Words have a certain staying power. Most of them are in one ear and out the other, but every once in a while words seriously hit home and have a lasting impact. Today the Church celebrates St. Anthony of Egypt, the “Father of Monks.” As a young man, he walked into a church one day and heard the words of Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). While he had probably heard these words many times before, something was different that time. He left the church with a firm conviction to do exactly what Jesus said. He sold all his possessions and became a hermit in the Egyptian desert.
While Christians relish the response of St. Anthony and the holiness of his life, we are not all called to respond in the same way to those words. Still, by the grace of God, the truth, even a truth we may be quite familiar with, has a way of giving us a much needed slap upside the head.
I can still remember a particular phrase that hit home for me. After a year of graduate school, I was down in some pretty serious dumps through a particularly paradoxical combination of overwork and laziness (with an added dose of emotional baggage). Nothing seemed to be going right. Just getting up in the morning seemed to be a monumental task. I was in a rut of bad habits and I needed help getting out. When I was finally fed up with simply trying to slog my way through the day, I did what I should have done weeks before and called a good friend of mine, a priest, back home. Having put up with my initial round of whining, he cut me off before I had a chance to really get going. He asked me bluntly, “Are you praying?” I attempted to dodge the seriousness of the question and responded by simply saying that I was not praying enough. I was still making it to Mass on Sundays, and even an occasional daily Mass, but I had little to no prayer life outside of that.
Then came the line that has stuck with me ever since, “You’ve got to pray every day. Prayer is more important than food.” We kept talking for a while after that. While I forgot all of his other words of wisdom, that phrase about prayer stuck with me.
I would like to tell you that I have not eaten another bite of food since then and that I have been surviving for seven years on Hail Marys and Our Fathers, but of course that did not happen. I did put that line on a sticky note on my desk, and every day whenever I managed to roll myself out of bed, before I’d let myself pour a bowl of cereal, I’d sit down and pray—five minutes at first, then ten, then a bit more. And, you know, it worked. Surprisingly enough, when I stopped trying to take on everything myself and asked God for help, getting up in the morning wasn’t quite so challenging, my work wasn’t quite so daunting, and those ruts I had dug didn’t feel quite so deep.
“Prayer is more important than food.” These words are a bit silly, and my friend doesn’t even remember saying them. Still, these words have stuck with me through the years. When nothing seems to be going right, I know the question to ask is, “Am I praying?”
Whether it’s “I’m too busy” or “I’m too distracted,” whatever excuses I hold up for neglecting prayer are simply that, excuses. That silly phrase is a reminder that the true power behind any word or action lies first and foremost in God.
Image: Charles Burton Barber, Suspense