Edward R. Benet
You sense that you are somehow special. Why then do you bear so little fruit?
Updated: Mar 27, 2019
Edward R. Benet, 25th March 2019
You have made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you (St Augustine)
Do you feel chosen? Do you feel called to fulfil a great purpose in the world? Sometimes do you just have that feeling, deep down, that you are being called to something nobody else can do? You read the lives of the saints and you sense that the Lord is calling you in a special way as well?
It’s actually true, you know, you are special! God has made you unique and unrepeatable. And by virtue of your baptism you are called to accomplish something wonderful that no one else can do but you.
The sad fact, however, is that a huge proportion of people do not accomplish even a small part of what the Lord planned for them. They feel special, but end up living lives of great mediocrity. They have this feeling that the Lord is going to achieve a great mission through them, but then they find themselves in middle age having done absolutely nothing. This failure is not something trivial. In fact, it marks a great loss to the world. We are talking here about the spreading of the Gospel, the building up of God’s Kingdom and the salvation of souls.
How can my life be fruitful? What can I do to help ensure that the seeds the Lord has sown in my life bear fruit? The question might seem difficult, but the answer is actually very simple. If we look at the lives of the saints, we will see that there is one absolute constant that holds true for all of them. From mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to giants of charity like Don Bosco and Mother Teresa, there is a single foundational characteristic that is ever present. What is that rock of constancy?
A faithful, lifelong commitment to personal prayer.
Scared to dedicate time to prayer? Lazy? Undisciplined? Don’t worry! We have a step by step solution and a template here. This is just to get you going. You will develop a better one for yourself very soon.
“But I don’t have time for prayer!” you might reply. Or, as I heard a young priest remark once, “It’s much more important that I do the things that need to be done around the parish rather than say the breviary. Being with people is my way of praying”. That priest was a popular and tireless worker, but - perhaps unsurprisingly - he is no longer in active ministry.
You can make all the excuses you want, but it is an empirically confirmed fact that sanctity cannot be attained unless one has a disciplined and substantial prayer life. If your feelings of being “special”, “chosen” and “unique” are to develop into a fruitful state of life, then you must pray. Your prayer must be regular and it must have a priority in your life.
The secret is out. It is sanctity that you feel called to. That rather vague (or possibly compelling) sensation that you have of being called to something special is nothing other than a call to holiness. And how can we become holy unless we are in a deep relationship with the Holy One himself? That relationship develops through our life’s work, through our interactions with the people around us, through our reading, our contemplation of things in the world, but it is founded on disciplined contemplation of the blessed Trinity, our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier.
Only God can make us holy and that is why prayer is the key. Prayer involves letting go of the reins of my life and handing them over to my Saviour. Turning to the Lord daily in prayer is an acknowledgement that I can do nothing without him. The time spent in prayer should be a time of humbly bowing down and allowing the Lord to touch every element of my life and every aspect of my being, purifying my heart and conforming me to Jesus in a more and more radical way.
Regular prayer requires self-discipline, but it cannot be forced. It is harmful to set prayer goals that are too ambitious and which do not respect my stage of development. We must be led by the Spirit and we must use all of our gifts, natural and spiritual, to discern the duration and type of prayer that is appropriate for me in my current situation. The advice of my confessor or spiritual director can be crucial in this respect.
How am I to pray well? Is it enough to say the Rosary? Is lectio divina the answer? Will reading the liturgy of the hours be sufficient? Is it enough to go to Mass every day and pray it well? Clearly, there are many ways to pray. The extraordinary events of Fatima are more than sufficient to tell us the importance of the daily Rosary. Unfortunately, daily Mass is not possible for everyone in their particular state of life. In any case, the great masters of prayer all tell us that something else besides Mass, or the liturgy of the hours or the Rosary is essential: that something is contemplation. Contemplation is possibly the most challenging form of prayer. It involves refraining from reciting prayers by rote. To do it properly requires an absence of images. It demands emptying our minds of abstractions and distractions. When we enter into contemplation, we place ourselves in the presence of a God who loves us. For those of us who are not great experts at contemplation, it is permissible to keep repeating a phrase that serves to calm our minds and helps us enter the presence of God. The phrase could be something like, “Jesus son of the living God, have mercy on me”, or, “You have the message of eternal life”.
Before arriving at the stage of contemplation, it can be useful to begin daily prayer with a series of regular steps. Here again is the suggested format. In this example, we begin with a reflection on the uniqueness of ourselves, the blessing of being alive today and our urgent calling to seize it as our only day of salvation. Then we consecrate the day to the Immaculate Heart of Mary with a morning offering. After this, a decade of the Rosary is said. We suggest reflecting on the Annunciation every single day (you may be doing a full Rosary later anyway, according to the mysteries of that particular day of the week). Why the Annunciation? Because at the Annunciation, Mary receives the word of God with openness and humility. The manner in which she receives the word of God and acts upon it is what makes her blessed among women. What better prayer reflection for our morning offering! Today the Lord will be speaking his word to me. How will I receive it? Will it bear fruit in me?
Next, we read the Mass readings of the day. It is important that we do this because it exposes us to the Scriptures that the Church in her wisdom places before us in each liturgical season. We should read the Scriptures attentively. Then we read them a second time, this time pausing at length at any phrase that strikes us or moves us. You will find, the more you do this, that the psalms will begin to speak to you more and more. To some people, the psalms might seem an archaic form of prayer. They use language that is sometimes obscure. They make references to modes of life and images of God that appear obsolete. But when we read the psalms in the context of the daily Mass readings, they begin to take on another character entirely. The psalm of the day is always skilfully chosen to echo the themes that are found in the first reading and the Gospel, and they do so quite often in a powerful way. They transform the events recounted in the readings into a prayer raised directly to God. Don’t hurry your reading of the psalm of the day! You might find that you want to repeat again and again one of the verses. This is prayer of a very legitimate sort.
Finally, we arrive at the time for contemplation. Here, you are asked to increase this time eventually to twenty minutes. You don’t have another twenty minutes available in the morning? Maybe then you could try to get to bed earlier. It is a sacrifice well worth the trouble if it enables you to get up earlier and spend this unrivalled time with the one who loves you. Not many of us can manage twenty minutes of undistracted contemplation, mind you. And that is why it is important to up this time eventually to twenty minutes, in the hope that maybe we can achieve ten. The aim is to rid our minds of images and distractions, to place ourselves in the presence of God, and allow him to speak to us. Don’t expect to hear any voices in your head or to see any visions! Remember that a repeated simple formula is permitted to aid us in stilling our minds and our hearts. Once the prayer time is over, then we need to train ourselves to carry it into our daily lives, so that the mercy we experience from God becomes mercy that we show to others, that the trust we place in him during our time of prayer, becomes unwavering trust during the difficulties of the day, that the feeling of being in his presence is not diminished when we encounter people who bring out the worst in us.
The goal of all of this is to develop a routine whereby the first period of our day is dedicated to personal prayer. Does it sound excessive? Does it seem daunting? Again, we must look to the example of the saints. St Thomas More had a wife and family and the most demanding job in England. But he still dedicated long hours to personal prayer in the chapel that he had built onto his home. It is well known that Pope John Paul II had an incredible prayer life that began every morning with an extended period in front of the Blessed Sacrament. But his life was filled with prayer at other times too. In “Witness to Hope”, George Wiegel recounts the events on the evening that Fr Wojtyla discovered that he was to be made an auxiliary bishop in Krakow. He left the Primate’s office, where Cardinal Wyszynski had just told him that Pope Pius XII had named him bishop, and went straight to the Ursuline convent in Warsaw. The sisters didn’t know him but allowed him to use their chapel. After some time, they began to worry and quietly looked into the chapel to see what was happening. Fr Wojtyla was prostrate on the floor in front of the tabernacle. Awestruck, the sisters left, but came back some hours later. They were dumbfounded to discover that the strange priest was still prostrate on the floor. One of the nuns said, “It’s getting late. Maybe Father would like some supper?” The unknown priest replied, “My train doesn’t leave for Krakow until after midnight. Please let me stay here. I need to speak to the Lord”.
If Pope John Paul needed to spend a lot of time in the presence of God, then we can be sure that we need to do likewise. Let us recall also that Mother Teresa began every day of her long life of service to the poor with extended prayer in front of the tabernacle. You and I are called to holiness too. It is God alone who can make us holy. For that to happen, we need to spend time with him in prayer.
Blessed is the one . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season (Psalm 1)