Posts in Motivation
The Real Benefit of Solitude
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A recent podcast with Erik Fisher and Cal Newport brought to light the topic of solitude. Newport, the Georgetown professor and author of Deep Work cites Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership by Solitude by  Raymond R. Kethledge who describes solitude as “a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds”.


This makes sense. We’ve all been alone in a solitary way- you’re by yourself in a room and no one else is around. Some of us are more comfortable with this than others. Introverts in particular revel in this form of solitude- it’s a space to recharge.


There are other forms of solitude as well. Think about it- each of us can also relate to being alone but in the context of other people. You go for a run and see other people also working out, you find a coffee shop to do some work and see dozens of others walk in and out of the shop. This is a surprising sort of aloneness- alone but with others. Sort of an “alone togetherness”.


There’s alone by myself and alone in the context of others.


Newport’s point: rich solitude (i.e. “good” solitude) is that which is free from the influence of others’ minds. You’re alone, in one way or another, and free to think and pray on your own. You may be in public. You may be surrounded by hundreds of other people. Still, you have a sense of self, a space to think and pray on your own.


There is tremendous power in this. It applies very much to prayer.


The average person is quite busy. They have commitments and errands and places to be. I know that I do. Now consider the busy Christian- still running around but expected to be prayerful at the same time. This is where prayerfulness gets tested. I sat recently with a couple and their three young children. The wife, obviously a good mother, admitted that some days are just so full of this-and-thats that she forgets to pray.

 

I totally get it. Can you relate? 


The million dollar question emerges quickly enough: how do you maintain prayerfulness amidst a busy schedule? Or, in layman’s terms- how do you take your faith with you?


And here is where we apply Kethledge’s concept of solitude. The Christian, embedded in the world, is prayerful because they retain that sense of self while they are going about their day. They find moments of prayer because they have cultivated the muscle of returning to their source: their relationship with God. They know that God has loved them and grounds them in a profound sense of adoption. They bring solitude with them and then, when God-inspiration-faith strikes, they activate their solitude and reconvene with the Lord. 


This relationship with God “pops up” at various times during the day- a spontaneous thought, a recollection of something they read in the Scriptures, a vocal prayer that emerges. These are delightful and can be unexpected. The good news is that you can become a more prayerful person and these God-moments can become the norm rather than the exception. 

 

You really can practice a healthy solitude as a result of never being fully alone. God is always with you and you can revel in this truth. Now that puts new light on solitude.

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Should You Kneel When You Pray?
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My dad grew up in rural Maine (read: very remote). He tells the story of how he would pray each night before going to bed. Kneeling at the side of his bed, he would say his prayers. This was what you did when you grew up in a large Catholic family. I doubt there was much thought as to whether or not kneeling was the most conducive posture for prayer.

At church, we often have times when we kneel as we pray.

This might include kneeling prior to Mass, kneeling during certain parts of the Mass and even after Holy Communion. Kneeling is, for Catholics, a routine physical position for praying.

A question that I’ve been thinking about lately is this- when does it make sense to kneel and when is it counterproductive to praying?

I know that some will say that you must pray kneeling, that it’s non-negotiable. The thinking goes that if God Himself appeared in your home today at 2pm, would you just give him a high-five (as if he was an ordinary guest) or would you be compelled to kneel? If that is our “frame” for answering the kneel-sit question, kneeling would be the appropriate response. The Lord deserves some gesture of respect, adoration and worship.

Still, I’m not sure it has to be a zero-sum game when it comes to kneeling during prayer.

A better way of thinking on this might be to look at prayer as having defaults and exceptions.

A default for prayer at Mass might be to kneel while an exception would make sense for someone who is aged or literally cannot kneel.

Ask yourself- is God more concerned with the posture of your kneeling or the condition of your heart? In an age of decreased piety (i.e. less kneeling), we can answer this delicately. I see, even among many religious leaders, a lack of piety. To reiterate- kneeling is the norm and should be done when possible. My point is simply to expand the conversation and recognize that there may be other times when it’s acceptable not to kneel.

Kneeling surely has benefits. It contributes to our piety. It is a gesture of humility. It speaks of surrender. It reveals vulnerability. 

In sum, kneeling is a good thing.

It’s the times when we cannot kneel or that it doesn’t make sense to kneel that we need more reflection. We’ve already mentioned the times when you physically cannot kneel. Age, an injury, etc. What about other times when kneeling might be counterproductive?

I attended a large ministry event a year ago and they had Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament one evening. The music was fantastic. The atmosphere was very reverent. The only “catch” if there was one, was that the event lasted for over two hours. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t kneel for that long on concrete. It made sense to spend some time kneeling and some time sitting quietly. Simply “bearing down” and sucking it up wasn’t going to bring me any closer to Jesus if my knees produced pain. A kneeling/sitting strategy worked best.

Both kneeling and sitting can be prayerful postures.  

The key is to pray for the gift of humble piety. Be aware of your surroundings. Notice those around you. When you come into the Lord’s presence, recognize that the space is holy and that your actions will be different as a result. A good genuflection can go a long way. If it’s appropriate to kneel, go for it. If sitting or standing quietly makes more sense and won’t distract others, that may be the best approach.

In closing, Pope Francis’ words from 2014 give us a healthy context for reflecting on kneeling and piety:

“The gift of piety that the Holy Spirit gives us makes us meek; it makes us peaceful, patient and at peace with God in gentle service to others...Some people think that being pious is closing your eyes, putting on a sweet angel face, isn’t that right?” The Holy Father went on to say that piety is “our belonging to God, our deep bond with him, a relationship that gives meaning to our whole life and keeps us resolute, in communion with him, even during the most difficult and troubled moments”.

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What to do When You Feel Inadequate in Prayer

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I recently spent time with a friend who said this, “I’m just not very good at prayer.” This stuck with me for days and I’ve thought about it ever since. My friend is a devout Catholic. He loves his faith and serves the poor in very public ways.


How could a man who has such a strong faith not have confidence in his own prayer life? This very question haunted me for years. In fact, it provided the impetus for my upcoming book The 5 Habits of Prayerful People. I found myself as a freshman in college and teaching myself how to pray.  I was the one asking, “how could I, a Christian for many years, not be comfortable with prayer?”


Can you relate to this? Do you feel inadequate approaching God in prayer? 

 

For Catholics in particular, this question reveals a deep issue. It’s not that Catholics don’t have faith- Lord knows they do!  Rather, it’s the living cultivation of a personal relationship with the Lord that is tough sledding for many. Protestants, more versed in the process of encounter with Christ, tend to learn how to pray more than Catholics. While Catholics say a lot of prayers, many fail to go beneath the surface. As a result, the many recited prayers fail to take the believer deeper and lack stickiness.

 

Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter is a breath of fresh air and might help more Catholics with their understanding of prayer. In Evangelii Gaudium (2013), he said this, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.” (For other fantastic quotes, refer to Aleteia’s post.)


That doesn’t mean that a phrase alone (i.e. encounter) will teach someone to pray. What it may do it help us better understand that we need an encounter with Christ in order to form a prayerful relationship with him. That personal encounter with the Lord then moves us to love others with greater compassion and sensitivity. 


I was very fortunate as a teenager. Some very good friends, Protestant Christians, took me under their wing and discipled me. The faith-foundation provided by my parents then flourished. These friends brought me on a retreat and gave me the opportunity to come face to face with Christ. I was invited to make a decision- live for myself or live for Him. I chose the latter. Barely knowing the commitment I was making, I made a small gesture towards God. Since then, as you can imagine, everything has changed.


Having had an encounter with Christ, I then learned how to have a daily quiet time. This was like water on a small seed. Things grew from there. Eventually I would learn how to be present to others, especially those on the margins of society. Still, it all began with an invitation to know Christ in a personal way. Not a bunch of rote prayers. Not another decade of the Rosary (although powerful in itself). It was a simple presentation of the Gospel message: God loves us, humankind is sinful, Jesus died for us, choosing Christ as savior. Today, I try to have a quiet time every day and it’s made all the difference. The simplicity of the Gospel unfolds each day for me and needs to be affirmed daily in my quiet times.


I can relate to my friend who expressed that he doesn’t feel confident in prayer. There are times when I don’t feel all that good at it myself. Sometimes, I feel like I’m going through the motions. Other times, I feel like I’m giving God scraps instead of my full attention.


Even still, I press on. This is the work of a Christian. Never having complete confidence in our relationship with Christ, we still understand that prayer is vital to our faith. The key is to keep at it.  Talking to God takes both faith and practice. Much of our tradition focuses on the former and neglects the latter.


When you feel as if your prayer life isn’t hitting the mark or is less than perfect, don’t give up hope. God wants your daily quiet time to be consistent and fruitful. When you have your next prayer time, savor the moment. What a gift it is to be in relationship with the living God!

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Resources, Role Models and Routines
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In his recent exhortation, Pope Francis talks about the context of becoming holy.  He wants us to ask, 

  • Can I become holy in the midst of my busy, daily schedule?
  • Do I need to become a nun or a priest in order to be holy?
  • What is a realistic path for me to become holy?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly asked these questions over the years.  As I get older, I see my daily life, with its warts and blessings, as the “container” for me to become holy.  

As an encouragement, the Holy Father points to the ultimate context for learning the be holy: the Church.  He says,

In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness.” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 15)

If you were trying to get in shape, where would you turn?  Most likely to a gym with personal trainers and a community that supports you.  Right?  This may explain why CrossFit is so popular in the United States- it offers just the right amount of support and guidance for getting fit.

Pope Francis is telling us that the Church is the “gym” for individuals who want to become not just more prayerful but more human, more whole.  St. Iraneaus famously said, “The glory of God is a human being, fully alive.”  This is holiness, to be fully alive and rooted in Christ.

To do this, we need three things: Resources, Role Models and Routines.  The Church provides all three and in subsequent posts, we will explore each in detail.

In the meantime, spend some time today considering the ways in which the Church is your personal gym for growing in holiness.  

How Prayer is Like Productivity
 
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There’s a lot of talk around a new version of OmniFocus that is coming out soon.  If you’re not familiar, OmniFocus is a productivity app that is quite popular with enthusiasts of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology.  Because of its following online, OF will likely get a hero’s welcome when it finally is released.

People will download it.  About a week later, many of those same folks will stop using it.  Life will have gotten busy.  The shine will have worn off. Old habits will creep back in.  That powerful new productivity app will feel somehow, “ordinary”.

Folks will realize that, at the end of the day, no app can do the work for you.  You are the one who has to do the work. 

How similar is this to prayer? Let me share a story to answer that from my own life. 

A visit to my spiritual director a few months ago had me complaining about one thing or another.  The man is an absolute saint for putting up with me.  I don’t know how he does it.  When I came up for air and stopped talking, he calmly said, “and have you been praying about this?”

Right... praying about it, that would have helped. 


Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.
— St. Ignatius of Loyola

What he was really saying is this, “you can’t expect God to step in and make your problems go away if you’re not even willing to do the slightest bit of work”.

I’ve heard that mantra many times in the months since then, you have to do the work, you have to do the work, you have to do the work.

In this way, productivity and prayer are very similar.  There is one significant difference that is probably obvious by now.  With productivity, it’s all about you and your colleagues.  When it comes to prayer, God is in charge.  He’s doing the heavy lifting.  His grace is mysterious and can be hard to figure out.  His ways, as the passage says, are not always our ways. 

Still, you’ve got to do the work.

 
Four Things That Make Morning Prayer So Difficult
 
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Think of the last time you jumped out of bed and started your day with a smile.  Now look back at what made that morning work so well- what made the difference?  

When it comes to morning prayer, it’s easier for things to go off the tracks than for your morning to go smoothly.

Why is that?

In my experience, our mornings are the result of our evenings the day before.  I had one of these “good mornings” recently and it felt so good.  I got up at the right time, my morning prayers went well and my workday seemed to just “flow”.  

Most mornings get sidetracked as the result of the following:

  1. We stay up too late the night before.  If you’re tired, you’re less likely to get up and get going in the morning.
  2. We don’t have a morning routine down.  It’s a good idea to do the same things every morning in the same cadence- it cuts down on decision fatigue which can influence your desire to pray.
  3. We haven’t laid out our tools in advance.  If you don’t know where you put your Bible and your journal, you are less likely to have a good experience of prayer.
  4. We lack a structure for our prayers.  This is why the ACTS formula makes so much sense. It just works.

How are your mornings going lately?  Which of the factors above can you improve on?