Prayer: anchor in storm of distractions

Did you know that we see hundreds if not thousands of advertisements a day? In fact, the consensus among marketing researchers is that you might see or hear as many as 4,000 per day. We are bombarded by messages and at the same time we are confronted with St. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians – “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

This column is the third and final installment in the series I have written about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), which aims to inspire all people to holiness. As I explained in the previous column, this week I am reflecting on the sections “In Constant Prayer” and “Combat and Vigilance.” I have chosen to focus on these specific sections because they address how Christians should interact with and view the world we live in. And questions about our worldview are especially important as the truth becomes harder to discover with the flood of information we experience.

Pope Francis dedicates the last section of his chapter on holiness to the theme, “In Constant Prayer.” Like St. Paul’s exhortation to pray continually, this sounds impossible, and it would be if we had to rely on our own weak powers of concentration and strength. But we know that “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). This challenge is so important that Pope Francis says: “I do not believe in holiness without prayer” (GE, 147).

The battle that each of us faces every day and every minute is between the immediate surroundings of this world and the supernatural realities that are simultaneously at work. We tend to focus on what we can see and forget about what we cannot see. Pope Francis writes, “The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord” (GE, 147).

Being in continuous prayer does not mean reciting prayers at every moment or always experiencing intense emotions, rather it means remaining in the presence of God in whatever we do. We make God the end of every action, thought or word. The Holy Father cites St. John of the Cross to describe this way of living: “Try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything, always go to God and attach your heart to him” (GE, 148).

The secret to remaining connected to God in every moment is one’s relationship with the Holy Trinity. When you know in your heart that your most fundamental identity is as a son or daughter of God the Father, you are able to spend time in silence, resting in the presence of the Holy Spirit and attentively listening to his Word. “In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us,” (GE, 150) Pope Francis says.

The time spent encountering each person of the Holy Trinity is what sets our hearts on fire and heals us. It deepens reality and enlivens our experience of it. The Pope draws upon a beautiful experience of St. Therese of Lisieux to describe how a community can be transformed in this way. “One winter night,” St. Therese recalls, “I was carrying out my little duty as usual… Suddenly, I heard off in the distance the harmonious sound of a musical instrument. I then pictured a well-lighted drawing room, brilliantly gilded, filled with elegantly dressed young ladies conversing together and conferring upon each other all sorts of compliments and other worldly remarks. Then my glance fell upon the poor invalid whom I was supporting. Instead of the beautiful strains of music I heard only her occasional complaints… I cannot express in words what happened in my soul; what I know is that the Lord illumined it with rays of truth which so surpassed the dark brilliance of earthly feasts that I could not believe my happiness” (GE, 145).

The Holy Father also recognizes there is a constant battle waged by the devil to draw us away from this God-centered way of living. At the beginning of Chapter Five on spiritual combat, Pope Francis makes a point of saying that when we speak of the battle with evil, the Church is not just talking about confronting a worldly mentality or striving to overcome human weaknesses (cf. GE, 158-159). Satan is real; he is “a personal being who assails us” (GE, 160). This is demonstrated, the Pope explains, by the sheer destructive power of the evil one in the world around us.

At the same time, we should not be intimidated by the battle, since we know that Jesus conquered sin, death and Satan through the cross. “Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out” (GE, 163). The key is to engage in the fight by depending on Jesus, cultivating all that is good, true and beautiful, deepening our prayer life and growing in love.

As we begin the less structured time of summer, I pray that you will fortify yourself with the armor of continual prayer, so that you and the people you influence will be drawn closer to Jesus Christ. I invite you to grow in your devotion and attention to the Eucharist and to pray the Rosary with your family. May Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium inspire you to take up this challenge. “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil” (EG, 85).

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”