Shut up and pray
Have you ever been so annoyed by someone’s behavior in church, you were tempted to yell at him? It happened to me today. The culprit was...myself.
Praying before the Blessed Sacrament, in a nearly empty chapel, I felt the urge to shout—at myself—“Shut up!”
If you let me explain, I think you’ll understand. Maybe you sometimes feel the same urge. Maybe you should.
It goes without saying that I was distracted in my prayer. Who isn’t? St. Teresa of Avila, from whom so many people have learned how to pray, spoke about the “madwoman of the house,” who would come barging into the conversation, persistently introducing irrelevant thoughts. There is a madwoman making her home inside every human skull, I’m afraid; certainly mine. But that wasn’t what vexed me especially today. I was troubled by the way I prayed when I was not distracted.
My prayer, I realized, was becoming a one-way conversation. “Lord, please give me this. Lord, please forgive me for that. Lord, thank you for the other thing.” Petition, contrition, thanksgiving: all good in themselves, but something important was missing.
There, in the presence of the Almighty Lord, I found that I had a lot to say. Fine. But I wasn’t prepared to listen.
Shut up, Phil. You might learn something.
Martha had a great deal to say to Jesus, too, and—better—a great deal she wanted to do for Him. Yet remember what Jesus told her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken from her.” [Lk 10:41-42] And what was the “good portion”? Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to Him.
There I was, kneeling before Jesus, and doing all the talking. Dumb. Shut up, Phil. You might learn something.
From the Baltimore Catechism I learned long ago that prayer takes four forms: petition, contrition, thanksgiving, and adoration. The first three can be expressed easily in words. The last, not so much. It is possible, certainly, to write and sing hymns of praise. But it is crucial, before doing so, to sit in silence and in awe. “Be still and know that I am God.” [Ps 46:10]
When we see something of great natural beauty—a vivid sunset, perhaps—our first instinct is not to talk. There are no “action items.” We simply absorb the beauty, allowing it to refresh our souls. How much more refreshment can be had from the God who is the source of all beauty and goodness and truth?
And yet there is another reason why I was frustrated with my own prayer, another reason why I was annoyed with myself.
Do you have acquaintances who always dominate every conversation, never allowing you a chance to speak? I say they are “acquaintances” rather than “friends,” because it is nearly impossible to build a friendship on one-way conversations. First, because friendship implies that you know one another. Second, because it is insulting to imply, by your failure to listen, that the other person has nothing worthwhile to say.
Now I know that the Lord has much to say to me. I know, moreover, that I can’t say anything that He doesn’t know already. So why do I keep talking? Why don’t I listen?
I didn’t actually shout at myself today—not out loud, anyway. But after I caught myself in that one-way conversation, I sent one more request heaven-ward: “Lord, help me to pray the way friends talk.” And to myself I sent a different memo: “Shut up, Phil, and listen.”
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Posted by: CorneliusG -
Feb. 04, 2023 5:29 AM ET USA
But unless you receive locutions from God (and you would be a rare, and possibly saintly, Catholic if you did), He is generally silent. Which accounts for why we talk so much in prayer - to fill the conversational void. God is indeed great, but He is not a great conversationalist!
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Feb. 02, 2023 2:12 PM ET USA
Just goes to show that it's not all about Scripture. The catechisms are equally important as guides to the Apostolic Tradition.
Posted by: Montserrat -
Feb. 01, 2023 6:47 PM ET USA
As a third order (now called "secular") Carmelite, I applaud you, Phil for sharing an intimate part of yourself to benefit others while providing an important piece of instruction on prayer that is often overlooked. As they say in the "south" of Ireland: Bravo! Grazie mille!