Samantha Stephenson encourages readers to let go of perfectionism in prayer.
I have a problem, and I know I’m not alone. I am a perfectionist. This vice has served me well in the academic and professional arenas, but it is toxic to the central source of joy in our lives: relationships. Recently, I have come to realize that this quality has been covertly sabotaging the most important relationship in my life: my friendship with Jesus.
For years, I’ve had this voice in my head telling me how I should pray. A spirituality professor of mine in college used to call this “shoulding all over yourself.” I’ve been telling myself I’m an imposter because I don’t pray enough, that I am no good as follower of Christ because I spend no time with Him. This was a lie ... and it wasn’t.
I hadn’t developed the kind of prayer life that I thought I should have. I continually berated myself for failing to return to the type of prayer I practiced in college, one based on frequent visits to the chapel, daily Mass, and weekly Adoration. Real prayer, the kind of prayer that mattered, required a long loving look at the real. It required contemplative stillness before the Blessed Sacrament. It required a rich diet of lectio divina, Ignatian Contemplation, and silent meditation. I carried around a secret shame I refused to look at because I was supposed to be maintaining a friendship with Jesus, and I was doing none of these things I believed were essential.
I was spinning my wheels as a wife, mother, full-time teacher and full-time graduate student. Because my prayer life no longer included the things I “should” have been doing on a frequent and regular basis, I convinced myself that it didn’t exist. The reality was that my prayer life was still alive; its character had changed along with my state in life.
How was I receiving spiritual nourishment? I still attended a yearly retreat and led them often for our students. I received the Eucharist at Sunday Mass. I stole away moments in our campus chapel during my off periods. There were ups and downs but in the best moments, I was heeding Paul’s advice to prayer continually: a contemplative in action.
Instead of prolonged periods of silent contemplation and Adoration, the Lord and I shared moments. I took my life to Him in scraps and pieces, the beautiful and the challenging. Was there a regular pattern? No. Was our relationship alive? Yes.
I let my perfectionism lie to me. I believed that because my prayer life didn’t take the form I thought it should, that it somehow didn’t really count. And I let that lie prevent me from finding the pattern of daily nourishment that I craved and that deep friendship with the Lord requires. I couldn’t do it the way I thought I should have, so I didn’t try.
Then, a friend gave me a copy of Give Us This Day, a monthly subscription prayer book with a simplified Liturgy of the Hours that included Scripture, reflections on readings, and short bios of holy people. I started getting up earlier to create the time to be with Jesus. I designated a “prayer chair” for myself and set the coffee to brew the night before. It was a challenge to let go of those few extra minutes of sleep, especially in the beginning.
Over time, though, something changed. Some mornings, I would sit in my chair sipping my coffee, and just couldn’t be present to prayer. Others, I would watch the shadows shift as the sun rose or catch a glimpse of a rabbit darting through our yard, and I’d know in my bones that the Lord was there. Developing this consistent habit allowed me to fall in love with Jesus again in a simpler, quieter way that those early days when everything was new. It isn’t the grand contemplative vision I felt so much guilt for failing to achieve. But it is real, consistent, and it brings me peace and gratitude.
I don’t always succeed in the battle to roll out of bed. Some mornings, my daughter is crawling over me and the baby’s crying and I enter the frenetic hum of our lives bed-headed and bleary-eyed. Those days, I miss my time with my Lover. And those days remind me to return to Him again the next morning.
One of the sisters I used to work with wisely and frequently advised the students, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” I placed so many restrictions on what “counted” as prayer that I lost access to gratitude for the moments we did share. If prayer is the raising of our hearts and minds to God, then it really is something we can do continually, in all circumstances.
My prayer for you is that you will be gentle with yourself, that you will recognize all the little ways you are already reaching out to Jesus in your life, and that you will discover a consistent and meaningful way to pray as you can, not as you can’t.
Copyright 2023 Samantha Stephenson
About the Author
Samantha Stephenson is a Catholic wife and homeschooling mama of four, host of the podcasts “Brave New Us” and “Mama Prays,” and author of Reclaiming Motherhood from a Culture Gone Mad. Follow her blog at MamaPrays.com or sign up for her newsletter at FaithandBioethics.com to receive the latest updates on medical research, technology, and culture.