of the passage from Mark, they don’t get to rest. The people follow them! What about that?”
Fair enough. But, again, consider the context. After Jesus says, “Come away and rest,” and the apostles get in a boat to go away, the people do indeed notice, and rush on ahead of them. Then Mark tells us that when Jesus “disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
The Gospel reading this past Sunday ends there, but we know what happens next. If you continue reading that section of Mark Chapter 6, Jesus ends up feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. All ate and were satisfied. And there were 12 baskets full of leftovers!
The Eucharistic imagery here is obvious. (This coming Sunday’s Gospel and those in the weeks that follow will linger on this mystery through the perspective of John Chapter 6.) However, something else strikes me. Who actually does the teaching and feeding here? Is it the apostles? No, it’s Jesus. Despite all the apostles had taught and done previously, here they are confronted with the reality of their limitations. When the scene is still developing, Jesus tells them to give the people some food themselves (again, I can just picture him smiling). And I can imagine the look on the apostles’ faces. They basically respond: “Impossible!” Then, Jesus steps in, using what little they are able to gather, and works a miracle. Here, faced with the prospect of feeding 5,000 people, the apostles realize they can do nothing, or very little, on their own.
There’s really a lesson in humility here for all of us—it is God who works wonders, and we can only experience them if we acknowledge that we can’t work them. We need God.
We need God, and so we pray. It’s why we must take the time to pray each and every day. And this means not only putting aside all our busyness for a while, but also letting go of all our preoccupations, preconceived notions, and our expectations. We must simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, and redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of this need of ours to humbly “stand alone before God in our nothingness … completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.” This “brings us in direct contact with the source of all joy and all life. Prayer, then, means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him. It is much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our deepest concerns. We wish to lose ourselves, and rest in his love, and rest in him. We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being.”
So, no matter how busy we may find ourselves, let us pray always—retreating to that inner room of our hearts, and resting a while in God’s presence. He will never fail to lead us where we need to go or to feed us what we need to live.
If the Lord does not build the house,
in vain do its builders labor;
If the Lord does not watch over the city,
in vain does the watchman keep vigil.
In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat:
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.