How To Pray Badly

If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time. — G.K. Chesterton

The modern world cannot comprehend the fact of the Saint. Actually, I’m becoming ever-more convinced that the modern world can’t comprehend much at all – but that’s beside the point.

The reason she shudders and grinds to a halt when contemplating the Contemplators is the false idea that ‘one must simply get tired of it all’. At the end of the day – putting beauty and truth aside – surely there are only so many Ave Marias one can mutter? Surely it’s extremism, to live a life in constant prayer, constant mortification, and constant contemplation of Christ? Surely the Saints get bored of Sainthood?

As a mediocre Catholic, I understand the complaint all too well. We’ve all been there, when our prayer curls up and dies like spiders on our lips, when the faith that surrounds us bores, when Mass is a chore, fasting a pain, and obedience to The Church frightfully difficult. There are times when I do get tired of it all, dammit. (I am usually made aware of this sad fact when praying my Rosary, and halfway through the third mystery I realize I’ve spent 35 Hail Marys thinking about bacon. And not even the Father-of-the-English-Renaissance-variety.))

But the Saints hold a terrifying secret. It is the answer to the uncomprehending modern and the mediocre Catholic. Are you ready for it? It is the reason for their small smiles in their portraits; it is the reason their eyes burn like hearths within them. They have no idea what they’re doing.

None at all.

Now I hear the battle-cry of Thomists rising slowly from their desks, so swift I run to my explanation. A Saint is not a man who has done a thing so many times that he is good at it and rewarded appropriately. He is not an ‘expert’, as we might call the top scientist in a field, nor a winner, as we might call Usain Bolt. He is not a man of whom we would say, “He’s good at what he does.” No, a Saint is a man who repeats and repeats and repeats again the spiritual life, not to become good at it, but to become bad at it.

Bear with me, for the Thomists have been joined by herds of Benedictine nuns, and they are streaming down the hill, enraged goats charging the library.

You think it’s funny, but it’s not.

When you repeat a word again and again, soon the word is strange on your tongue. Who invented such an obnoxious mouthful such as ‘toast’? What is ‘toast’? Toast, toast, toast, toast. It’s this strange, wet tap on the roof of my mouth, a stupid slackening of my jaw and tightening of my cheeks, then a entire reformation of my mouth into an evil grin that pushes out a hiss of ‘ssss’ air, ending in that same odd slap of tongue against the back of my teeth. I have no idea what ‘toast’ is now, but when I re-establish it with slightly-burnt bread, it’s something of a newfound delight. What a marvel, that that awkward mouthful means this crunchy, peanut-butter-coated mouthful. (This makes two breakfast item references in one post, I apologize. I’m hungry.)

Or take our fathers. We see them every day for 18 years. We think, surely, this is one of the men I know best. But have you not experienced this moment, speaking to your father, looking at his face, when suddenly the who-you-think-he-is falls away, and you realize you don’t know in the least this giant individual who runs your house? Who is this man? I’ve been hugging him on a daily basis, thinking nothing more of it than it is that-which-I-do, but he was born of some woman, he grew up and kissed girls and had religious experiences, got drunk for the first time and all the times after that, set things on fire and hugged some other man on a daily basis! My God, who is this creature?

And again, when we re-establish this strangeness with the idea of Father, what a powerful view we are granted of fatherhood! Here is a man, in all his mystery, who has raised me and protected me from my youth. What a guy.

I hold that the constant prayer of the Saints is not an effort to become good at praying, but a fiery effort to pray for the first time. To speak the words, “My God I believe, I adore, I trust and I love thee,” in somewhat of the same manner we spoke ‘toast’ – that is – to utter them as they are; incredible, virgin, foreign. Truly, to pray well is to pray badly, to allow the words to shock us as strange, to permit the well-worn phrases to be things we can scarcely comprehend, to cave in to those names of Christ — Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace — to let them be names that strike us rudely, not mere names we project for a lifetime onto the Savior. To pray constantly is to seek that shining moment of praying as awfully as a child.

The Saint gazing at an icon of Christ does not gaze to gaze well, to get used to the Divine Face or to understand it. He gazes to confirm the suspicion that he cannot understand it at all. He gazes for hours to see the face of Christ for one second. He contemplates for years to realize that he has not enough lifetimes to contemplate. The expert would seek an answer. The Saint seeks a mystery. The expert would gaze well. The Saint looks at the face of Christ like an idiot child looks at a bird on his windowsill.

This Christianity of ours is dying. It is dying because we are seeing it for 999th time. Its language has been destroyed. Think of the phrase our Evangelical-Protestant culture has gifted to the world. “Jesus Saves.” This is entirely true, but it is entirely dead. As Walker Percy says:

The Christian novelist is like a man who goes to a wild lonely place to discover the truth within himself and there after much ordeal and suffering meets an apostle who has the authority to tell him a great piece of news…He, the novelist, believes the news and runs back to the city to tell his countrymen, only to discover that the news has already been broadcast, that this news is in fact the weariest canned spot announcement on radio-TV, more commonplace than the Exxon commercial, that in fact he might just as well be shouting Exxon! Exxon! for all anyone pays attention to him.

Jesus, save us from ‘Jesus Saves!’ Everyone knows it for the 999th time, and thus no one knows it at all.

But there is an answer. Our Lord speaks to us in the lives of the Saints: It is up to you to move the universe towards the thousandth and the first experience of the Truth. It is left to you to become Saints, to see your God, your faith and your world so awfully that it might be shocked with new life. Do you think I was lying when I told you you must become like little children? I was speaking the truth. Unless you are as wide-eyed and stunned by My grace as a child is by the first robin of Spring, you will not enter the Heavenly Kingdom. This is because to exist as anything but a child is to believe that you know my Heavenly Kingdom, that you know what it is like, that you have it nailed down like a beetle to a card. Only the recognition of the appalling strangeness of my Being, the utter inconceivability of my mercy, and the total mystery of my Grace will prepare your heart for What I Actually Am. Only if you open your eyes to see as I see will you ever experience the fullness of life I have planned for you on this earth. For I am The I Am That I Am: I see everything for the first time.

In this context it is safe to say that the Saint is the worst Catholic of us all. Look back to the picture of of our beautiful Pope Benedict: Is he not seeing Our Lady for the first time? May we all be given the grace to imitate.

  • Laura

    I just want to go through all your posts and hit “like.” So glad I stumbled across your blog!

  • Tzbell06

    thank you for this. it was exactly what i needed to hear today. :]

  • Aigdawg

    Once again a thoughtful post. But, I think you are too narrowly defining sainthood. Saints are those who have achieved heaven. Canonized saints are those the Church says, “We are sure ese are saints.” Many of these are those who are successful at what you describe, but I don’t think it is limited to that. At least I hope not, or we’re both in trouble.

    • Miss Doyle

      Everyone in heaven is a Saint! And you only get there by starting again, and again, and again, and again. Getting up after every fall and learning humility to see things for the very first time – the wool falling from your eyes as the Holy Spirit does His thing.
      Saints aren’t born, they are made!

      • Christine Cipperly

        Thank you, Miss Doyle!

  • Jay E.

    That was one of the most helpful things I’ve ever read in my life.

  • Meryl Amland

    Wow…I cried.

  • TallyMarx

    Your blog is a near occasion of sin for me. Every post I read makes me turn green with jealousy, wishing I could reflect, and express myself as well as you do. Awesome blog. Love it. Please don’t stop. Pax et bonum…

  • Anonymous

    Excellent. I need to buckle down and hold to my prayer schedule! Btw, I don’t think those nuns with the rifles are Benedictines. Sisters of Mercy, I bet!

  • Dorian Speed

    Terrific post, Marc. And what a contrast between the “boring” life of repetitive, contemplative prayer and the “REFRESH REFRESH CLICK CLICK REFRESH” pace of Internet life.

  • Stephen Taylor

    Sometimes just sitting in silence before God, totally open to hm is the greatest prayer that can be done. It is dreadfully difficult to do for all the reasons you mentioned. St. John of the Cross had some very interesting things to say on this same subject, I saw many similarities in your fine article.

  • Maggie Rochester

    I laaauughed through the entire half of this post. Toast. LOL! Fantastic! How do you come up with this stuff? Re-committing to my prayer life now.

  • Renee Breaux

    This was a beautiful post, and entirely encouraging. I’m glad to meditate on the fact that sucking at life can be a good thing.

  • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP

    Maybe we can baptize the Zen koan that says, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’

  • Angela

    You have an incredible, amazing, beautiful gift. Thank you for everything you’ve written.

  • Quid est veritas?

    Shoot. Now I’m hungry AND I realize what a lousy prayer life I have.
    I like all your word and imagery

  • Therese Z

    “I am usually made aware of this sad fact when praying my Rosary, and halfway through the third mystery I realize I’ve spent 35 Hail Marys thinking about bacon.”

    Thank you. Thank you.

    • Marc


  • Riopeljm

    i did not read all the post but think it’s interesting that you are discussing porn and have, at the same time, allowed american eagle for kids to have ad space on your blog. have you seen the clothes that they market to children??? just their website is soft porn…

    • lola

      I think the ad is put there automatically by the website, as almost any website does.

    • ladycygnus

      All the ads are tailored to what I view through google. ModCloth, “Genesis for Normal People”, “Pray with the Bishops”, a food distributor, and a car ad.

      Have you spent a lot of time looking at AE’s site in frustration? Or done a lot of shopping for kids cloths?

  • Swordswoman

    God, that is beautiful. I just stumbled upon your blog coming from somewhere else. Thank you.

    • Swordswoman

      Sorry, Laura, didn’t mean to plagiarize.

      • Laura

        No harm, no foul. (;

  • Libby Barnes

    Oh man Marc…

    1) I CRACKED UP over the bacon because that just summed up my metro-riding-Rosary.
    2) That was beautiful and it was EXACTLY what I have been ruminating over for the past two weeks.

  • Drew Doll

    I really, really enjoyed reading / was moved by reading /felt recommitted to the disciplines of the Faith by reading this blog. Thanks for writing.

  • Liz Henderson

    Excellent. Thanks for sharing!

  • Nick

    Your writing just keeps getting better and better. This is really good stuff. Thanks so much for sharing your gift with us.

  • T.

    Thanks. Just thanks.

  • inscriber

    Such a great post (as with your others). I struggle with the prayer distraction thing as well. How many times have I gone midway through a prayer and then gone off tangent. It’s so frustrating and makes me think that the prayer is somehow invalidated.

  • Norway

    so true-I was half way through the rosary before I realize i’m re-organizing my sock drawer-again.

  • Pam

    This is the best explanation of prayer, many thanks.

  • Jeni W


  • Ball of String

    I know that this is wasn’t a recent post, but thanks, Marc. Puts prayer in a great perspective. I needed this!

  • Christine Cipperly

    Wonderful way to begin Lent…with wonder, awe and laughter!

  • Nick

    Dude, this is an excellent reflection. I commend you for your fervor in studying the ways of the Church and indeed our Lord.

  • Amanda

    As a new Catholic (well, technically a Catholic padawan, since I won’t be confirmed until next Easter), this post was just what I needed to read. I’ve felt so awkward praying at times, because I feel this need to stop and reflect on every word of every prayer. (I find the Hail Holy Queen especially moving.) As an atheist for a decade, prayer lost all meaning for me, but that’s good, because now that I’m praying again (and saying Catholic prayers, as opposed to the self-conscious, free-form Baptist musings I grew up with.), it feels so new and fresh. I know that I will eventually recite these prayers by rote, and that’s worried me, because I don’t want to lose touch with any of this. But this post made me feel at least that there’s just as much to be gained by praying everyday even when the words come of their own volition, without thought, because, someday, they will mean something again. Thank you.

  • mazsamem7

    “The Saint looks at the face of Christ like an idiot child looks at a bird on his windowsill.”
    I seek that innocent wonder. The child-like amazement, the all is new, the fantastic feeling of reaching out to the one true God…and He reaches back. Beautiful post!

  • Emily

    I feel it may be too easy to say the reason Christianity is dying is because we’re seeing it for the 999th time. I think it may be squeezing people into nooks and crannies that don’t fit people anymore, with various factors. I think Christianity has not taken the time to see its people even once, and so why would we spend time looking at a wall that claims to be a mirror?

  • Sam Farthing

    “… a fiery effort to pray for the first time” love that line, nice one.

  • Poet and priest

    And if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. Also Chesterton.

  • Christina Heath

    Ah! Didnt chesterton always say that he was speaking of amatures? That an if something was woth doing it was woth doing badly, but that its also worth doing properly if we know how?
    I suppose, on the matter of prayer,my question answers itself. Who among us is actually open to God enough that we can recive him entirely, without God binding our expiriance of him to some limitation? Who could ever comprehend Him, and what He made, what He told us, what he gave us, in its entirety? There is so much more to everything that it sometimes seems that i think the reality is that no matter how deep you get, no matter how much you know about one rhing and secure you are in thinking you KNOW entirely, there is always more, and your always a beginner. Its when you allow yourself to humbly accept the title of padawan (to borrow from Amanda, (and were all still padawans, we just keep forgetting!)) Thathe can show us a little more of himself. Its as if we must aways struggle to become more and more aware of how much more He simply is, as id we grow closer and closer to him the more we realize what it means to compare our finite selves to him. An expert, in the worlds sense, looks at something “mindblowing” calmly; be it disaster or good fortune, coolness is the quality of the professional. BUT WE ARENT CALLED TO BE “COOL! CALM AND COLLECTED

  • Christina Heath

    (The comment got cut off)*…… we are called to explode, at least internallty, with love and adoration for God and his works. We are calle to pray badly.

  • ladycygnus

    I wish my rosary meditations were on so noble a thing as bacon… :-/

  • Geewhizz

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Pope could be thinking: “I hope that bird isn’t going to poop.” But I like your post.