The Real Benefit of Solitude
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A recent podcast with Erik Fisher and Cal Newport brought to light the topic of solitude. Newport, the Georgetown professor and author of Deep Work cites Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership by Solitude by  Raymond R. Kethledge who describes solitude as “a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds”.


This makes sense. We’ve all been alone in a solitary way- you’re by yourself in a room and no one else is around. Some of us are more comfortable with this than others. Introverts in particular revel in this form of solitude- it’s a space to recharge.


There are other forms of solitude as well. Think about it- each of us can also relate to being alone but in the context of other people. You go for a run and see other people also working out, you find a coffee shop to do some work and see dozens of others walk in and out of the shop. This is a surprising sort of aloneness- alone but with others. Sort of an “alone togetherness”.


There’s alone by myself and alone in the context of others.


Newport’s point: rich solitude (i.e. “good” solitude) is that which is free from the influence of others’ minds. You’re alone, in one way or another, and free to think and pray on your own. You may be in public. You may be surrounded by hundreds of other people. Still, you have a sense of self, a space to think and pray on your own.


There is tremendous power in this. It applies very much to prayer.


The average person is quite busy. They have commitments and errands and places to be. I know that I do. Now consider the busy Christian- still running around but expected to be prayerful at the same time. This is where prayerfulness gets tested. I sat recently with a couple and their three young children. The wife, obviously a good mother, admitted that some days are just so full of this-and-thats that she forgets to pray.

 

I totally get it. Can you relate? 


The million dollar question emerges quickly enough: how do you maintain prayerfulness amidst a busy schedule? Or, in layman’s terms- how do you take your faith with you?


And here is where we apply Kethledge’s concept of solitude. The Christian, embedded in the world, is prayerful because they retain that sense of self while they are going about their day. They find moments of prayer because they have cultivated the muscle of returning to their source: their relationship with God. They know that God has loved them and grounds them in a profound sense of adoption. They bring solitude with them and then, when God-inspiration-faith strikes, they activate their solitude and reconvene with the Lord. 


This relationship with God “pops up” at various times during the day- a spontaneous thought, a recollection of something they read in the Scriptures, a vocal prayer that emerges. These are delightful and can be unexpected. The good news is that you can become a more prayerful person and these God-moments can become the norm rather than the exception. 

 

You really can practice a healthy solitude as a result of never being fully alone. God is always with you and you can revel in this truth. Now that puts new light on solitude.

_____________________

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Should You Kneel When You Pray?
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My dad grew up in rural Maine (read: very remote). He tells the story of how he would pray each night before going to bed. Kneeling at the side of his bed, he would say his prayers. This was what you did when you grew up in a large Catholic family. I doubt there was much thought as to whether or not kneeling was the most conducive posture for prayer.

At church, we often have times when we kneel as we pray.

This might include kneeling prior to Mass, kneeling during certain parts of the Mass and even after Holy Communion. Kneeling is, for Catholics, a routine physical position for praying.

A question that I’ve been thinking about lately is this- when does it make sense to kneel and when is it counterproductive to praying?

I know that some will say that you must pray kneeling, that it’s non-negotiable. The thinking goes that if God Himself appeared in your home today at 2pm, would you just give him a high-five (as if he was an ordinary guest) or would you be compelled to kneel? If that is our “frame” for answering the kneel-sit question, kneeling would be the appropriate response. The Lord deserves some gesture of respect, adoration and worship.

Still, I’m not sure it has to be a zero-sum game when it comes to kneeling during prayer.

A better way of thinking on this might be to look at prayer as having defaults and exceptions.

A default for prayer at Mass might be to kneel while an exception would make sense for someone who is aged or literally cannot kneel.

Ask yourself- is God more concerned with the posture of your kneeling or the condition of your heart? In an age of decreased piety (i.e. less kneeling), we can answer this delicately. I see, even among many religious leaders, a lack of piety. To reiterate- kneeling is the norm and should be done when possible. My point is simply to expand the conversation and recognize that there may be other times when it’s acceptable not to kneel.

Kneeling surely has benefits. It contributes to our piety. It is a gesture of humility. It speaks of surrender. It reveals vulnerability. 

In sum, kneeling is a good thing.

It’s the times when we cannot kneel or that it doesn’t make sense to kneel that we need more reflection. We’ve already mentioned the times when you physically cannot kneel. Age, an injury, etc. What about other times when kneeling might be counterproductive?

I attended a large ministry event a year ago and they had Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament one evening. The music was fantastic. The atmosphere was very reverent. The only “catch” if there was one, was that the event lasted for over two hours. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t kneel for that long on concrete. It made sense to spend some time kneeling and some time sitting quietly. Simply “bearing down” and sucking it up wasn’t going to bring me any closer to Jesus if my knees produced pain. A kneeling/sitting strategy worked best.

Both kneeling and sitting can be prayerful postures.  

The key is to pray for the gift of humble piety. Be aware of your surroundings. Notice those around you. When you come into the Lord’s presence, recognize that the space is holy and that your actions will be different as a result. A good genuflection can go a long way. If it’s appropriate to kneel, go for it. If sitting or standing quietly makes more sense and won’t distract others, that may be the best approach.

In closing, Pope Francis’ words from 2014 give us a healthy context for reflecting on kneeling and piety:

“The gift of piety that the Holy Spirit gives us makes us meek; it makes us peaceful, patient and at peace with God in gentle service to others...Some people think that being pious is closing your eyes, putting on a sweet angel face, isn’t that right?” The Holy Father went on to say that piety is “our belonging to God, our deep bond with him, a relationship that gives meaning to our whole life and keeps us resolute, in communion with him, even during the most difficult and troubled moments”.

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How to Pray During a Time of Scandal
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Here in New Jersey, a school superintendent was found to be defecating on a rival school’s athletic track. Meanwhile, a prestigious Catholic school has acknowledged that over a dozen of its priests have been accused of sexual abuse. Nationally, we’ve become accustomed to the President embroiled in legal battles over his own promiscuous behavior.


Scandal. It’s ugly and seemingly everywhere.


No matter who you are, scandal has an effect on you. It can make you negative. It can sap your hope. It can make you sick to your stomach.


The real question isn’t so much about stopping scandal, although that should be on the mind of anyone in a position of authority. Rather, the question I face is more interior: how should you pray in a time of scandal?


The recent flurry of news surrounding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is a painful case study. A prominent cleric who climbed the ecclesial ladder of success is being accused of decades of deviant behavior. He apparently led a secret double life and it’s coming to light as he approaches his 90th birthday.


As the stories of McCarrick’s shadow life emerged, I felt sick to my stomach. Having known people who served in McCarrick’s dioceses, the news seemed even more shocking. How could a charming and magnetic person have so much darkness? And, how could my church not have stopped this?


My anger then diffused to the wider church. Having run a Catholic high school for seven years, I knew every good, bad and ugly thing about my institution. Now magnify that kind of an awareness on the church that propelled McCarrick into higher levels of leadership. People knew. A lot of people must have known. Those that didn’t know the specifics at least knew the generalities.


Sickening. Frustrating. Maddening.


Are we that complacent that we didn’t speak up when children were being abused? Was our affection for a charming cleric so great that we lacked care for those who were being abused?


Resolve. That’s where my own prayers have fallen as the McCarrick story has developed.

  1. I am resolved to pray for the church and pray for those abused.
  2. I am resolved to pray for McCarrick’s soul for it’s clear that he is far from being canonized a saint.
  3. I am resolved to pray for our priests and bishops, that they will cast aside clericalism and pursue holiness above all aims.
  4. I am resolved to not get negative when I feel sad and frustrated by the church.
  5. I am resolved to find ways to improve whatever unhealthy structures have contributed to the church’s total failure related to McCarrick.


We’ve failed, yes. We all hurt in a time like this.


The questions we cannot avoid and must accompany our hurt are these: are we praying daily for the church and all of its members? Can our responsibility for the church make it better? Can we avoid negativism and pursue holiness?

 

So how can you pray during a time of scandal? First, remember that, no matter what is going on “out there”, you and I still have work to do on our own prayer lives. Just because McCarrick’s abhorrent behavior is the talking point of the news doesn’t mean that I am off the hook for having a daily quiet time. In addition to our own daily prayer, we can find creative ways to help the church be more whole and holy. Second, in a time of scandal, you can take the brave step of praying for those that are in the trenches. In particular, I’m thinking of our priests. They need not only prayer but a word of encouragement. Imagine how you would feel if your entire industry was marred by a perception of sexual abuse? It must be lonely and for that reason, our priests need our encouragement. 


I’m resolved. Are you?

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Seven Simple Ways to Sit Still
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It’s not easy to sit still. Think about it. When was the last time that you sat comfortably and just looked out a window, day dreaming about something?

If you’re like most of us, the urge to check your phone can quickly overwhelm what might have been a quiet moment. That daydream? Out the window with another glance at Facebook or Instagram.

It may be deeper than this. Sure, we’re addicted to our smartphones. What if there are other things at play besides this?

In this post, we’ll examine the causes of our difficulty in sitting still for prayer. Then, we will map out seven simple ways to help you become an expert when it comes to sitting still.

The Causes

When you want to have a quiet time, it’s important to be able to sit still. No fidgeting. No distractions. This is of course, harder than it sounds. From my experience, there are four causes to our inability to sit still:

  • Distraction: if you’re home alone, it’s much easier to sit still. If you’re in a church full of hundreds of people, not so much. If there’s a lot of noise around you, sitting still will be difficult.
  • Access to gadgets: what’s close by? Is your phone in your hand? If so, you may be tempted to check your email quickly. Social media might be calling out your name. To the degree that your devices are within hand’s reach, you may find sitting still difficult.
  • Lack of transitions: most of use need time to “ease into” prayer. Don’t assume that, just because you are trying to sit still, that it will come easily. In our solutions list (see below), I’ll help you with this.
  • Fear: prayer involves vulnerability. When you go to sit still and have your quiet time with the Lord, you’re entering uncharted territory. God may speak to you. You may have a thought that is unformed. An inspiration may come to your heart. For most of us, this is scary.

With the causes of our discomfort with sitting still in hand, now we can turn to seven simple solutions (or ways) that will help you to sit still. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but purely practical. I personally use these “tricks” and believe me, they work!

The Solutions

  1. Begin with a phrase. A transition phrase, even if said only in your head, can be a useful “nudge” into sitting still. Using the same phrase can trigger your brain and heart that you are entering into quiet time. I like to use the ancient formula, “O God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.”
  2. Notice your breathing. Just taking notice of your breath will let you know if you are anxious or calm. Pay attention to your body and begin to breath slowly and with intention.
  3. Use a countdown. If sitting still is very (read, VERY) difficult for you, you may try to simply close your eyes and count down from ten to one. This has nothing to do with hypnosis and everything to do with calming your busy mind. There’s something about an old-fashioned countdown that contributes to a peaceful mind.
  4. Set aside your devices. As Jesus says in Matthew 18:8, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” Could the modern day “hand” be your iPhone? I’m not advocating for you to throw away an $800 device. I am saying that your smartphone is probably too tempting and should be set aside while you pray.
  5. Use a journal. A journal is a powerful tool when it comes to sitting still. It helps get things out of your head. It maps progress. It lets you know that you are thinking through issues. It can be a way to write out your prayers.
  6. Fix your eyes. Some of us benefit from a visual focal point when we pray. This may be a crucifix on the wall or an icon on a table in front of you. You might have a Rosary in your hands that you can look at. If you are a “visual prayer”, try to increase your ability to sit still with a focal point for your eyes.
  7. Close your eyes. This may seem counter to #6 but there are just times when you need to close your eyes. I find this particularly true when I’m trying to pray in church or at a public event (i.e. a conference). Closing your eyes is an act of surrender to God, letting Him bring you deeper into intimacy and stillness.

For a bonus strategy, consider using your Bible as a tool for helping you to still still. A short passage can provide context for your quiet time. If you’re familiar with Lectio Divina, this technique can work quite well, making sense of a passage and integrating it into your prayer. It’s always a good idea to have a Bible close by when you are trying to sit still. 

You Can Do This

Sitting still isn’t easy. With some practice however, it is within reach. God desires a rich and fulfilling prayer life for each of us. By sitting still, you’re giving God the space he needs to transform your life and build confidence in your heart. You can do this. God can do this in you.

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What to do When You Feel Inadequate in Prayer

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I recently spent time with a friend who said this, “I’m just not very good at prayer.” This stuck with me for days and I’ve thought about it ever since. My friend is a devout Catholic. He loves his faith and serves the poor in very public ways.


How could a man who has such a strong faith not have confidence in his own prayer life? This very question haunted me for years. In fact, it provided the impetus for my upcoming book The 5 Habits of Prayerful People. I found myself as a freshman in college and teaching myself how to pray.  I was the one asking, “how could I, a Christian for many years, not be comfortable with prayer?”


Can you relate to this? Do you feel inadequate approaching God in prayer? 

 

For Catholics in particular, this question reveals a deep issue. It’s not that Catholics don’t have faith- Lord knows they do!  Rather, it’s the living cultivation of a personal relationship with the Lord that is tough sledding for many. Protestants, more versed in the process of encounter with Christ, tend to learn how to pray more than Catholics. While Catholics say a lot of prayers, many fail to go beneath the surface. As a result, the many recited prayers fail to take the believer deeper and lack stickiness.

 

Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter is a breath of fresh air and might help more Catholics with their understanding of prayer. In Evangelii Gaudium (2013), he said this, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.” (For other fantastic quotes, refer to Aleteia’s post.)


That doesn’t mean that a phrase alone (i.e. encounter) will teach someone to pray. What it may do it help us better understand that we need an encounter with Christ in order to form a prayerful relationship with him. That personal encounter with the Lord then moves us to love others with greater compassion and sensitivity. 


I was very fortunate as a teenager. Some very good friends, Protestant Christians, took me under their wing and discipled me. The faith-foundation provided by my parents then flourished. These friends brought me on a retreat and gave me the opportunity to come face to face with Christ. I was invited to make a decision- live for myself or live for Him. I chose the latter. Barely knowing the commitment I was making, I made a small gesture towards God. Since then, as you can imagine, everything has changed.


Having had an encounter with Christ, I then learned how to have a daily quiet time. This was like water on a small seed. Things grew from there. Eventually I would learn how to be present to others, especially those on the margins of society. Still, it all began with an invitation to know Christ in a personal way. Not a bunch of rote prayers. Not another decade of the Rosary (although powerful in itself). It was a simple presentation of the Gospel message: God loves us, humankind is sinful, Jesus died for us, choosing Christ as savior. Today, I try to have a quiet time every day and it’s made all the difference. The simplicity of the Gospel unfolds each day for me and needs to be affirmed daily in my quiet times.


I can relate to my friend who expressed that he doesn’t feel confident in prayer. There are times when I don’t feel all that good at it myself. Sometimes, I feel like I’m going through the motions. Other times, I feel like I’m giving God scraps instead of my full attention.


Even still, I press on. This is the work of a Christian. Never having complete confidence in our relationship with Christ, we still understand that prayer is vital to our faith. The key is to keep at it.  Talking to God takes both faith and practice. Much of our tradition focuses on the former and neglects the latter.


When you feel as if your prayer life isn’t hitting the mark or is less than perfect, don’t give up hope. God wants your daily quiet time to be consistent and fruitful. When you have your next prayer time, savor the moment. What a gift it is to be in relationship with the living God!

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How Writing Can Improve Your Prayer Life
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As I write, I’m preparing for a trip to Africa. By the time you read this, I’ll be sleeping under a mosquito net somewhere in Uganda. I could be going over my packing list one more time or making sure that my immunization list is complete.

Instead, I’m writing.

To my left on a comfortable chair is my dog, Ace. A loyal companion, Ace is nearly always at my side. Safe to say, he’s coauthored more than a few blog posts in the past year. He is a quiet editor and rarely criticizes story or syntax. He does occasionally chew on his paw.

My “office” for the next 15 minutes is my porch. A decent cup of coffee to my right, an iPad in front of me and an ugly green writer’s table- these are my tools. The table is small and my wife will probably have “repurposed” it by the time I return from my trip.

I look out the window. A rabbit is having breakfast on the front lawn. My neighbor’s truck is missing, a sign that he’s gone fishing (again). I’ve been up for an hour. Walked Ace. Brewed coffee. Said my prayers. Wrote in my journal.

Now, I’m at the writer’s table. I don’t want to be here or maybe I do. Writing for me is like exercise. If I think too much about it, it simply won’t happen. Instead, for me, it’s best to just dive in. Not that kind of dive they call a “pencil” jump. Rather, a headfirst-make-a-splash kind of thing. I’ve never been a great swimmer and my diving reflects that.

Still, I’m in the water. Ace relocates to another spot on the porch.

Most of the time, I’m writing under a cloud. The cloud is flooded with tension. Shall I write only about prayer today or add a pinch of productivity? Will my readers be turned off? What if this generates more ”claps” on Medium? What if it produces crickets?

Writers know that this cloud follows them. Sometimes it is generous enough to open up and bring about a clear sky. For me, most of the time, it just hangs around. I know it’s there. I simply need to write and pierce its presence. Screw you, I tell the tension. I’m writing and that’s that.

With my first book set to come out in 2019, my writing habit has paid off. The writer’s table. The affable canine. The habit. I still don’t think I’m any good at it but at least someone, a real publisher, does and it willing to put a cover on the thing. Part of me hopes no one will read it. I tell my parents that, by my third book, that’s when I’ll get good at it.

Writing has become a part of my life.

It’s still hard. I never wake up wanting to do it. I still feel like I’m a pathetic writer on any given day. But I press on. There are more words to write and more thoughts in my own head to clarify. I’m a selfish writer. I’d say I write about 90% for myself and the rest for the reader. At least I’m honest about it.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that writing helps with prayer.

There are too many similarities to make here. Suffice it to say that both need discipline. Both are about playing “the long game”. Neither gets noticed by the outside world. Both bring clarity to your thoughts and heart. Neither is glamorous. Both slow you down. Neither requires a special place. Both produce peace of mind.

The two also play nice together. Interestingly enough, my prayer and my writing have become intertwined. I journal (writing) as part of my morning prayer. I pray as I’m struggling to write. Lord, what am I really trying to say here? I mutter when the words don’t come out right. The prayer and the writing, they find a way towards one another. When people aren’t comfortable talking to God out loud, I tell them to write out their prayers. Game-changer for most.

Writing makes you a better pray(er) and I’m grateful for both practices. 

Which can you try today? 

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