AREWP Day 11: On being busy

January 24, 2008 | 22 comments

[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.


  1. Meredith

    Excellent! Happy Feast!

  2. Anonymous

    Great. Just great. Thanks.
    Jim McCullough
    Our Lady of Grace, Greensboro

  3. Alicia

    Thanks Jen! As always, what you write is exactly what I needed to hear.

  4. veronica

    Jen, I have been truly inspired by your openness regarding your prayer time. Thanks for the frank, full disclosure.
    And a toast, to St. Francis de Sales!

  5. Catholicmommy

    I just have to write and say thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring blog. I don’t often take the time to read long posts by anyone, but I have enjoyed your writing so much over the last two weeks, and you have inspired me to turn back to prayer as well… I have five kids 7 and under, and homeschooling, and boy do I know where you are coming from.
    I will pray for you tonight ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. veronica

    p.s. I hope you don’t mind…I’ve linked back to your website on a recent post.

  7. Kathy

    A very insightful post, as usual. To put it another way: If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy. Good advice for all of us.

  8. Jess

    There was a special on PBS tonight titled Prayer In America, I thought of your ongoing experiment that you’ve been blogging about when I found it.

  9. Shakespeare's Cobbler

    Man, I need to really take this to heart!

    By the way, I’ve tagged you for a meme.

  10. Judy

    Perhaps Jesus was so busy during the day that He had no choice but spend His nights in prayer.

  11. the mother of this lot

    I have been eagerly following and enjoying your REWP. I’m thinking of doing this myself during Lent.

    I found a lovely Francis de Sales quote for you:

    ‘There is nothing small in the service of God’.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  12. lyrl

    This series of posts has been amazingly insightful and I’ve really enjoyed following your experiences.

    Off topic: I’ve been hoping for a long time for the answers to this quiz. I’ve always loved birth stories, even if they’re abbreviated to alphabetically answer keys ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Jennifer F.

    Lyrl – ooooh yeah. Thanks for the reminder! I did mean to post a follow-up there, I just forgot. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Anonymous

    I’m not real good about prayer. I downloaded the Angelus and when some church bell sounds out noon I pray the Angelus.

  15. Courageous Grace

    I very much enjoy your REWP posts, Jen, very thoughtful and inspiring.

    On a completely different note, wanted to let you know I had my baby boy last Wednesday night ๐Ÿ˜‰ He’s a cutie-pie!

  16. Leslie K.

    I found, in my life, making what I do a part of my prayer helps. It also helps me to begin and end my day with specific prayer. I, too, am learning how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and it is amazing how it quiets the soul. Thank you,again, for your wonderful blog.

  17. Amber

    Hi Jennifer,

    One completely unexpected thing I’ve noticed with praying the hours is how much it makes me aware of all the saints who have gone before us. There is such a rich history and legacy in our Church! Instead of maybe glancing at a calendar and thinking, oh, St. Agnes, I wonder who that is (as I would have done last week without the hours) I instead have some small insight into just who St. Agnes is and why she is remembered by the Church. Generally my observations about the saints memorial days is in hindsight, if anything, and bringing them and what they have done into my daily life has been an enriching experience.

    I suppose this is all rather tangential to your post, but I was thinking about this as I was honoring St. Thomas Aquinas this morning and I thought I’d comment on your blog about it because I figured you would understand. ๐Ÿ™‚


  18. Jennifer F.

    Amber – it’s funny, I thought of that very thing this morning. Thank you for your comment!

  19. Anna B.

    This is late, but your post is awesome. For me its always “Tomorrow”…

    Thanks for the inspiration


  1. Prayer: Because sometimes you need to be dog-whispered : Conversion Diary - [...] I’m good about sticking to regular prayer times, it breaks me out of whatever I’m fixating on. In fact,…

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