Sometimes prayer is so frustrating I just give up… what can I do?
Q: Dear Sister Carmen, in the Second Mansion of the Interior Castle, St. Teresa strongly emphasizes the need for perseverance. Can you help me understand how this works in a practical way? I really struggle to keep a consistent prayer time and to stay focused when I pray. Sometimes it is so frustrating that I just give up. I know this doesn’t help but what can I do?
A: Many doors have a sign over their entrance. If the door leading to the Second Mansion or Dwelling Place were to have a sign, I would imagine it would read, “Where is your treasure?”
Teresa teaches us in her description of the Second Dwelling Place that if we are to reach the Center, the final Dwelling Place, we will have to wage war with Satan. In this Second Mansion we are still caught between the attractions of the world and our final destination. Self-centeredness makes us fearful of trials and penances. The tug-of-war is between falsehood and truth, between sin and virtue, between self-gratification and generosity. We must be determined to bring our wills into conformity with God’s will. To do this we need to avoid occasions of sin: persons, places or things that pull us into the arena of falsehood. To enter into truth we have to be willing to embrace the Cross of Jesus and conform ourselves to Him through the solid practice of virtue, accepting times of dryness in prayer, not becoming discouraged at our human failings, but persevering in our desires to draw closer to God.
A dictionary would define perseverance in these or similar words: a steady persistence in activity, purpose, or a state in spite of difficulties. Isn’t it then reassuring to know that a great saint and mystic, such as St. Teresa of Avila herself, struggled in prayer until she was 41 years of age? Because she also suffered with health problems which weakened her bodily, she gave up on prayer rationalizing her health as an excuse.
Distractions were no stranger to Teresa. Her very temperament shows in her writings as she jumps around from one topic to another leaving the thread of her original thought hanging while she moves on to another lengthy discourse before she eventually returns to what she was saying previously.
The time we spend in prayer is not about our success at it; it is rather about our relationship with Him who loves us. Teresa cautions us not to use “force” to obtain a spirit of recollection but instead to “be gentle” with ourselves. Listening is essential during this stage of our spiritual development. Many voices will vie for our attention: our own inner voice, the voice of the world, the voice of the Tempter, and the voice of God. To sift out God’s voice in this cacophony of voices we need to be determined in our resolutions for good.
Some practical ways of doing this is to set a reasonable length of time for prayer, one we can better achieve. It may be less than what we had hoped to do but as time goes on and we find ourselves looking forward to those moments, we can always increase the length of time that we spend in prayer. We do not want to set an unreasonable goal that will turn us into clock watchers or cause us to grit our teeth until the time we allotted to prayer is over. It is in this Mansion that we come to know more about God and deepen our friendship with Him. This is the Room for a hard work-out; it is not the Mansion for consolations.
In our persevering prayer we gradually become more conscious of God’s Presence. We are with the One we love and we experience many of our Advent dispositions: longing, yearning, expecting, thirsting, and waiting. We are filled with gratitude for the infinite mercy God showers on us. It is in this second mansion that one really learns to pray, but we cannot learn unless we are willing to labor and not return to a former state simply because it required less toil or because we become disheartened. What will make the difference? It depends on what we want most: the things the world holds out to us or intimate union with God. Where does our treasure lie? How much do we desire God? How much are we willing to sacrifice?
Will your mind still wander? Undoubtedly! Do not become anxious. Gently and ceaselessly return your focus to Him and if needed, read some brief passage from Scripture or a devotional prayer and continue to soak in His Presence. But above all, do not use excuses to abandon or omit your prayer time or shorten it (after you have made the reasonable adjustments). With perseverance God will give you blessings beyond your expectations.
Let us remember Teresa’s prayer:
Let nothing trouble you,
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things pass away.
God never changes.
Patience obtains everything.
God alone is enough.
In Him – Sister Carmen Laudis
PS: To learn more about the Carmelite Sisters visit our web site: www.carmelitesistersocd.com and for more information please contact the sisters at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 626-289-1353 Ext. 246, 920 East Alhambra Road, Alhambra, California 91801.
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