Years ago when I entered religious life I remember my novice director saying something to our new group which seemed really strange at the time. After we had our formal entrance she said she would pray for us daily and part of that prayer would be that we would have little to do. What a thing to say to novices who had barely begun! But as time went on I realized what she meant. All of us who had entered were coming from busy professional lives, and so we needed to learn how to slow down and listen to the Lord. Her prayer was not a wish that we would be bored. Rather, she hoped we would not become so distracted by classes and the busyness of the retreat house in which we lived that we would forget to listen to God. We were in formation and we needed to become women of prayer. It meant that she was praying we would learn to become more aware of God around us and fall more deeply in love with Him. One can only do that by making our time available to God.
Anyone growing in the spiritual life needs to have some non-distracted time for God. It needs to be a consistent effort to make time available not just for God, but to Him. Both are good and we need to do both, but the distinction I am making is this: time for God can be time in which we serve Him, or we think about Him, or even send off a quick prayer for someone or for ourselves. Time available to God is time in which I make myself totally open to Him, listening and being present to Him, as He is present to me. This means habitual, focused, dedicated time which is directed toward prayer; it cannot be done in 5 minutes here or there. It is the personal prayer period which is time spent meeting with God, as one spends time with a dear Friend who waits for our daily arrival. Prayer all day long in bits and pieces is not a bad thing. It means our minds and hearts are attuned to God. In fact, St. Paul says to pray always, (1 Thessalonians). But if we do not have a foundation, that is, a relationship based on significant time spent with the Lord, we will not progress in our spiritual lives.
The reality is that prayer takes work, just as any other relationship does. It takes discipline to return every day to meet with the Lord in order to allow Him to mold us. It has to be a priority in our lives. Just as I see people running or jogging day after day, I know that there are days some of them may not want to be there. But they know if they want to grow healthier, or to run a marathon, or whatever their goal is, they have to do it every day. So it is with prayer. If my relationship with God is not a priority, then I will not put in the time I need to do more than just tell Him my needs and wants. If I do not avail myself to Him, I will not grow very readily in the spiritual life. There is no easy way to sanctity without spending time with God in prayer.
Just as an athlete cannot even think of competing without all the training that comes before it, one cannot advance in the spiritual life without working at it. In the early church those who retreated into the edges of town, often said to be living in the desert, were called ascetics. The word ascetic comes from a Greek word, askein, which means, "to train as an athlete." The early ascetics began the practice of prayer out in the desert because they wanted to become true disciples of Jesus. They wanted to give all in the only way they knew, which meant leaving everything and retreating to the desert to become like Christ, fully submissive to the Father so they could take what they learned back into the community to serve. They wanted to grow in relationship with God because they loved Him.
In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus was the leader of such a community. He came up with a list of evil thoughts or temptations to avoid. These eventually became what we now refer to as the seven deadly sins. (Originally he had eight on his list, but that might be the subject of another blog.) One of the temptations Evagrius warned his brother monks to beware of is acedia, which is a type of spiritual laziness. He referred to it as “the noonday devil.” This laziness was a kind of stupor into which the monk would find himself sinking. It was a spiritual boredom which would overtake many of the monks every day when their practice of praying became tedious. They would rise with the dawn, fervent in prayer. Then as the morning progressed they would become more and more tired and distracted in their efforts. By noon when the heat of the day was upon them, they would quit their efforts at prayer. Hence, the noonday devil was the attitude which tempted them to simply give up.
This term also refers to the malaise that can overtake the entire journey in the spiritual life in prayer. When we are beginners we are in a type of honeymoon phase. Everything feels good, easy, light. We are eager to pray because of our love for God; we have a lot of consolation, that is, a sense of God’s presence. But then it suddenly begins to feel like nothing we do is working, that He is long gone, and we are tempted to give up. In reality what has happened is that God has gone deeper, beyond our ability to feel or sense His presence and He invites us to that new depth. He is indeed present, but now we have to enter into the dryness of what feels like a lack of all those felt assurances we once had. The honeymoon is over and the real work of growth in the relationship begins.
The noonday devil, then, is the temptation to give up on this process. We get so frustrated with what feels like a lack of progress that we often simply stop praying. The worst problem with the noonday devil is that this attitude can spill over into other things and can deceive us into stopping other spiritual practices as well. We can feel like Mass or other spiritual practices are dry, so we cut back or stop altogether. Everything becomes routine; we become complacent and life seems to be okay, so the fire of our love gets cooled. Little by little we are lulled away from what once was a priority, and God slips to the background. Oh, we do not stop believing, but we become stunted in our spiritual life.
Evagrius warned the monks not to give up when prayer became difficult. He knew that we can be tempted into thinking that God has abandoned us when the exact opposite is what is true. St. Ignatius Loyola, (and other writers about prayer such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis de Sales), counseled us not to give into this temptation. St. Ignatius said that when prayer seems dry and too laborious, boring, or like an empty pursuit, that we should pray 5 minutes longer than we originally planned! He says to move against the temptation to quit.
So let us remain steadfast and strong in our efforts at prayer. All attempts at prayer are good, but we need to put in the time if we want to grow. We can ask the Holy Spirit to give us what we need to hang in there when it seems dry, trusting that it is an invitation to deeper prayer. The more we grow in prayer, the more our hearts are moved with compassion to serve the Lord by serving others. The more we serve, the more we begin to see the presence of God around us. And the more we see the presence of God around us, the more we fall in love with Him. It is a wonderful process and it is His gift to us.
May each of us have the perseverance to stay on the journey when our prayer begins to feel dry! May God enliven the graces of faith, hope, and love which we were given at Baptism so that we trust Him during times of temptation! May we have the courage to trust that God never leaves us alone at any time in our journey! And may we know the presence of God, which is the love that is so deeply embedded in our hearts that it is beyond words! Let us meet in the Heart of the Lord where He shields us from the noonday heat! Peace!
All the photos are mine, from a trip to New Mexico last year.
Heart Speaks to Heart