Someone once asked Thérèse of Lisieux if it was wrong to fall asleep while in prayer. Her answer: “Absolutely not. A little child is equally pleasing to her parents, awake or asleep — probably more when asleep!”
That’s more than a warm, cute answer. There’s a wisdom in her reply that’s generally lost to us, namely, that God understands the human condition and gives us sacred permission to be human, even in the face of our most important human and spiritual commitments.
This struck me recently while listening to a homily. The preacher, a sincere and dedicated priest, challenged us with the idea that God must always be first in our lives. So far so good. But then he shared how upset he gets whenever he hears people say things like, “Let’s go to the Saturday evening Mass, to get it over with.” Or, when a celebrant says: “We will keep things short today, because the game starts at noon.” Phrases like that, he suggested, betray a serious weakness in our prayer lives. Do they?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Comments like that can issue out of laziness, spiritual indifference, or misplaced priorities. They might also simply be an expression of normal, understandable human fatigue — a fatigue which God, the author of human nature, gives us permission to feel.
There can be, and often is, a naiveté about the place of high energy and enthusiasm in our lives. For example, imagine a family who, with the best of intentions, decides that to foster family togetherness they agree to make their evening meal, every evening, a full-blown banquet, demanding everyone’s participation and enthusiasm and lasting for 90 minutes. Wish them luck!
Some days this would foster togetherness and there would be a certain enthusiasm at the table; but, soon enough, this would be unsustainable in terms of their energy, and more than one of the family members would be saying silently, “Let’s get this over with,” or “Can we cut it a little short tonight because the game is on at 7:00.” Granted, that could betray an attitude of disinterest; but, more likely, it would simply be a valid expression of normal fatigue.
None of us can sustain high energy and enthusiasm forever. Nor are we intended to. Our lives are a marathon, not a sprint. That’s why it is good sometimes to have lengthy banquets and sometimes to simply grab a hotdog and run. God and nature give us permission to sometimes say, “Let’s get it over with,” and sometimes to rush things so as to not miss the beginning of the game.
Moreover, beyond taking seriously the normal ebb and flow of our energies, there is still another, even more important angle to this. Enthusiastic energy or the lack of it doesn’t necessarily define meaning. We can do a thing because it means something affectively to us — or we can do something simply because it means something in itself, independent of how we feel about it on a given day. Too often, we don’t grasp this.
For example, take the response people often give when explaining why they are no longer going to church services, “It doesn’t mean anything to me.” What they are blind to in saying this is the fact that being together in a church means something in itself, independent of how it feels affectively on any given day. A church service means something in itself, akin to visiting your aging mother. You do this, not because you are always enthusiastic about it or because it always feels good emotionally. No. You do it because this is your aging mother and that’s what God, nature, and maturity call us to do.
The same holds true for a family meal together. You don’t necessarily go to dinner with your family each night with enthusiasm. You go because this is how families sustain their common life. There will be times when you do come with high energy and appreciate both the preciousness of the moment and the length of the dinner. But there will be other times when, despite a deeper awareness that being together in this way is important, you will be wanting to get this over with, or sneaking glances at your watch and calculating what time the game starts.
So, Scripture advises, avoid Job’s friends. For spiritual advice in this area, avoid the spiritual novice, the over-pious, the anthropological naive, the couple on their honeymoon, the recent convert, and at least half of all liturgists and worship leaders. The true manual on marriage is never written by a couple on their honeymoon and the true manual on prayer is never written by someone who believes that we should be on a high all the time. Find a spiritual mentor who challenges you enough to keep you from selfishness and laziness, even as she or he gives you divine permission to be tired sometimes.
A woman or man at prayer is equally pleasing to God, enthusiastic or tired — perhaps even more when tired.