When Words Fail: A Reminder of Prayer

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Our family has a newborn baby in the home. It’s a time of joy, a time of adjustment, and a time of sheer exhaustion. A month into this one being home, the baby still insists playtime is between 1-4 AM, and bedtime is all other hours when the sun is shining; however, the other children in the home and most businesses don’t agree with the newest arrival’s schedule. Like most parents with newborns, during this time I am running on fumes. And, let me be clear, I am not complaining; I am simply stating a fact. 

Recently, in the middle of the night, as I fed the baby for the third time in as many hours, I found myself praying a Hail Mary — not for any reason in particular, but because I wanted to pray, but had no words. I didn’t get through all of it before I fell back asleep, but the next morning, I spent some time considering the ways in which I feel parts of my prayer life has inadvertently taken a back seat to motherhood.

There are many times in one’s life in which our prayer life may shift or change. For some individuals, the prayer life may stall, or die entirely, and each person has their own reason. The change may accompany a new human in the house. Or it may accompany a change in employment, or a change in humble abode. Yet the change is something felt deep within our souls.

Catholics have often been accused of relying on rote prayers, as opposed to fostering an individual, personal connection with God. We have been accused of praying “to” the saints, accused of worshiping the ones who have gone before us, paving the way through their earthly actions. Being a cradle Catholic who was not effectively catechized, I actually fell into a habit for many years of saying my prayers, rather than praying my prayers. Simply put, I said the words with little (to no) regard for their meaning; sometimes, I said them as quickly as possible, knowing as soon as I was finished, I could move on to another task — or to sleep. 

However, we are all called to develop and hone our relationship with God. As St. Teresa of Avila is credited with saying, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” As with every relationship, the ultimate relationship we have with God must be cultivated, which requires us to get real, to get personal, to get intimate, and to get spontaneous with God. He sees us at our best… and, at our worst.

There are times in every person’s prayer life in which we will go deeper, and we will grow deeper. This usually happens when we are spending time in prayer with God, allowing Him to see us as the sinners we are, but then allowing ourselves an opportunity to stand (or kneel) quietly and listen with the depths of our soul. These experiences, in which we feel so tenderly connected to our Creator, allows us to fully embrace Him, and to fully embrace the relationship our souls are destined to constantly seek. These instances in our prayer life can be encouraging and motivating — they recharge our spiritual batteries, allowing us to bask in the beauty of the complete relationship we are experiencing with God.

Then, as is inevitable with life, we have moments in which the spontaneity wanes, the intimacy falls short, and the personal gets a little too personal. We struggle with getting real. Perhaps it is because of exhaustion, perhaps it is because we want to withhold something from God, or perhaps it is even because we are struggling with trust in His goodness and plans for us. But, whatever the reason, sometimes it is downright difficult to share everything with God.

It is precisely during those times, when words fail, that our rote prayers become so beautiful and even more amazing. During the times in which we feel as though we are simply going through the motions, or saying the prayers for the sake of habit or discipline, we are able to find a little bit of relief. When our words find themselves lacking, rote prayers not only serve to allow us to communicate to God, but to also give us a chance to remember what is important — the messages behind the words of the prayers.

Perhaps the most encouraging bit of prayer is that not one way fits all — and, even if others have another way of praying, God still accepts our prayers. No matter how meek and humble of heart we may experience, God willingly takes any and all attempts to cultivate our relationship — even if we are struggling to prayerfully contemplate the words of rote prayer. When we accept the rote prayer on our hearts, or on our lips, and we focus on the more than simply the speed or the words, we begin to appreciate the depth of God’s love for us, and the meaning behind the words. 

So, if you are like me, and struggling to just eke out a single Hail Mary in the middle of the night, or only have the heart to pray an Our Father — or, even “just” the Guardian Angel prayer — have faith. God sees your best. He knows whether or not the desire to do more is present. He knows your circumstance. And, He sees your reflection on the meaning of the words.

Your attempts to pray are beautiful in His sight – even if the prayers are said in a haze of sleepiness, even in the hustle of commuting children to and from school or appointments, or even as you feverishly work to meet a deadline. 

The purpose of prayer is to cultivate your relationship with God. Spontaneous prayer has its purpose. Yet, when words fail, rote prayers also serve their own powerful purpose.

I’d love to hear from you: Which type of prayer do you prefer, the spontaneous or rote prayer? Is there a favorite, go-to prayer for you? What obstacles do you face when praying, and how do you tackle those challenges?


Copyright 2018 AnnAliese Harry

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About Author

AnnAliese Harry is a proud Army wife to her husband Chris, and a mother to their young children. She has a BA in History, a Masters in Social Work, and has worked with disabled veterans, troubled teens, and in early childhood intervention therapy. AnnAliese volunteers with several military chapel communities and serves as a lector, EMHC, Adoration coordinator, and Catholic Women of the Chapel (CWOC) chapter president and vice president. She blogs about Catholicism, parenting, and military life at A Beautiful, Camouflaged Mess of A Life. Follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Phanice omondi on

    You have talked to me personally n I feel that doing both rote n spontaneous cultivates growth n understanding. Doing one routine all the time tends to be boring n results in being stagnant

    • I agree 100% – rote and spontaneous prayer have distinct, but equal value. And, doing just one thing makes us more likely to have our spiritual journey stall. Thank you for letting me know your thought on this piece!

  2. Nice post. Personally I find the rosary to be an extremely powerful prayer in my life, especially when said with the family or with my husband. And, as the nuns used to tell us in Catholic school, if you fall asleep saying the rosary your guardian angel finishes it for you. 🙂
    And…there have also been times in my life when the only prayer I can muster is “Lord, help.”

    • I was introduced to the thought that the Guardian Angel finishes the Rosary just a couple years ago. It’s a comforting thought!

      And, I think sometimes our most powerful prayers are the shortest ones – one of my more recent ones has been, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” A quick prayer, but when we think of the meaning and gravity of the simple sentence, it is powerful. “Lord, help,” is another powerful, brief prayer.

      I love hearing about others’ devotion to the Rosary – I admit, I struggle with that particular devotion. However, it has its time and place as a prayer-aide.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. This post has struck me for two reasons –
    1. During a homily not long ago, our Priest talked about this very topic. He cited that when Pope John Paul II was shot, he was heard reciting a prayer (can’t recall which one now) on the way to the hospital. The message further was that it is beautiful to be able to rely on the truths/prayers that are so ingrained in our minds/beings during the times that we need God more than our words can ask.
    2. I’ve begun to rely on rote prayers more and more when I wake in the night. Repeating them and contemplating them provides an amazing sense of peace.
    Thank you for your words.

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