Four suggestions for praying better at Mass...

Have you ever fallen into the routine of worship? What I mean is, the recitation of prayers and the adoption of certain postures and gestures without any thought of what you are doing. If you are anything like me, than it happens almost every Sunday.

It is difficult to put your full mind and heart, at times, into the prayer your reciting when you know it by heart, especially when the kid in front of you is staring at you like he has telekinetic powers that will make your head explode. It is hard not to get distracted by the woman shuffling through her handbag in search of the pair of glasses on top of her head or the teenager who is about to give himself whiplash from his inability to support the weight of his head as he falls asleep. And while you are busy contemplating what these folks are doing or predicting what is about to happen to them, you are reciting your prayers without stumbling, right? Except for maybe that new one that says, "right and just..." instead of "right to give Him thanks and praise..." 

Then, after the fifteen or so times that you were busy fixing your cuticles while reciting the words like a boss, you have the audacity to say, "I'm sufficiently prepared to receive Communion!" and in good order, you stand up and waddle toward the Eucharistic Minister wondering if you are too close to the person in front of you and if it looks awkward to others around you. Or maybe I am the only person who goes through all this.

I do what I can to stay focused, and I have found a few things that have helped me limit the distractions I suffer during prayer. So, I wanted to share a few of them with you.

Pray with your heart, and not just with your mouth:

Every so often, I go to Mass and I make a point of not saying the prayers out loud. It is a sort of systems check that I have. I can gauge how successfully I engage the words of the prayers if, by accident and reflex, I say a few of them aloud. It also helps to pinpoint the parts of the Mass that I am most distracted during. I have found that my tendency is to vocalize certain prayers at particular parts of the Mass reflexively. 

When I catch myself doing this, it helps me to recognize that I am distracted and to focus on the words I am saying. The next time I go to Mass I can preempt my distraction by battening down the hatches and increasing my focus ahead of my "zoning" zone. In the quiet moments leading up to those parts I like to say a quick prayer that I might fully unite my prayer with that of the Mass.

Pray with your mind, and not just with your heart:

St. Thérèse of Lisieux says, "prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven..." and while I do not intend to disagree with her, I would like to suggest a practice that helps to orient the surges of our hearts toward heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that prayer is gift, it is not something of our own creation (CCC 2559-2561). In as much as it is a gift, we have to be open to receiving it. In humility we have to acknowledge that "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26).

It is therefore a good practice to rely on the missal from time to time. Sometimes we forget that all the prayers, postures, and gestures are written down for us. Nearly every church has some form of the missal in the pews. Most of those missals are also hymnals (or maybe the hymnals are also missals) and contain the parts of the Mass in the first few pages. 

Furthermore, when was the last time you prayed the words of the Eucharistic Prayer along with the priest? I am not suggesting that we all start saying those words aloud. But at that part of the Mass we can orient the prayers of our heart better by listening more intently to the words the priest says by reading (in your head) along simultaneously. 

Relying on the missal from time to time has helped me to better understand who and what we are praying for, why we are praying for them, and by what means we offer our prayers. This knowledge and understanding has deepened the prayers of my heart, so that it surges quite effectively. We should not forget that love is predicated on knowledge, and the more we know and understand, the better we can orient the desires of our hearts. True love depends on a properly ordered will, and it belongs to the mind to order the will properly. This begins with the humility to pray the Mass, not according to our own desires, but according to the desires of our Mother the Church.

Pray with your soul, and not just with your body:

The soul is the act and form of the body. What the soul does the body does. Furthermore, the intellect and will are the powers of the soul. In order for full and active participation in the Mass, we must first engage both powers of the soul. I have already mentioned two practices to help focus those powers. Now, I would like to suggest a third. 

Not participating in the Mass by assuming the proper postures would be both distracting and irreverent. There are reasons for the postures that we adopt, e.g. kneeling is posture of humility and adoration. So, make a habit of prayer during the changes of postures that by that posture you may adopt a similar spiritual disposition. 

I have found that I can engage the prayers more easily when I know that be kneeling or standing or sitting, I am supposed to be doing something with my heart. Asking for God to do that thing with my heart has fruitfully opened my heart to many insights in prayer.

Pray fully with your body:

There are all degrees to which we can use our bodies in prayer, and many of us have to adapt to our own physical limitations.  When capable, however, there is no reason to put forth anything less than a full effort. Here are three postures and gestures to avoid whenever possible:

1. the Pious Curtsey - A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil (GIRM 274).

2. the Sign of the [fanning myself] Cross - When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small, cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large, unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us all at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us ... (Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs, 1927).

3. The Sit/Kneel - What once was a posture of penance, kneeling has come to signify adoration by assuming a posture of humility and submission. Kneeling signifies the submission of our wills to the will of God and a lack of self-reliance. Recognizing our need for penance and reliance on God is in itself an act of adoration. Whenever possible, we should make this sign of adoration without recourse to the pew for the sake of our own comfort.

1 comment:

  1. When I focus too much on the priest's words during the Eucharistic Prayer, I wind up getting distracted when he gets it wrong! When the Mass is *prayed*, though, and not just *said*, it has moved me to tears before.