[AREWP stands for “A Reckless Experiment With Prayer.” This is part of an ongoing series about bringing peace to my daily life. You can read the other posts on this subject here (scroll down).]
A while back I was emailing with Fr. James Martin (author of the must-read book My Life With the Saints), and he casually mentioned something that’s stuck with me ever since: on the topic of prayer, he told me that when someone asked St. Francis de Sales how much one should pray, the Doctor of the Church replied that you should pray a half hour each day, unless you’re busy. If you’re busy, you should pray an hour.
“What a pithy quote!” I thought. “You should pray more if you’re busy — love it. That St. Francis de Sales, he sure does have some great sayings!” And then I promptly forgot about it. Or I tried to, anyway.
You see, as clever as I found that quote to be, I really was too busy. That advice may have worked for those “other” people who St. Francis knew back in the 17th century — who must have either been very holy or had a whole lot of free time on their hands — but it went without saying that here in the real world, that advice was nothing more than a witty one-liner to keep in my “good quotes” file.
And then I had my third baby in three years, and got really, really busy. In addition to keeping up with the kids, in our house I’m in charge of bill paying, filing, Quicken data entry, grocery shopping, budgeting, thank-you note writing, investment managing, (not not mention blog posting), etc. As my responsibilities snowballed, that advice that Fr. Martin conveyed would occasionally pop into my head:
If you’re busy, pray more.
I would reject this thought as one might shoo away a buzzing gnat, and promptly resume frantically running around from one thing to the next. Yet so often that line would interrupt my inner dialogue, which was usually something like: “How am I supposed to find time to put that huge pile of clothes away when I haven’t even cleared out room in the closet and I think I forgot to transfer that money from our savings account I hope all those checks will clear and when am I going to find time to fold the laundry and I still need to write that thank-you note and I DO NOT HAVE TIME to bake that quiche for the potluck why did I ever sign up for that and –“
If you’re busy, pray more.
I could not seem to get this notion out of my mind! It was only after I fell flat on my face, crushed under the weight of my to-do list, forced to admit that my way wasn’t working, that I decided to give the prayer thing a shot. I assure you, it was not out of any kind of spiritual maturity on my part — I just didn’t have any other options. It was either that or hire someone to slap me every time I started whining about how I never get anything done, just so that I didn’t have to hear myself talk about it anymore.
As I’ve chronicled, I started praying all three major hours of the Liturgy of the Hours. I had a lot of different factors motivating me to try to devote reckless amounts of time to prayer; I wasn’t doing it to follow St. Francis de Sales’ advice. Yet as I’ve gone through these weeks of praying more than I ever have in my life, his words have been popping into my head more than ever. And they finally resonate with me on a gut level. I finally understand that they are true, and why they are true:
Now that I’m nearing the end of the second week (third if you count the “trial run” week) of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I’m feeling the inevitable pressure to backslide that I’ve felt (and succumbed to) with every other routine I’ve ever tried to implement. Last night, for example, I got overwhelmed with trying to make a new recipe and pay bills and answer emails all at once, and I ended up doing Vespers more than an hour late. It was tempting to just skip it altogether.
As this example illustrates, I’ve found that prayer is the “canary in the coal mine” for my life: the more pressure I feel to let prayer slip, to push it aside for something else, the more it indicates that I have let my life slide out of balance. When I glance at my prayer book and think “I don’t have time for this!” (as I did last night), it doesn’t mean that prayer is too hard; it means that I’ve piled too much on my plate again. The greater the temptation to skip Matins because I’m running late or Lauds because I have too much to do, the louder the alarm is sounding that something is off-kilter.
What I’ve found, as someone who is officially “really busy, ” is that there are so many potential demands on our time, especially in our 24/7 culture. And busy-ness tends to have a snowball effect, where the more commitments you make the less time you have to carefully consider what other projects you take on, and you pretty quickly end up feeling like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. There’s a huge temptation to be unrealistic about how much time you have available, to sacrifice peace to get a few more things done. And you find yourself scurrying from one thing to the next, needing to shove everything aside — including God — just to keep your head above water.
If you’re busy, pray more.
Now I get it. It’s not just a pithy quote, it is a critical lesson, probably even more applicable to our current culture than it was in the 17th century. With email and artificial light and cell phones and cars, the modern world lures us to try to squeeze in just a few more things, to tell ourselves that we can do just a little bit more, and more, and more…and prayer brings it all to a screeching halt. Structuring life around prayer means making the conscious, inconvenient choice to put something else in front of the frantic desire to “get stuff done!”
I recently came across a quote where someone echoed St. Francis de Sales by saying, “If you don’t have time for prayer, you don’t have time for anything.” I’ve found this to be so true. Prayer doesn’t impact my ability to get things done; it impacts my ability to make unrealistic estimates about the things I’ll get done.
As the newness of the experiment with prayer wears off, it is increasingly difficult to make prayer happen — not because I don’t have time, but because of my tendency to try to do things according to how much pressure I feel to do them, rather than how much time I actually have available. The fact is that God has given me the grace to more than make up for the 30 – 40 total minutes I “lose” in prayer each day. My amount of available work time is the same as it always was. The difference is that I used to live in a perpetual fantasy state where this large chunk of free time was always looming just around the corner, in a magical time and place called “later” I was going to be able to do it all. But now, where the phases of the day have distinct beginnings and ends that are marked by Lauds, Matins and Vespers, three times each day I am forced to leave my “later” fantasy and just admit that I am not going to get it all done. Morning comes to a close with Lauds, activity time comes to a close with Matins, and the whole work day comes to a close with Vespers. It’s painful. But it is exactly what I need.
Today is the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. Tonight I’ll raise a glass of wine and ask for intercessory prayers from this great saint, who offers us the only good advice I’ve ever heard on being busy.
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