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The Practical Usefulness of Prayer

alec vanderboom

It's embarrassing to admit as a Carmelite, but I dislike to pray the rosary. For a long time I blamed it on becoming a Catholic late in life. (My introduction to the rosary by Sister Rita through a group recitation of my 20 member RCIA class at age 27 was such a painful 45 minutes process that I think a piece of my soul said "never again!") During my Catholic life I heard one priest say "I don't pray the rosary. My brain doesn't work that way. I meditate on the mysteries instead." I felt such a sense of relief. It's not just me. I'm one of those few people where all the words and the repetition of a Hail Mary seem to clutter my brain instead of calm it down.

The rosary is an incredibly powerful prayer. For me, personally, I do it as a special act of love for Mom. I pray the rosary "the right way", with all the prayers in order, because that is a prayer gift that she likes to receive. In the same way an errant kid produces a Mother's Day bouquet with a flourish, "Ta Da, I actually remembered you this year!" My full rosary recitations to Mary are rare and a little haggard.

Yet I like to pray the rosary "wrong." I like to say a Hail Mary slowly. I like to pray a decade whenever I'm feeling stressed or scared. I love to immerse myself in the mysteries of the Rosary.

I've received so much comfort thinking about the Mystery of the Nativity while I'm in a difficult pregnancy, especially the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. I've heard beautiful theological reasons for this special gift given to Mary, the Mother of God. I've never heard anyone talk about the practicalities of that gift, however.

For some reason, God wanted Mary to give birth alone. We know that the Jewish tradition of midwives was extremely developed in 1st Century Palestine. (I think we even have the names of the Jewish midwives from way back in Moses' time as being especially talented and holy women). The Jewish religious laws at the time were so strict regarding the separation between men and women, I can't imagine that St. Joseph, as a pious man, had ever attended a birth before. Menstruation, child birth, etc., that was firmly an "all women's territory." That means that even laying next to a loving, holy husband, Mary was very much alone during the birth of her son, Jesus Christ.

I love that God was so practical and loving that he gave her a unique, Virgin Birth. Our God is in the details. The Mystery of the Incarnation means that God is fully involved with the messy details of our human lives. Our God cares for us. The spiritual gifts that He gave Our Blessed Mother are spiritual, mysterious, deeply personal. The gift is also practical. Mary, the Mother of God, didn't have a midwife, a mother or a female friend to help her during the birth of her first born son. She had God! God is enough! Out of his profound love, God blessed her childbirth process in a unique and holy way.

I like thinking of God as being so practical and trustworthy. None of this Christian life makes any sense here on earth. Many times it seems really impractical to cultivate an inner spiritual life. There are 600 other urgent tasks I could do in my house at 6:15 AM, rather than read the Bible and pray. (Lectio divina for the fancy Latin folks). And yet, none of that work is worth a hill of beans unless I first line up my own will with his! Because I serve a practical and involved God who splits open the Red Sea whenever I urgently need Him!

My favorite new book for prayer has a totally embarrassing title. Trust me, it is amazing. Here are some quotes:

"Directness in prayer leads to directness out of it. If one is eccentric, or worse still, egocentric in prayer, one will be the same all along the line. In man's dealing with God, the first essential is that of worshiping "in the spirit and in the truth." (pg. 36)

"Most of the mistakes that people make about religion come under two headings. Either they look upon it as something that exists for their own personal convenience--taking it up for what they imagine they can get out of it, instead of what they can give to it--or else they make the whole thing such a duty, such a routine affair, as to allow no room for the following the individual attraction of grace."  (pg 45)

"Once you desire to spend time in the way God wants rather than in the way that you want, there should be no further difficulty.... Be assured however that if you offer your freedom to God-whether it is a question of time or affection or place or anything else-He will take it. He will take it, and you will not longer be free in the same way. But He will give you a far greater liberty instead. You will be free with the liberty of the children of God." (pg. 57)

I had never heard of this book before ordering it on a lark off of Amazon. I was shocked to get to the "Recommended spiritual reading" at the end and see this quote " I also recommend everything written by Spanish mystics and Church Doctors St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)." I laughed and thought "Well, that explains everything! Any true friend of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross is a helpful guide to me too!"

The title is "Holiness for Housewives and Other Working Women," by Hubert van Zeller, Sophia Institute Press, 1997. I'm pretty sure that my used copy cost $1.99 from Barnes and Noble. This is a book that is geared towards Stay-at-Home Moms, but has super useful advice for anyone trying to combine a prayerful attitude with hard work. My husband loved it. If you've heard of the Carmelite Brother Lawrence, this book is an inspiring modern update on his Christian philosophy.