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Alone with...Our Father

by Dr. Tom NealAugust 24, 2018

There are those who think, based on a one-sided spirituality, that prayer should be unalloyed contemplation of God, free of all distraction, as if the names and faces of others were somehow an intrusion to be avoided. Yet in reality, our prayer will be all the more pleasing to God and more effective for our growth in holiness if, through intercession, we attempt to practice the twofold commandment that Jesus left us. (Pope Francis)

In May I gave a talk on Pope Francis’ latest document, Gaudete et exultate, on the call to holiness. Afterward, a woman came up and introduced herself to me. She and her husband of over thirty years had three adult children, two of whom were adopted out of foster care. She shared with me an insight I found very profound, and agreed to allow me to share it anonymously here. She said,

When I was younger, in my twenties, I loved prayer that cast the whole world aside and left me and God alone together. I had gone on a retreat in college, and the priest who was leading it said, “Prayer is being alone with the Alone. Prayer is leaving the world behind and focusing on God alone.” I loved that image when I heard it and wanted to pray like that.

But once my husband and I had children it all changed. My prayer time suddenly filled with thoughts and worries over each child. All I could do was talk to God about them, I just couldn’t help myself. They just popped in uninvited! That was so hard for me. I tried techniques to focus but to no avail. I always felt my prayer had degenerated from the early days and I’d lost my focus on God.

So when you read that passage about intercessory prayer [the one above], I was like, “Pope Francis, seriously? Why couldn’t you have written that thirty-five years ago! It would have saved me a lot of grief and struggle.” That’s just so incredibly liberating to know that speaking to God about my children, husband, mother-in-law—whatever—is pleasing to God and brings me close to him.

I said, “Well if it’s good enough for Jesus in heaven, who lives for ever to intercede for us before the Father [Heb. 7:25], it’s good enough for us!” Then I shared with her what an eighty+-year-old missionary priest once said in a homily:

My great aunt Gracie became a saint by praying endless novenas for everyone else’s intentions. I called her the Novena Mystic, because amazing things would happen for others through her prayer. She once told me, “I told God long ago, just give to whoever I tell you whichever graces you were going to give to me.”

That “holy bossiness” reminds me of the parable Jesus tells about the hard-nosed widow demanding action from the unjust judge [Luke 18:1-8].

If she’s not the definition of holiness, nothing is. I took the vow of poverty, but she lived it. She’d give you the shirt off her back and the grace from her soul.

Then I said,

Let me read you another passage from Pope Francis that I quote often. It makes this same point. He says, “Those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.” Isn’t that amazing?

While there are lots of reasons why this is true, one of the most important is that the vocation of marriage and family life opens for us a very different path to God and life of prayer than that of a celibate, contemplative nun, or monk. Marriage and family become part of the very definition of our intimacy with God. He loves them infinitely more than we do, so when we speak of them and their needs to him, his heart leaps and his heart fuses with ours.

She said, “Damn…oops!” We laughed.

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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