This reflection was originally published in 2019.
“These are hard words to pray,” said the woman in my parish prayer group as we all prayed the Stations of the Cross together recently. We were using a small booklet of prayers written by St. Ignatius.
“I love you more than I love myself,” the text read, and “Take me as your own, Lord, and do with me what you will.”
Others in our group felt the same as the first woman. “I can say those kinds of words in prayer,” they said, “but it’s hard to actually mean them.”
I agree. I will never forget the time that a close friend’s baby was very sick and she asked me to pray for his recovery. When the baby’s fever spiked and he was admitted to the hospital, doctors scrambled to figure out what was wrong, and everyone feared the worst. I sat in a church pew that day and attempted to pray an Our Father, but I choked on the words.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done … ”
I stopped short. I couldn’t bring myself to pray for God’s will to be done because I didn’t know what God’s will was. What if God’s will didn’t match my own?
My hesitation forced me to face an uncomfortable fact. In the past, when I had blithely prayed those pretty words and felt so smug about my own submission and piety, what I had really been praying was “Thy will be done, as long as it matches my own will.” Or perhaps “Thy will be done, as long as it doesn’t include any of these unpleasant things over here.”
Not thy will. My will.
Though she might have struggled with similar unease in her earlier years, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton eventually came to find a remarkable sense of peace in those very words I still sometimes struggle to pray.
“’Thy will be done’ – What a comfort and support those four little words are to my soul,” she once wrote. “I have repeated them until they are softened to the sweetest harmony.”
I find hope for myself in how she described repeating the words until they are softened and sweetened. I can say the words; I’m just not always sure that I mean them.
In the end, my misgivings are always a failure of trust. A failure of trust that’s at the root of every sin I might ever be tempted to commit. Like Eve in the garden, I am not so much tempted by sumptuous fruits as I am tempted to doubt. That’s where it starts. When we let doubt creep in.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” – Genesis 3:4-5
Like Eve, I sometimes listen to lies and entertain them. I doubt God’s goodness. I doubt God’s love. I listen to a slithering serpent in my mind who suggests that God might not want good things for me. He might be keeping them for himself. If I want good things, this voice suggests, I will need to take them for myself.
Perhaps, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, I need to repeat words of trust and faith until they soften and sweeten for me. Until I can mean them.
At the start of the year, aware of the weakness of my faith, I made a commitment to pray the Litany of Trust every day. I hoped this daily prayer might help me to see where God is calling me to grow in trust this year. After beginning this practice, I quickly realized that if I wanted to grow in trust, I would need to grow in humility too. The two are intertwined.
All the ways I am tempted not to trust God are caught up in my sinful pride. I can’t abandon my own will and pray for God’s will to be done because I know what’s best. I need to be in charge. I need to call the shots.
And so I added the Litany of Humility to my daily practice. I especially like the repetition of these litany prayers. Day after day, as I repeat words of trust and humility, I place in God’s hands my longing to mean them.
Deliver me, Jesus.
I trust in you.
Grant me the grace to desire it.
I am grateful for the reminder that it takes grace to desire these things. To let go. To lean in. To trust in a God who loves us and wants every good thing for us. We don’t do these things alone.
In my prayer group the other night, I shared a thought with the other women. When I was young, one of the ways my parents taught me my Catholic faith was by having me memorize parts of the Catechism. I committed to memory many passages that contained large words that I didn’t yet fully understand. As I grew older, though, I grew in my understanding of many of these passages. I grew into these words of truth I had memorized when I was a child. I said the words until I could begin to understand them.
I think we can grow into our prayers in a similar way. We can speak the toughest of lines, even as we pray to mean them. We can keep showing up in prayer and saying the words, even as we ask God to soften our hearts to their meaning.
Help me to trust. Make me humble. Thy will be done.
Like St. Elizabeth Ann, we can repeat our prayers – even the tough ones – until the words are “softened to the sweetest harmony.” Until we grow into them. Until we love God and trust Him with perfection.
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.