Have you had one of those days, or weeks, or YEARS, when everything seems to be a mess? You can’t think straight, or all your thoughts are ones you’d rather not be having; you are disconnected from what is happening around you or just waiting for the day to end. You may be suffering a loss, experiencing a stressful time, or have a more chronic mental illness. Whatever it is, often when I’m in these places, I find it almost impossible to pray as I usually would. I, like you, am an enfleshed soul. I am my body, and my body is me. The two cannot be separated except in death. Consequently, when I am struggling physically or mentally, my prayer is affected too.
What to do?
Below are my go-to tips for prayer when I’m struggling to pray or struggling even to want to pray.
- Keep It Simple:
The Church has a goldmine of simple, short, repetitive prayers that are perfect for those times when you can barely form a thought, your anxiety is kicked into high gear, or your thoughts are too dark to sit in silence with them. Some of my favorites include:
- The prayer painted at the bottom of the Divine Mercy image at Jesus’ request: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
- The Eastern prayer of the heart (The Jesus Prayer): “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
- Singing the refrain, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
- Simply repeating the name of Jesus over and over again
Praying one of these prayers over and over makes for beautiful and beloved time with Jesus.
“The name of Jesus is at the heart of Christian prayer” (CCC 435).
2. Be Real and Let Jesus Do the Heavy Lifting:
Jesus can only will that which is possible. He wants you just as you are, with all your brokenness, limitations, and failures.
“If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him… He does nothing in vain… He knows what He is about.” (St. John Henry Cardinal Newman)
Don’t be afraid to yell, cry, run around in circles, or do whatever helps you open your heart wide to let Jesus in (although I suggest going somewhere other than a crowded chapel if you want to run around). Have you learned any coping skills that help you with your mental health struggles? Can you apply them to prayer? Take deep breaths. Eat a good meal or snack before prayer. Bring an ice pack or adult coloring book with you.
God is not afraid of you, even in your darkest moments. He will not be scandalized by you or turned off. He wants you, all of you, always and forever.
3. Be Kind to Yourself and Begin Again:
“Yet to those who repent he grants a return, and he encourages those whose endurance is failing.” (Sirach 17:24)
When I’m really struggling, one “whose endurance is failing” could be written on my nametag. I thank God for his mercy, encouragement, and pursuit of me! Sometimes mental illness distorts our view of ourselves, and relational trauma can hinder our ability to receive love from God the Father, Mary, our Mother, or Jesus, our friend, and bridegroom. Find the person of the Trinity or a saint who you can connect with, and start there. Oh, how they look at you with love! Seek to see yourself in their eyes. This is especially important for my friends out there with scruples.
No matter how many times, how badly, or how long you think you have been away from God, he has never left you and is eagerly awaiting the moment you next turn to Him. The sacrament of reconciliation and the forgiving grace available through it are an important part of our faith, but you do not have to wait even one more moment to turn back to God and to start up a committed prayer life once again. Open your heart to Christ in this moment. Be kind to yourself and begin again.
4. Return to Wellsprings of Grace:
Can you remember a time when you felt really close to God? A scripture that struck you? How about a place that filled you with the peace of Christ? Go back to those places as often as you can (even if only in your imagination, in the case of the location)! The Lord desires to remind you of His love and fill you with His grace once again.
As St. Teresa of Avila describes, the evil one “knows that in remembering the graces received, we find strength against his present temptations, and, for this reason, he tries to lead us to forget.” 1
Can’t think of anything at the moment? The Church tells us of wellsprings where Christ is always waiting “to enable us to drink of the Holy Spirit.” 2 I don’t know about you, but when I find it difficult to pray, I can use some enabling help from Jesus and a big gulping drink of the Holy Spirit. Here are some of the places our beloved Mother Church proposes to go:
- The Word of God: Scripture is a great place to jump-start your prayer. Check out these resources for more tips on praying with scripture.
- The Liturgy of the Church: In addition to Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is a wonderful way to join your prayer with that of the Church. When your heart and mind are in chaos, and you feel far from God, you are invited to pray with the heart and mind of the Church: “Even when it is lived out ‘in secret,’ prayer is always of the Church.” 2
- Today: “[I]t is in the present that we encounter [Jesus], not yesterday nor tomorrow, but today.” A common coping skill for anxiety is to focus on the present moment. This can help our prayer too. Invite God into the details of this present moment. What do you hear? What do you smell, see, feel, or taste? Invite God to experience this moment with you.
5. Get Help and Have Hope:
“It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18b)
We were made for community. Don’t try to do this alone. Find a good counselor who is supportive of your desire for holiness (or at least your desire to desire holiness). Find a spiritual director who is willing to work with you and/or your counselor to understand your mental health situation. Find a friend (or several) who can accompany you, challenge you, and comfort you as you strive to grow in knowledge and love of the Lord. One person cannot hold the weight of being your everything, and that includes yourself. In addition to the Lord, we need other human beings to support us. We need friends, community, and sometimes professionals too.
“So you know not the work of God which he is accomplishing in the universe.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5b)
Have hope and invite the Holy Spirit to pray the following prayer through you:
“God has created me to do Him some definite service, He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next… I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. … Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him… He does nothing in vain… He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me – still He knows what He is about. Amen.” (St. John Henry Cardinal Newman)