I am really, really bad at prayer. I wish I weren’t. I mean, I am a seminarian and a deacon for goodness sake! I am supposed to be a model of prayer. I am supposed to inspire other people to pray. But nevertheless, I am bad at prayer.
Don’t get me wrong, I go to Mass every day and I pray my breviary, so from the outside it looks like I am doing fine. But seminaries and spiritual directors today also strongly recommend an hour of silent prayer each day called a “holy hour”, and it is this part that I am really bad at. I am bad at finding time for it: I never wake up early enough to do it before starting my day; I continually find other pressing needs during the day to occupy my time, and in the evening I would rather sit down and watch TV than spend time in prayer. When I do make time for my holy hour, I will sometimes use it as naptime, sometimes use it to write my homilies, and oftentimes I will give up before I make it to an hour. In fact, my inability to pray a holy hour got so bad that at one point in seminary, I gave up on prayer entirely. I continued to go to Mass and pray my breviary, because these were required of me, but I decided that I didn’t need to make time for God in my day, and I would just try to “connect” with him through my daily activities. This experiment, by the way, failed spectacularly, and it took me a long time to recover my prayer life. But in the process, I learned a lot about myself, my relationship with God, and especially about my motivations.
See, at my worst, I pray out of duty, because I have to. Because my seminary or my spiritual director force me to. This is sufficient, because it is better than not praying, but it is not sustainable, because it is cold and dry and relies on my strength of will which often fails. My prayer life vastly improved when I began praying for a completely different reason: when I realized that it made me happy. See, I don’t want to admit it to myself, but prayer makes me happier than sleep, than checking items off my to-do list, or even “relaxation” in the evening. But I only see that after I prayer. Faced with a decision whether to wake up early to pray, or to keep sleeping, I often choose sleep. Or pitting work or prayer against each other, work always seems more pressing. But when I finally sit down to prayer, and after I pray, it becomes so stupidly obvious that prayer brings me a much deeper sense of peace and fulfillment than anything else I could ever possibly choose to do.
I tell you all of this because I think it helps us understand what Moses means when he claims that the Law of God is not far away in the sky or in the sea, but that “it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts”. What he is saying is that the law of God is not something artificial, forced on us from the outside, but something that actually lives at the very center of our being. See, God created us, which means he knows us better than we know ourselves. The law of God hits at the very heart of humanity, telling us exactly what we need to do to be happy, and we always ignore it. For whatever reason, evil always looks waaaaaaaaaaay more attractive. Sexual promiscuity always looks more fun than monogamy. Gluttony more fun than diet. Wrath more fun than self-control. But promiscuity, gluttony, and wrath always, always end with unhappiness. Being virtuous seems really, really boring and uninteresting, but virtue is the only thing that will give us the deep, lasting happiness that God desires for us, because virtue is the only thing that speaks to the very core of our being as created us to be.
Allow me to provide one very specific example of how this looks in practice. Natural Family Planning is hard, much harder than artificial birth control. Couples who practice NFP have to wake up at the same time each morning to take a body temperature. They have to chart physical changes to the woman’s body. And they have to abstain from a very important part of marriage for one week each month. But every NFP couple I have ever met has always reported how loving and affectionate NFP has made them, and how well they have learned to communicate and compromise as a couple. Many of us might be tempted to scoff at NFP as an outdated requirement of an outdated Church, but it is not. It is a practice that has helped so many people find a deep happiness in their marriages, because it is a practice that comes from God, and God knows what ultimately makes us happy.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I think our challenge this morning is to trust God, which is really, really hard. We have to trust that He knows what He is doing, that He really does know what will make us happy, and that He would never require something of us that does not accord with our human nature. Remember, the Law of God is in our hearts, because deep down we know that God is much smarter than us, even when we do not want to admit it.
So let me solemnly assure you, as a man who has seen this pattern play out over and over again: nothing will make you as happy as following the Law of God. Nothing will ever bring you greater joy or fulfillment than loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself.