SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Am I being self-absorbed when praying for spiritual growth?

April 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Prayer

Can praying for spiritual growth indicate being self absorbed? I am troubled by my intercessory prayer. I pray quite a bit for Penitent Mary Magdalene by Caravaggioothers but, I also pray a lot for myself. I pray that I grow in faith, that I love and see others as Christ sees them, etc. Still, I wonder if I am too focused on self. These thoughts have become distractions in prayer and in Mass. In Mass, as I was thinking on this, I even wondered if I should fast from self prayer and pray only for others. In adoration, I wondered if that was a temptation rather than of God. What do I do with these thoughts?

Asking for good things from God is one of the most basic forms of prayer that we have. Jesus himself encouraged us to do this – over and over again! My favorite is: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). In the Jewish mindset, repeating the same concept three times in a row, changing only the words, was a mode of emphasis. Jesus wants us to desire, ask for, and pursue all the good things we need, most especially the graces of spiritual growth. The thoughts that are making you want to stop asking for these good things cannot, I think, come from the Holy Spirit. They are distractions. Two observations may help you avoid getting tangled up in them as you continue to seek union with God in prayer.

Partnering with God

First, remember that God has decided to require our partnership in the building up of his Kingdom. On the one hand, without God’s grace we “can do nothing” (John 15:5). But on the other hand, Jesus has given us work to do in his Kingdom. He has commanded us to follow him, to obey him, to seek to be his witnesses and spread his teaching “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). St. Paul understood this so well. He wrote to Christians in Corinth: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Prayer and Action Should Be in Harmony

This means that while our prayer should be fervent and heartfelt, we can always test its sincerity by looking at our actions. If we pray “Thy Kingdom come!” sincerely, then in our actions we will try to second that prayer, to reiterate it. We will make a decent effort to speak and behave in ways that are pleasing to God and that will help bring God’s light into this darkened world.

And so, when you find yourself badgered by doubts about whether you are being too demanding in your petitions to God, reflect on your actions. Are you doing your part to cooperate with the grace God is sending you? Are you working hard to avoid sin and the occasions of sin? Are you living the sacraments, practicing mental prayer, carrying your cross with faith, seeking to fulfill the duties of your state in life, finding ways to build up your neighbor and serve those in need?… A clean conscience will assure you that you are not being hypocritical in your petitions to our Lord. Of course, you will never be impeccable in your actions; the important thing is to make a decent effort, day after day.

Why Prayer of Petition Is Pleasing to God

Second, remember the reasons that the prayer of petition is so pleasing to God. When we approach God our Father and voice our needs to him, we are exercising all the most beautiful and powerful Christian virtues. We are exercising profound humility by acknowledging that we need God, that we can’t do it on our own. We are expressing our faith in God’s existence and interest in us. We are expressing our trust in his goodness towards us. We are expressing our love for him – our desire to live in a closer and closer union with him in all things. The prayer of petition (this is when we “intercede” for our own needs; usually, the term “prayer of intercession” refers specifically to praying for the needs of others) is an exquisite bouquet of multifarious love, and we should never hesitate to continue begging God our Father to pour his grace into our hearts.

The Catechism makes this abundantly clear (#2629): “The vocabulary of supplication in the New Testament is rich in shades of meaning: ask, beseech, plead, invoke, entreat, cry out, even “struggle in prayer” (cf. Romans 15:30, Colossians 4:12). Its most usual form, because the most spontaneous, is petition: by prayer of petition we express awareness of our relationship with God. We are creatures who are not our own beginning, not the masters of adversity, not our own last end. We are sinners who as Christians know that we have turned away from our Father. Our petition is already a turning back to him.”

Remembering that the prayer of petition gives glory to God should help you deflect the distractions and doubts that you describe in your question.

A Final Thought

I can’t tell from your question whether or not you habitually engage in mental prayer. If you don’t, I would highly recommend that you give it a go. Not only is it the bread-and-butter for real spiritual growth, but it may also help you achieve a better balance between the different forms of prayer (praise, adoration, supplication, contrition, thanksgiving). The influence that the doubts and distractions have had in your prayer life may be partially due to a lack of that balance. Here is a link to a post that can get you started.

God bless you!

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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