As I pulled on my favorite exercise shirt, I glanced in the mirror to read its message. “Powered by Prayer” with a Chi-rho, one of the earliest forms of a Christogram, in place of the “by” caught my eye. I stared for a minute at my reflection and closed my eyes. I was feeling pretty exhausted, more like I was running on fumes, and I realized my tank was empty.
I was keen to the fact that my prayer life seemed to wax and wane with my schedule, and my busy routine of working full time as a school nurse, running our Catholic Women’s Conference, writing, and speaking had taken its toll. It was so easy to get off track, but I convinced myself that I was doing the Lord’s work, and that I was doing all I could at the time.
That evening, as I dragged my exhausted body to bed, I started reading a new book called Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith and Get to Heaven by Patti Maguire Armstrong.
The book is filled with nearly five hundred simple and creative ways to grow in holiness. I was struck by this profound story Armstrong shared about the primacy of prayer and how it could not be replaced with good deeds:
Msgr. John Esseff, a priest in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for sixty-five years and an exorcist for more than forty years, shared with me about a time in his early priesthood when he spent an inordinate amount of time on social justice concerns at the expense of his prayer life.“In my experiences with ministry as a young priest, I was very much driven and worked long hours. One night, I came home late from a meeting to my second-floor apartment. As I opened the door to go into the apartment, I sensed someone was standing in the doorway. I felt a presence there. I put on the light but could not see anyone. I walked down the hall to my room. As I stood there, I lit a cigarette (I still smoked back then) and thought I better talk to whoever it was. ‘If you are the devil, I’m not afraid,’ I said, but really, I was terrified. ‘If you are an angel, leave me in peace. And if you are a soul in purgatory, I’ll pray for you.’ I knelt down at my bed and began praying the Rosary. Peace came over me. This scenario played itself repeatedly over the next three months. I thought I was going crazy and eventually talked with another priest, Fr. Clement Markowski, about it. He believed that it was the presence of Mary I had been experiencing. The fear always disappeared when I knelt and began the Rosary. Fr. Markowski told me that Mary was drawing me to prayer at a time I was vulnerable. At that time, although I had busied myself doing what I believed was God’s work, I was not praying. The sixties had become an era of good works—with too much emphasis on ministry at the expense of prayer. Like many others, I thought as long as I was busy doing God’s work, prayer could often be pushed aside. This made me very vulnerable. Among priests today, the percent that lose commitment to their vocation and drop out is very high in the first five years. I could have easily become spiritually crippled because of my lack of prayer. The presence of Mary was a warning, and it drew me into prayer.”
Copyright 2019 Michele Faehnle
Excerpt reprinted with permission, Ave Maria Press, 2019.