The Secret Psychological Reasons We Fail to Make Time for Prayer

Jan 4, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

In last week’s reflection, Catholic Being vs. Catholic Doing, I promised to dive more deeply into practical recommendations to help you let go of “doing” and enter into “being.”

N.B.: I am focusing primarily on the realm of human formation here (the natural realm); my wheelhouse as a Catholic psychologist. Of course, there are many spiritual reasons why prayer time is diminished or avoided altogether, and these are discussed frequently in Catholic writings. But this reflection will focus on the ways that deficits in human formation can interfere or inhibit a person’s prayer life.

Let us begin.

Individual, personal prayer means being with God

Being with God begins with prayer; individual, personal prayer. Prayer is the “raising of one’s mind and heart to God” as St. John Damascene describes it, and as paragraph 2559 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates. Prayer involves coming into immediate, personal, intimate contact with the living God. Paragraph 2565 of the Catechism reads: In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.

Of course, liturgical prayer, communal prayer, and the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are extremely important. However, individual personal prayer in the life of a Catholic is indispensable.

For many Catholics, that individual personal prayer is by far the most difficult type of prayer: the God and me; one-on-one; from my heart; from my whole being; in a living relationship kind of prayer.

According to a recent Catholic News Agency article in 2021, only 51% of Catholics in a Pew Research Survey reported praying every day, down from 59% in 2014, a steep drop in only seven years.

I get the human formation reasons why individual personal prayer is so difficult for you. I have solutions for these difficulties and I desire to offer suggestions and solutions to help you learn to pray deeply and personally.

So why do we fail to pray?

We fail to pray because it is difficult. It does not come easily or naturally to most Catholics.

The Catechism lays out three primary reasons for difficulties in prayer: 1) distractions; 2) dryness; and 3) lack of faith (see paragraphs 2729, 2731, and 2732, respectively), offering a solid, compact summary of the adversity we face in prayer. Over the next few weeks, we will unpack these three reasons in their broader context, with a special focus on the psychological difficulties we face in personal prayer.

Not setting aside time to pray

One proximate cause for not praying is not setting aside time for personal prayer. Dedicated time is a prerequisite for personal prayer. During intake interviews in my practice, I have heard several clients tell me that they “pray all the time.” And it sounds good. After all, did not St. Paul command us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?

Through further exploration I discovered that these clients set aside little or no time dedicated exclusively to prayer. What they described as prayer was actually secondary activity to other daily activities, like driving. Offering prayers while driving is not a bad thing by any means, a true relationship and ‘being’ with God requires God to come first in time dedicated solely to Him. Praying in an intentional way and at an intentional time offers a much better investment in a one-on-one, personal, and intimate relationship with God.

Recently a seminarian was asked by his spiritual director to describe his prayer life, and responded, “I pray all the time!” To which the wise spiritual director responded, “In minutes? How many minutes each day do you dedicate to personal prayer?” The seminarian, reduced to silence, could not accurately estimate his time in prayer, as it was happenstance, hit and miss, offered half-heartedly throughout the day. This experience deeply affected him and altered his perception about the importance of praying in a dedicated, intentional way. The transformation which followed this realization fueled such an increase in prayer and direct contact with God that over time his ordination, deeper conversion, and eventual call to serve as an abbot of a Benedictine monastery was answered humbly and readily.

But so often a dedicated time for prayer never lands on our daily agenda.

Why?

Rarely is prayer intentionally dismissed by committed Catholics – very few Catholics say, “Nope, no praying for me today. I refuse to set aside time for prayer today.” Rather, we passively fail to set aside time for prayer – prayer is unconsciously squeezed out by the other demands or attractions of the day. People are busy, people have things to do. Life’s pace is hectic with so many demands on our time and attention.

All that is true.

Some people have executive functioning deficits that cause great difficulty in scheduling anything at all — but frankly, that number constitutes a relatively small percentage of the population.

But generally failing to pray is not something that taking a time management course is going to solve.

For someone who can already schedule reasonably well in daily life (meeting with friends for lunch, arriving at meetings on time, turning on an NFL game before the opening kickoff, etc.,) but cannot manage to set aside quality time for personal prayer, other factors are at work besides executive functioning deficits.

Like resistance.

Resistance to setting aside time to be with God in personal prayer

In psychoanalysis, resistance refers to the oppositional behavior that occurs when an individual’s unconscious defenses are threatened by an external source.

In the case of personal prayer, we unconsciously resist coming into a personal relational connection with God. And here’s the kicker: we are not even consciously aware that we are refusing to connect with God.

For some parts of us, contact with God is the perceived threat that activates our unconscious defenses to protect us from perceived harm. Heinz Kohut and others in the self psychology tradition emphasize the self-protective functions of resistance. Resistance is motivated by a perceived need to keep ourselves safe.

In Catholics who are committed to the Faith, the brain activity associated with resistance to personal prayer does not primarily stem from the frontal cortex (the center for logical thought, reason, and conscious awareness in the brain). Rather, resistance is associated with activation of the limbic system — the emotional, pre-verbal part of the brain that functions primarily in the unconscious.

A partial list of unconscious defenses that setting aside time to be with God in prayer includes:

  • Avoidance
  • Distraction
  • Somatization
  • Confusion
  • Acting out

Let us explore how parts of us may use each defense to prevent making time for personal prayer:

Avoidance: This includes procrastination in scheduling prayer, not checking one’s schedule when prayer time has been booked, delaying praying at the appointed time, and forgetting to pray. “Sleeping in” is a common way to avoid morning prayer.

Distraction: Distraction involves becoming preoccupied with other more engaging or appealing activities, such as hobbies or screens. One form of distraction includes overvaluing other commitments. For example, we can lose the motivation to pray when we overvalue some other commitment or activity – such as spending time on the internet researching a gift to buy for a family member’s birthday.

Somatization: This is when our parts use the body to defend against connecting with God in dedicated personal prayer time. Symptoms include falling asleep, or becoming preoccupied with hunger, or ruminating about other bodily symptoms that command attention and inhibit prayer.

Confusion: Our parts can generate cognitive confusion that clouds our thinking and makes setting aside silent time for prayer harder for us. We may fear internal ‘noise’ in prayer and confusion can be exacerbated by anxiety.

Acting out: This includes passive-aggressive ways of interacting with God, such as parts’ attempts to punish God for perceived injustices by reducing contact with Him, giving Him the silent treatment through avoiding prayer. It is important to remember that the anger at God and the passive aggressive acting out against God both occur in the unconscious – they are not deliberately considered and chosen. In other cases, the acting out is more deliberate and chosen, such as when grief-stricken Catholics condemn God for the loss of a loved one and consciously choose to withdraw from regular prayer.

Why do we resist God and avoid time (consciously or unconsciously) for personal prayer?

Contrary to what so many Catholic writers presume, these forms of resistance to personal prayer time does not just come from nowhere – they are not randomly generated. There are (usually unconscious) motives behind the resistance. Some of these motives include:

  • Fear of God – parts of us fear God will hurt or harm us and impelling us to avoid Him
  • Distrust of God – corresponding to both a lack of faith across our parts and a deprivation of the experience of God’s love across our parts
  • Anger at God – stemming from parts’ perceptions of God being unjust, cold, distant, unresponsive to us, unreliable or other (mis)perceived faults in God
  • Concerns about fusion with God – parts’ fear that if we get closer to God, God will not respect boundaries and we will lose ourselves in Him and be existentially annihilated, subsumed into Him like a drop of water in the ocean or assimilated into Him like the Borg in the Star Trek series.
  • Apprehension about abandonment by God – parts fearing closeness because of a presumed inevitable desertion by God
  • Dread of what God may ask or expect – driven by parts’ erroneous beliefs that God will exhaust them or overburden them without a consideration for our human limitations, weakness, and our need for grace
  • Fear of emotional overwhelm – that we will be flooded with the intensity of our feelings if we connect too closely with God, thus losing the capacity to function effectively
  • Perfectionistic concerns – parts preemptively undermine prayer time due to a fear of not praying well enough

Deeper reasons for resisting being with God in personal prayer:

At the heart of the problem of resistance to setting aside time for prayer are three related primary causes:

  • Poor God images
  • Poor self-images
  • A distorted understanding of the relationship between God and me (my innermost self)

Poor God Images: Every part of us that is not well integrated with our innermost selves will inevitably have a distorted image of God. I discussed God images at length in the September 14, 2022 reflection Are You A Heretic? Distorted God Images Catholics Hold. God images are the emotional and subjective experience of God held by parts, who those parts of me feel God to be in the moment, in my bones. God images reflect how my heart interprets God subjectively, and God images can vary wildly in accuracy at any given moment. God images are initially shaped by the relationship with one’s parents, and God images are heavily influenced by psychological factors. Episodes 23-29 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast address 14 common versions of negative God images.

Poor self-images: Every part of you that is disconnected from your innermost self will also have a distorted understanding of self, a poor self-image. Your self-image is who you feel yourself to be in a particular moment. Self-images are impressionistic, intuitive, emotionally driven, subjective, and dynamic. Poor self-images held by parts deny or minimize that we are little sons and daughters of God our Father and Mary our Mother. Deep within so many Catholics, there is great shame, a deep sense of inadequacy, worthlessness and/or badness, resulting in self-condemnation and the avoidance of God. I discussed self-images at length in the September 28, 2022 reflection titled Of Mirrors and Identity: The Hardest Question.

A distorted understanding of our relationship with God: Poor God images and poor self-images inevitably lead to a distorted understanding at a felt level of the relationship between God and us. Due to the lack of faith (see CCC 2732) and the lack of integrated experiencing of the love of God across our parts, parts can see God in transference-driven ways, projecting their experience of other authority figures onto God, attributing negative aspects of Mom, Dad, teachers, coaches, and other powerful persons onto God.

Solutions for not setting aside dedicated time for personal prayer

“Brethren, what shall we do?” (cf. Acts 2:37). How can we address these impediments to setting aside time for prayer? It is critical. As Samuel Chadwick stated: “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”

One approach (not a solution) tempting many Catholics involves ‘doubling down’ with efforts to make up for lost time with harder, faster, more determined efforts at increasing willpower. They attempt to grow in virtue, to overpower, silence and suppress parts of themselves that resist prayer (without understanding them, listening to them, acknowledging their needs, or loving them).

Many Catholic trauma therapists understand that the role a person’s ‘parts’ play (in an unconscious way) deeply impacts a person’s prayer life. Knowing the role of the limbic system, and the truth that parts hold preverbal assumptions, beliefs, emotions, impulses, desires, and attitudes, informs and inspires therapists to help clients reach and connect with parts. Bringing parts into conscious awareness and teaching clients to get to know them, and come to love them in an ordered, way can bring great healing, as I discussed in the reflections from October 5, 12, and 19, 2022.

The deserted and misunderstood parts within us are the ones that lead us to cry out with St. Paul, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15).

It is very difficult to get in touch with these parts just by thinking about them or analyzing them. We need a relational experience with them. To that end, I offer you this 19-minute experiential exercise to help you get in touch with the reasons why your parts are resisting setting aside dedicated time to relate with God.

By developing a more secure attachment with you as the  self, your parts may allow you, the innermost self, to be a bridge, a mediator between them and God and our Lady. Then you will be better able to love God wholeheartedly, with all your being (including all of your parts), as Jesus tells us to in the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27).

This process of connecting with parts fosters the interior integration, the inner unity that St. Thomas argues is an essential prerequisite for loving union with God and others (see Why Is Interior Integration Crucial for Union with God?)

Recommended books that may help you make time for prayer

Far and away, my favorite book on prayer is Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love by Benedictine monks Fr. Thomas Acklin and Fr. Boniface Hicks. Other recommended titles include two by Fr. Jacques Phillipe: Thirsting for Prayer and Time for God. Those three books have been so helpful for me, personally. You might also consider two of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s books, Fire Within and Prayer Primer, which is quite basic and more oriented to intellectual understanding.

Your Anger, Your Body and You

Episode 103 of the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast released on January 2, 2023, titled Your Anger, Your Body and You, reviews the limitations of current Catholic resources on anger, and then discusses secular resources for working constructively with anger, including interpersonal neurobiology and the structural theory of dissociation. We examine the role of the body in anger responses, and discuss more holistic ways of working constructively with parts that experience anger, rather than trying to dismiss anger, suppress it or distract from it.

In upcoming episode 104 of Interior Integration for Catholics, I also offer a live experiential exercise to help you explore and understand your anger.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. I’d really like to know how the 19-minute experiential exercise on setting aside time for prayer landed with you. What did you experience? What did you discover? You are more than welcome to reach out and let me know at crisis@soulsandhearts.com or on my cell at 317.567.9594. And, as always, I sit by the phone at conversation hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time to talk with weekly reflection readers and podcast listeners!

P.P.S. Whenever I recommend anyone else’s books or resources in these weekly reflections or in the IIC podcast, there are never kickbacks or financial incentives for me to do so. I do not have any sponsors, I am not involved in any affiliate programs or any of that, so I can be as free as possible and you can know clearly that when I make a recommendation such factors are not in play for me.

P.P.P.S. Join the Resilient Catholics Community by visiting our landing page, scrolling down, and filling out our online form.

P.P.P.P.S. This is the time for New Year’s resolutions. As my pastor, Fr. C. Ryan McCarthy wrote in Holy Rosary Parish’s most recent bulletin, “The most important thing to remember about new starts and new beginnings is that we do not need a new year to make a new beginning; if we fail in a New Year’s resolution or any new start, we can start over.” Sound advice. He follows up with, “Too often we think we have to be 100 percent perfect or nothing at all. None of us are perfect; but the way we can approach perfection is by starting over again as many times as it takes.” In addition to his clear and direct message that considers our human weakness, I appreciate his frequent and correct use of semicolons.

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