Is it possible to pray at the speed of light?
Q: Dear Dan, I recently determined that I would begin praying the rosary regularly and as part of that commitment, I attend a weekly rosary prayer group at my parish. I was initially excited to attend but have found that the speed of their prayer is a bit blinding. They prayed an entire mystery along with other prayers in about ten minutes! I don’t quite know how to keep up. Can people really pray at high speed like this? Does it really mean anything if all I am trying to do is keep up and just do it? I know that prayer is supposed to be a conversation, but I have never talked with anyone at this pace!
A: Congratulations on this new chapter in your prayer life! I have no doubt that you will be rewarded for this commitment in more ways than you can imagine. The primary struggle you will face is the temptation to discouragement. Don’t allow your frustration with yourself or others to get the best of you.
What is Prayer?
That said, you have asked a very important question. The first step to answering this question is to ask another: “What is prayer?” The answer provided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church is very simple and clear (2558):
…prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy…
Prayer is a turning, an expression of the heart to God. As we think about this turning, it is best understood in the idea of a communion between persons. God is a person. He became flesh in order to communicate this reality to us. Within the context of persons we understand that communication, true connectedness, requires attention, time, and effort. It means a turning away from the demands of the world, our jobs, and even our own interests in order to give what is necessary to truly nurture a relationship between persons.
We also intuitively understand certain norms for communication between persons. For instance, we know that when one person makes no attempt to communicate with another, that there is likely little love between persons, or a love that is very immature or self-seeking. In contrast, we know that when two people are hand in hand, face to face, and totally absorbed in one another that there is likely to be a great deal of love between them. So it is with our relationship with God.
Can We Pray in Haste?
This all leads to another question, “Can meaningful prayer happen in haste?” Actually, yes it can. However, if haste is the norm, then it is not likely that depth of relationship exists. Now, if the times of depth are common and the times of haste rare, there may be something healthy there. But, profound expressions of love rarely come in and through unmitigated haste. If we truly and profoundly love another, we give our time, our rapt attention, and our hearts to them.
The Rosary and Vain Repetition
The nature of vocal prayer is very challenging in this respect. The good folks who show up at your rosary group are turning their hearts to what can be a relationship. I say “can be” because with vocal prayer there is a temptation to yield to a one-sided approach to relationship and thus allowing it to essentially deteriorate into a non-relationship. We have seen this on a human level when we are speaking with someone and attempting to connect with them and they talk over us or fail to really listen to us. This can also happen when we attempt to communicate important matters “on the fly.” This excessive haste and resulting “vain repetition” as Christ called it in Matthew 6:7, has been a long standing challenge in the Church and is specifically addressed in the Catechism in the section on vocal prayer (2700-2704):
Through his Word, God speaks to man. By words, mental or vocal, our prayer takes flesh. Yet it is most important that the heart should be present to him to whom we are speaking in prayer: “Whether or not our prayer is heard depends not on the number of words, but on the fervor of our souls.
It is “most important that the heart should be present to him.” This is critical. Can our hearts be present as we run by another and shout out what we want them to hear? Can our hearts be present as true lovers of another if we are speaking much and listening little? Can our hearts be present if we are rushing through the motions of communication but not really engaging in the heart of communication?
How To Deal With the Speed Praying Group
I suspect that all of this is affirming what your heart is already telling you. So, what to do about the group? If I were you I would continue attending the group but once you get the mysteries and other prayers memorized and demonstrate a regular commitment to the group after months of faithful participation, volunteer to lead for one or all of the mysteries for that day. Don’t preach to them or express your frustration, instead, gently and patiently lead. In the mean time, spend a good deal of time praying for all hearts in this situation (including yours). Humility is critical in situations like this.
When your turn comes, let them know that you plan to use the method encouraged by Blessed John Paul the II in the letter ROSARIUM VIRGINIS MARIAE (you might also want to send this or some summary out to the group a few weeks before the scheduled time). Here he encourages an approach that mitigates “vain repetition” and offers and approach that is far more meditative and Christ-centered. The basic idea is that it offers up a number of elements for meditation and slows the pace down significantly. Whether or not you are able to implement this approach with your group, you will likely find it very enriching to your private vocal prayer.
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