After a cozy (if noisy) evening watching My Fair Lady with my family, we welcomed my mum back after a week away, and sat down to a late dinner of pork and beans. The conversation was lively, and my littlest niece aged 1.5 was getting louder and more emphatic as she yelled, “Mummy-O! Daddy-O! Nanny-O!” across the room at us. My oldest niece sat by me, and after dinner she curled into my lap. She’s ten years old and long and lanky now, so not all of her fit on me. But that didn’t stop her.
“Do kuru-kuru! Please! I’ll play with your hair in exchange… and give you a massage… and let you read me a story…”
“Oh you’ll LET me, will you?”
Kuru-kuru is a light scratching-stroking motion we do on my nieces’ arms or legs. It has been a comforting and soothing routine from the time they were tiny, often used at bedtime, but we hardly do it now that they are so much older. I started stroking her. After a moment she started smiling to herself, a smile that spilled out of her, like she couldn’t contain it.
“What?” I said. “Why are you smiling?”
“I’m so lucky to have an auntie like you.”
My own heart expanded and glowed.
What does this have to do with prayer? I’ve been attempting to have a personal prayer time since I was 14 years old. As a full-time Catholic volunteer, I am committed to having a daily prayer time. It’s practically a job requirement. I give talks about prayer, telling people “You can’t have a relationship with Jesus if you don’t spend time with Him daily.”
And yet, it’s still a struggle. I don’t run to prayer, and often think of many other things I would rather do. Prayer often feels like a chore, something to tick off a to-do list. I know and love Jesus, so why do I so often feel like avoiding prayer? Well, for one because ‘prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God.’ CCC 2725
I think the way I am tempted is to forget what prayer really is. I know enough to realize I need to show up for prayer and be consistent even when I don’t have good feelings or great reflections and insights – that God can still work in me as long as I’m willing to show up. But still once I’m there, I often feel like I need to DO the things, you know, thank Him, ask forgiveness, read Scripture, reflect, write something in my journal, ask for what I need. Not bad things. But it’s like going on a date and going through the motions. ‘According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.’ CCC 2562
Being with my niece helped me remember a retreat I attended some years ago. The speaker talked about the tendency in many Christians to focus on our work, our mission. We talk about being filled up and then go and empty ourselves, and then come back to God to be filled up again like filling petrol at a petrol pump. “But we’re not calling to leave the Father at all! We need to remember our MISSION comes from our IDENTITY and our IDENTITY comes from our RELATIONSHIP with the Father. We need to REMAIN within the embrace of the Father. It’s when we forget the order that we burn out. The order is always RELATIONSHIP-IDENTITY-MISSION. Imagine that the Father’s embrace is a big armchair. We constantly feel like we need to get up and go do stuff on our own. But the job of our community is to push us back into that chair, remind us where we need to be.”
As I turned to prayer that day, I set aside even my ‘prayer to-do-list’. I put on the song ‘Pieces’ from Bethel. And I gazed out of the window at the green outside and the sky beyond. I breathed in the cool air, and I leaned into the Lord. I just allowed Him to hold me. I let go of the burdens I was clinging to. I let the stress I wasn’t even aware of drain from my body. And I smiled up at Him. I felt so loved, so safe.
Why is prayer such a chore? Because I keep forgetting that it just means resting in the Father’s embrace, smiling up at Him and allowing Him to love me. It took my niece gazing up at me the same way to remind me yet again that it all comes back to love. That doesn’t mean prayer is easy. It’s still a battle. ‘Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort.’ CCC 2725
But the battle isn’t to achieve the most amazing prayer time, or to somehow make myself better at prayer. Instead the battle is to place myself in the arms of the Father, and remain there.
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