What happens when we don’t fully understand the words we say when we pray?
Sometimes the words seem empty to us. You know what I am talking about: that point in Mass when you’re saying the Creed and hit that “consubstantial with the Father” part and realize you don’t even know what that means! So, should you even be saying it at all?
I am a revert to the faith, so I didn’t really begin to pray until I was in my mid-twenties. At that time, all I knew about God and Jesus was what I was taught back in First Communion class. And since I hadn’t practiced my faith since then, I developed a lot of bad habits (to say the least), and acquired plenty of misconceptions about God and man. I came face to face with these same doubts and struggles as the Lord was slowly getting a grip on me and bringing me closer to Him. I started going to Mass and Confession. I was receiving the Eucharist. And still, these doubts and struggles persisted.
What I came to find out later was that this is the normal way of growth in faith and love. In other words, those doubts and fears you may be experiencing as you pray are perfectly normal bumps along the narrow way. So I tell you, relax and…
Don’t Freak Out!
It can be intimidating when we hear stories of the saints and their heroic efforts to encounter the Lord. But even some of the greatest mystics in our tradition didn’t always feel successful in prayer. Saint Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Catherine of Siena (to name a few) endured very real prayer struggles, even as they became more advanced in the spiritual life — and they’re all now doctors of the Church! Even St. Teresa of Calcutta, a great saint of our time, suffered from spiritual dryness and a sense of God’s absence for more than 30 years.
Here’s the thing: we are so caught up in thinking of prayer as an action, completely dependent on us, that we forget prayer is actually an invitation offered entirely by God to us. The Catechism reminds us, “in prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (CCC 2567). In fact, “only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (CCC 2559). We simply have to respond to Him with an open heart and say with the prophet, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).
The problem we often encounter is that our hearts are hardened and not attuned to God’s frequency; the one who speaks in the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19: 12). But again, thanks to God’s initiative, we are able to listen because the Spirit dwells in us through our baptism. The Spirit then cheers us on as St. Paul tells us, “He who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:27). Above all, trust in God’s love for you and know that He is bringing you, albeit slowly, to perfect communion with Himself.
Next thing is…
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him” (Romans 8:28). Often in the struggle of meaning what we pray, we find an invitation from the Lord to confront specific obstacles to our spiritual growth or other challenges He wants us to overcome. The next time you find yourself in this place, don’t let yourself get all flustered and frustrated. Just take a step back and slow it way down!
Realizing that we may not totally mean what we pray means that we are at least conscious of what we are praying, and this is a very good thing. This first step of being open disposes us to the working of the Holy Spirit, and then we can proceed to discern the reason for the struggle.
We can ask: what does God want from me in this struggle? What is this struggle telling me about my own life? How is it inviting me to love, trust, or seek Him more? Where can I go to get answers to my questions? This is the start to deepening your prayer life, and thus strengthening your relationship with God.
And so with that, I add a final point…
Discouragement is the action of the evil one, and he will attack us as we actively strive for union with Christ through prayer. We need not forget that prayer is a battle (think Jesus going into the wilderness to do battle with the devil in Matthew 4:1-11). This battle does require sacrifice, as Jesus made clear when He called us: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
But do not despair for Christ Himself will be your armor and lead the way. Listen to St. Paul’s advice to take “the shield of faith… and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God [and] pray at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:16-18).
So even though we struggle to mean all the words we say when we pray, know they are effective because they are borne in the Spirit. Remember that, as Christians, all our prayers rise to God and are accepted by Him as if His own Son is the one making them. The Catechism reminds us, “All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross and, in his Resurrection, heard by the Father” (CCC 2741).
So we pray in Jesus’ name, clinging to Him with faith “beyond what we feel and understand,” trusting in His command to “‘seek’ and to ‘knock,’ since he himself is the door and the way” (CCC 2609). Never stop praying on account of the struggle because the Spirit wants the words to take root in our hearts and conform us deeper to Christ — we just have to let Him!
My friends in the struggle, I leave you with this little reminder from St. Teresa of Avila: “Prayer is nothing more than spending a long time alone with the one I know loves me.” Do not be intimidated by big words and fancy formulations, rather trust in Jesus who sends us His Spirit and comes to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).