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POPE’S MESSAGE | True progress in spiritual life consists of perseverance in difficult times

At audience May 19, Pope Francis discussed some of the difficulties that present themselves in prayer

Dear brothers and sisters, good morning!

Continuing along the same lines of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in this catechesis we refer to the lived experience of prayer, trying to show some very common difficulties, which must be identified and overcome. Praying is not easy: many difficulties present themselves in prayer. It is necessary to know them, recognize them and overcome them.

The first problem that emerges to those who pray is distraction (CCC, 2729). You start to pray and then your mind wanders, it wanders all over the world; your heart is here, your mind is there … distraction from prayer. Prayer often co-exists with distraction. Indeed, the human mind struggles to dwell for long on a single thought. We all experience this constant whirlwind of images and illusions in perpetual motion, which accompanies us even during sleep. And we all know that it is not good to follow this inclination towards disorder.

The battle to achieve and maintain concentration does not relate only to prayer. If one does not attain a sufficient level of concentration, one cannot study profitably, nor can one work well. Athletes know that contests are not won solely through physical training, but also with mental discipline: above all, with the capacity to concentrate and to remain focused.

Distractions are not to blame, but they must be fought. In the heritage of our faith there is a virtue that is often forgotten, but which is quite present in the Gospel. It is called “vigilance.” And Jesus said, “Keep vigil. Pray.” The Catechism mentions it explicitly in its instruction on prayer (CCC 2730). Jesus often calls the disciples to the duty of a sober life, guided by the thought that sooner or later He will return, like a bridegroom from a wedding or a master from a journey. ... They did not stray in pursuit of every attraction that entered their minds, but tried to walk the right path, doing good and performing their own task.

This is distraction: the imagination wanders, it wanders and wanders…. St. Teresa used to call this imagination that wanders and wanders in prayer “the madwoman in the house”; it is like a madwoman that leads you to wander here and there … We must stop it and put it in a cage, with attention.

The time of barrenness warrants a different discourse. The Catechism describes it this way: “the heart is separated from God, with no taste for thoughts, memories, and feelings, even spiritual ones. This is the moment of sheer faith clinging faithfully to Jesus in His agony and in His tomb” (CCC 2731). Barrenness makes us think of Good Friday, at night, and Holy Saturday, the whole day: Jesus is not there, He is in the tomb; Jesus is dead: we are alone. And this is the “mother-thought” of barrenness. Often we do not know what the reasons for barrenness are: it may depend on ourselves, but also on God, who permits certain situations in the exterior or interior life. Or, at times, it may be a headache or a sick feeling that stops us from entering into prayer. Often we do not really know the reason. Spiritual teachers describe the experience of faith as a continuous alternation between times of consolation and desolation; there are times when everything is easy, while others are marked by great weightiness. ... They are those gray days, and there are so many of them in life! But the danger is having a gray heart: when this “feeling down” reaches the heart and sickens it … The heart must be open and luminous, so that the light of the Lord can enter. And if it does not enter, we need to wait for it, with hope. But do not close it up in grayness.

Then, a different thing is sloth, another flaw, another vice, which is a real temptation against prayer and, more generally, against the Christian life. Sloth is “a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart” (CCC, 2733). It is one of the seven “deadly sins” because, fuelled by conceit, it can lead to the death of the soul.

So what can we do in this succession of enthusiasms and discouragements? One must learn to always walk. True progress in spiritual life does not consist in multiplying ecstasies, but in being able to persevere in difficult times: walk, walk, walk on…. and if you are tired, stop a bit and then start walking again. But with perseverance. Let us remember St. Francis’ parable on perfect joy: it is not in the infinite fortunes rained down from heaven that a friar’s skill is measured, but in walking with consistency, even when one is not acknowledged, even when one is mistreated, even when everything has lost its initial flavor. All the saints have passed through this “dark valley,” and let us not be scandalized if, in reading their diaries, we find accounts of evenings of listless prayer, lived without enthusiasm. We must learn to say: “Even though You, my God, seem to be doing everything to make me stop believing in You, I still continue to pray to You.” Believers never shut off prayer! It may sometimes resemble the prayer of Job, who does not accept that God treats him unjustly, protests and calls him to judgment. But, very often, even protesting before God is a way of praying or, as that little old lady said, “getting angry with God is a way to pray too,” because a son often gets angry with his father: it is a way of relating to the father; since he recognizes him as “father,” he gets angry….

And we too, who are far less holy and patient than Job, know that in the end, at the end of this time of desolation, during which we have raised silent cries to heaven and many times have asked “why?” God will answer us. Do not forget the prayer that asks “why?” It is the prayer of children when they begin not to understand things, which psychologists call “the why stage,” because the child asks his father, “Daddy, why?” ... He simply wants to draw his father’s attention to himself; and when we get a little angry with God and start asking “why?” we are attracting our Father’s heart toward our misery, toward our difficulty, toward our life. But yes, have the courage to say to God: “But why?” Because at times, getting a little angry is good for you, because it reawakens that son-father, daughter-father relationship we must have with God. And He will accept even our harshest and bitterest expressions with a father’s love, and will consider them as an act of faith, as a prayer.

— Pope Francis

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