There is a sort of Christian spirituality that underlines the joy in living the Gospel. This is, of course, very true. At Mass this morning, Fr. Vincent referred to the “little virtues” cultivated by the the Visitation nuns. I was struck by the mention of joy, of patience, of peace–peace in the midst of doubts and trials, for example. Perhaps the same can be said of joy: joy in the midst trials or stress or disappointment. That’s hardly the same as a mindless happiness even if disaster is coming down the pike. That’s not the same as always feeling good about the world around us or ourselves. It’s not unknown that Christians can doubt the value of their prayer if they are not feeling confident or optimistic. I believe that is a trap.
I’m not advocating the sort of spirituality that privileges misery and defines “joy” in such a manner as to presume it’s there even when I’m infecting everyone with my gloom! No, joy is joyful or it’s not joy. But confidence and optimism are not symptoms of joy. They might even indicate denial. Think of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemani: Father, take this cup from me… I would not be quick to conclude that there was something lacking in that prayer as sweat ran down like drops of blood.
I think of that verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26). I’ve often thought of that verse in terms of Pentecostal prayer until I found myself in situations where I had no words, just the need to pray, because I felt overwhelmed and could do nothing else but sigh. “Sighs too deep for words” is how St. Paul describes the intercession of the Holy Spirit for us. What a consoling thought!
Sometimes in times of stress we feel our helplessness so deeply that we also feel in a right relationship to God: I am not autonomous but depend on God’s love, God’s wisdom, God’s providence. In a sense, prayer becomes as “easy” as it is uncomfortable. The trying circumstances are rich food for prayer. Think of the manure we put around rose bushes.
But prayer doesn’t take care of itself. This morning I opened an email that gave me very good advice. You have accomplished so much in such a short time: no wonder you are feeling as though you are running on empty! Do take time to breathe deeply and refresh yourself with prayer and solitude. I know that, on some level I know that and would tell that to someone else. But I can’t figure that out for myself and efficiently tell myself that when I need to. Someone else must tell me. I need to hear it from another to hear it at all. That’s the marvelous about how we human beings are put together: I can’t do it on my own. Even in my most “personal” prayer, I am connected with others in the body of faith.