Excessive Prayer Struggle – How do I Find Proper Balance?

Dear Father John, I have been actually struggling with the examples mentioned [on another post] concerning “excessive prayer” that results in neglect of responsibilities. I’ve had such difficulty in this area as justifying doing so is easy to do. What would you recommend as a proper balance? I am very protective and almost selfish about having my personal time in solitude with our Lord. I have also been seeing my day activities (as a teacher of autism) as service to God, a sort of “mission” and that easily translates into prayer in action. However, as far as all the educational classes and homework that goes along with it, for 2 years now, I’ve been extremely neglectful of these seemingly meaningless responsibilities and find myself in prayer rather than study.

Finding a healthy balance between time dedicated solely to prayer and time dedicated to the fulfillment of the duties of our state in life is an ongoing task. No single formula will work for everyone. And no single formula will work always and everywhere for an individual person. An image that may help is a gymnast on a balance beam. The gymnast must adjust her balance with every step she takes. Just so, as we travel through our earthly pilgrimage, moving through various spiritual seasons and varied life circumstances, the proportion of time we spend solely in prayer will also vary. I hope that you find this initial answer to your question comforting. On this issue there is no mathematical certainty to be found, so we shouldn’t feel pressured to find it. It’s a topic that should frequently come up in conversations with a spiritual director or mentor.

In your case, it seems that you are living a healthy balance. You are able to find Christ in your work, and you are also conscientiously seeking his face in personal prayer. That would seem to indicate that you are basically living in tune with the Holy Spirit. I would guess that your struggle stems from something else – namely, the relative value of different responsibilities. Not all the duties of our state of life have the same weight or value. Think of a mother of a large family in which many of the children are still young. Certainly, it is a duty of her state in life to keep the home clean and ordered. But it is a higher duty of her state in life to attend to the physical and emotional needs of her children. For a certain period in that family’s history, or for certain periods during the year, direct motherly attention to the children may have to trump some secondary household chores.  For another example, think of a busy parish priest. The needs of his parish are far beyond his capacity to meet them. And so, he will have to make a hierarchy of priorities. Some real needs that fall under the umbrella of his duties may simply have to take a back seat for a while if he is going to be able to fulfill the more important and urgent needs (including his duty of daily praying the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrating the sacraments).

Getting back to your situation, it seems that the extra classes and homework you refer to are secondary duties. If giving them less attention isn’t inhibiting you from the actual fulfillment of your teaching duties, then neglecting them in favor of more prayer could be just fine. In other words, if those duties are really just formalities that have no substantial impact, then you may not need to give them much attention. Yet, if neglecting them will, in the long run, diminish your effectiveness as a teacher, put your teaching credentials in danger, or lead you to fall behind in essential knowledge of developments in your field, then you may need to start biting the bullet and dedicating some more time to that ongoing formation. If your neglect in this area is something that has been gnawing at your conscience consistently over a fairly long period of time, I would recommend seeking guidance explicitly, both from the Holy Spirit (asking for light to discern what his will is for you in this regard), and also from a wise and prudent friend or mentor.

In the end, loving God through actively fulfilling his will and loving God through spending time alone with him in prayer are two sides of the same coin. They are not really opposed to each other, but they complement each other. As the Catechism puts it: “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (paragraph #2725).


Art: The Angelus, Jean-François Millet, 1857-1859, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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