Pope Francis acknowledged Wednesday that praying is hard, but suggested ways to overcome common obstacles.
Speaking at the general audience May 19, the pope identified three enemies of prayer: distractions, spiritual aridity, and sloth.
“Praying is not easy: many difficulties present themselves in prayer. It is necessary to know them, recognize them and overcome them,” he said.
The pope was speaking in the windswept San Damaso Courtyard of the Apostolic Palace in his second Wednesday audience with the public since Oct. 28, which was broadcast live online.
The courtyard has a capacity of around 500 or so socially distanced and masked participants, who on Wednesday included a boisterous group of young pilgrims from Mexico, who sang when the pope arrived by car for the audience.
The address was the 34th reflection in his cycle of catechesis on prayer, which he launched in May and resumed in October following nine addresses on healing the world after the pandemic.
Reflecting on Luke 21:34-36, in which Jesus urges his disciples to be alert at all times, the pope said that people who pray soon encounter distractions.
“We all experience this constant whirlwind of images and illusions in perpetual motion, which accompanies us even during sleep. And we all know that it is not good to follow this inclination to disorder,” he said.
He noted that the battle to concentrate is also found in other fields such as study, work, and sport.
“Athletes are aware that contests are not won solely through physical training, but also with mental discipline: above all, with the capacity to concentrate and to remain focused,” he said.
The pope urged Catholics to fight against distractions, developing the “often forgotten” virtue of vigilance. He said that throughout the Gospels Jesus urged his disciples to practice this virtue.
“In a moment that we do not know, the voice of our Lord will resound: on that day, blessed will be those servants whom He will find industrious, still focused on what really matters,” he said.
“They did not stray in pursuit of every attraction that came before their minds, but tried to walk the right path, doing good and performing their own task.”
He recalled that the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Ávila compared the wandering imagination to a madwoman roaming around a house.
“We must stop it and cage it, with attention,” he commented.
Turning to spiritual aridity, he said it presented a different obstacle to prayer.
“Often we do not know what the reasons for barrenness are: it may depend on ourselves, but also on God, who permits certain situations in the outer or inner life,” he reflected.
“Or, at times, it can be a headache or a problem of the liver that stops us from entering into prayer. Often we do not really know the reason.”
Pope Francis said that it was normal to go from “consolation” to “desolation” and back again in our daily lives.
But he added that while there are “gray days,” we should guard against having a “gray heart.”
He said: “This is terrible: one cannot pray, one cannot feel consolation with a gray heart! Or, one cannot emerge from spiritual barrenness with a gray heart. The heart must be open and luminous, so that the light of the Lord can enter. And if it does not enter, wait for it, with hope. But do not close it up in grayness.”
Finally, he mentioned sloth, which he said was known as one of the seven deadly sins because “it can lead to the death of the soul.”
He said that our response to the three obstacles to prayer should be humble perseverance.
“True progress in the spiritual life does not consist in multiplying ecstasies, but in being able to persevere in difficult times,” he observed.
Sometimes, he said, we will pray like the biblical figure of Job, protesting at God’s actions.
“And we too, who are far less holy and patient than Job, know that in the end, at the end of this time of desolation, during which we have raised to heaven silent cries and asked ‘why?’ many times, God will answer us,” he reflected.
During times of trial, he recommended being like a child who asks his father an endless series of questions beginning with “Why?”
“Because at times, getting a bit angry is good for you, because it reawakens that son-father, daughter-father relationship we must have with God. And He will accept even our harshest and bitterest expressions with a father’s love, and will consider them as an act of faith, as a prayer,” he said.
A precis of the pope’s catechesis was then read out in seven languages. After each summary, he greeted members of each language group.
Addressing Arabic-speaking pilgrims, he said: “In the month of May, the month dedicated to Our Lady, we recite the holy rosary, a compendium of the entire history of our salvation. The holy rosary is a powerful weapon against evil, and an effective means of obtaining true peace in our hearts. May the Lord bless you all and protect you always from all evil!”
Turning to Italian-speaking Catholics, he observed that the Church will celebrate Pentecost Sunday on May 23.
“The approaching feast of Pentecost gives me the opportunity to encourage you to implore the Holy Spirit more fervently, so that he may fill people’s hearts with his love, make his light shine in the world, and inspire in everyone intentions and actions of peace,” he said.
“Finally, as usual, my thoughts go to the elderly, the young, the sick and newlyweds. I invoke the Holy Spirit upon each one, so that with his gifts of grace he may be a support and consolation to you on the journey of life.”
The general audience ended with the recitation of the Our Father and the Apostolic Blessing.