In times of suffering, prayer is one of the first refuges of the faithful, but it can be hard to know where to begin. In this excerpt from this article, I detail what prayers I use in my own life and how they can help.
Help in Times of Suffering
The first and most important prayer in times of suffering is “Help.” We oftentimes forget it because we think it is too easy, or that God would not respond to something that simple; but if God really is Unconditional Love, and God not only hears us but wants to help us in our time of need, then the prayer “Help” should be more than sufficient to engender the heart of God toward a myriad of unexpected graces. This prayer can be further (and beneficially) specified by a variety of other prayers. I will mention four which have been very important in my own life.
The Hail Mary
For some reason, this prayer has not only been a foundational contemplative prayer, but also one of galvanizing grace in times of trouble. Our Blessed Mother’s consoling presence seems to be evoked (along with her help) during the most desperate of times.
This prayer, when repeated, opens upon a consolation filled at once with familial strength, a mother’s understanding, and the assistance for a “child not fully in control.” It seems to activate a providence (a conspiracy of grace) which betokens a mother’s request of her son, much like the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1).
Countless have been the times when it has come naturally to my mind, inviting me to repeat it. Countless too, have been the times when that repetition has led to increasing peace of mind and clarity of thought. I do not know why, but it always seems to give me courage—the courage to do what is right, to face adversaries, to move ahead with unpopular plans, and to bear the possibility of defeat bravely.
Jesus intended that his family be our family, and that his mother be our mother (John 19: 27), and so we can believe that she would do for us everything she would do for her son—particularly comforting us, interceding for us, and being protectively present to us. Speaking from experience, in my times of need, I have never been disappointed by her.
“Lord, make good come out of this suffering.”
Sometimes trials turn into times of suffering, and sometimes suffering has neither speedy relief nor obvious meaning. At these times, it is essential to ask for the Lord’s help to optimize the good in suffering (good for oneself, good for others, good for the community, and even good for the mystical body of Christ).
Times of suffering can be debilitating and depressing if we do not see any good coming from it. However, if we recognize a good in suffering for ourselves, others, the culture, the community, and even the mystical body of Christ, times of suffering can become not only meaningful, but an invaluable companion in the life of grace, virtue, and salvation.
The above prayer has helped me to invoke the Lord’s blessings upon my suffering (and to recognize that blessing) in the deepest ways.
Don’t Waste Times of Suffering
When I first became aware of the onset of a serious eye problem six months before my ordination to the priesthood, I was completely baffled. Fortunately, I knew that God’s providential love would be operative through this challenge throughout the rest of my life. In that faith, I began to pray:
“Lord, do not waste one scintilla of this suffering. Make some good come out of it for me (a change in life direction, a deepening of faith and love, a protection from other adversity), for others (a zeal for your kingdom, a desire to help others, an empathy with those in need, and an eagerness to serve the kingdom), for the culture, and for the community. Lord, please optimize the good that can come from this suffering.”
The Lord has certainly answered this prayer, for he has deepened my sense of gratitude for what I do have; he has helped me to see that every day and every moment counts in manifesting his love and presence; he has made me far more circumspect about what matters and doesn’t matter; and he has deepened my appreciation for the Beatitudes and the love intrinsic to them. I frankly cannot imagine what my priesthood or apostolic zeal would be like without my challenge. But I do know this, it would be less, much less.
Offer It Up
One of the great mysteries of Christian life is that our times of suffering can, when united to Christ’s, help in the redemption of others. This is best explained in Jesus’ final words on the Cross, reciting Psalm 22:
“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
Jesus, here, was not referring only to the first line of that Psalm, but rather to the Psalm in its entirety. When one reads the Psalm one notices a man who is going through a set of trials uncannily similar to Jesus’ own sufferings on the Cross; but more importantly, one notices that the psalmist is not discouraged by the trials being suffered.
He has a deep trust and confidence that God will use his sufferings not only for the good of the community around him, but also to bring all the nations to himself in the future.
Gift of Self
Thus, when Jesus recited the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he moved beyond the note of lamentation (in the first line) to a sublime confidence that the Father would effect universal salvation through his suffering. Jesus’ passion is his free gift of self, that is, his unconditional love.
When Jesus was dying on the Cross, he created a “gift of self,” that is, an unconditional love (as scapegoat, as paschal lamb, and as blood of the covenant) which he intended to give to the Father to shower down upon humanity so that all the nations might come into his kingdom of unconditional love.
We can imitate Christ in our own limited ways by presenting our sufferings to the Father as a “gift of self” (love) for the Father, to shower down upon humanity as a grace to strengthen and unify the mystical body of Christ. In every moment of suffering, there is potential for a gift of love (grace) to be showered upon humanity in its need. All we need do to convert times of suffering into grace for the world is to offer it up to the Father as our gift of self.
Love for the Life of the World
When I was a child, I would complain to my mother about various things that had gone wrong at school, and she would say, very matter-of-factly, “Offer it up.” My general reaction was, “I’m always offering it up, and no good seems to come from it.” It only occurred to me years later that the offering was not intended to be a direct benefit to me, but rather a benefit for the world and the kingdom — which would eventually become my life’s purpose and passion.
By offering up my sufferings to God, I turn it into self-sacrifice—into gift of self—which Jesus taught is “love for the life of the world.” When I offer my times of suffering as a self-offering (act of love) to the Father, and ask him to make it a source of grace for those who need it, I know that he will do this – just as he did it for his son.
In this way the negativity of suffering turns into the positivity of self-offering, love, and grace. My mother used to say, “Mothers know everything.” In this particular case, that would be true.
“I give up, Lord. You take care of it.”
Sometimes life gets out of control. No matter how hard we try to obviate free fall or to figure ourselves out, life’s circumstances seem to get the better of us. It is at these moments that I recommend the above prayer which I have put to great use throughout my life.
I recall my discovery of this prayer in Rome back in 1980.
I had been sent to the Gregorian University to take all of my theology classes in Italian. Since I had no background in Italian, I went to Italy two months early to attain fluency. I was reasonably confident after studying the language in Perugia for two months that I would be able to understand my classes.
My first class on the first day was an exegesis class on the Gospel of Matthew taught by a Spanish professor who spoke Italian faster than the Italians (with a Spanish accent). I was not able to understand twenty-five percent of what he was saying, and began to panic. I kept thinking to myself (in my unqualified ignorance) that I was going to “go down.” What would I say to my Provincial? To my classmates? “Here I am, back in the United States. I couldn’t understand anything and I flunked out.”
Confidence in the Lord
Needless to say, I began to feel considerable discomfort. Realizing that circumstances were quite out of my control, I muttered, “I give up, Lord. You take care of it!” When I said this it seemed like steam came out of my ears. A pressure was relieved by simply giving it over to the Lord who could providentially bring some good out of my predicament.
As a matter of fact, he did. The moment this prayer enabled me to calm down, I became content with understanding partial sentences and concepts. I could then begin to make sense out of the general line of thought, which, in turn, built my confidence, and, in turn, enabled me to understand more.
As the semester progressed, I began to understand far more of what the professor was saying, and eventually made it to the final exam where the professor gave two or three choices of questions for various passages of Scripture. I was able to choose questions that pertained to the last parts of the course, thereby hiding my inadequate understanding of the first part. In the end, I did quite well. (Thank you, Lord!)
Evidently, much of that success is attributable to my natural gradual appropriation of the Italian language and exegetical method, but much of it, in my opinion, was due to the composure and openness to the content induced by my trust in the Lord of love. That trust was galvanized through the above simple prayer, “I give up, Lord. You take care of it.”
“Lord, push back the foreboding and darkness.”
Foreboding is a complex phenomenon.
Some of it can come from feelings of anxiety and depression which our conscious or unconscious psyche projects into the future. So it is internally, psychologically induced. There is another side to foreboding that some people experience—a genuine premonition about darkness or evil in the future. I am uncertain about the cause of such premonitions. They could be warnings from God, harassment from an evil spirit, or a psychic protention, or intrusion into an impending future.
They could be the result of two or three of these causes. Whatever the cause, I believe that foreboding is not completely psychological—and that it does portend some kind of future darkness. I believe this for the simple reason that most of the times I experience it, something dark does in fact happen a few days later. It contains not only a sense of darkness, but powerlessness toward the darkness. Foreboding resembles the descriptions of darkness given by prophets (like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah)—mythologists (like Thomas Malory and J.R.R. Tolkien) and litterateurs (like Sophocles and Shakespeare).
When these premonitions are accompanied by the feelings of powerlessness and anxiety—I refuse to entertain them. I give them over to the Lord immediately by saying the simple prayer, “Lord, push back this darkness and foreboding.” I even use my hands to gesture pushing back against something tangible and palpable—while I repeat the prayer, “Lord, push it back.”
“Lord, minimize the harm that may come.”
Since I’m fairly sure something dark or harmful is about to happen to me, I also use a follow-up prayer. I pray, “Lord, take care of the dark situation which is about to befall me. Please protect me, and minimize the harm that may come to me.”
I frequently repeat that prayer until the foreboding begins to subside. Most of the time, the foreboding does subside. It does so in stages—first, it loses its bite and intensity, then it gradually weakens, and finally after some time, a sense of normalcy or even consolation occurs.
I can think of only a few occasions when the sense of normalcy-consolation did not occur—though the sense of foreboding decreased considerably.
I recommend that readers use these prayers to get started on the life and adventure of transcendent grace, purpose, and happiness. They will be both an indispensable support and a passageway to even deeper faith and prayer. When you feel called to a deeper relationship with the Lord, I would recommend using two resources:
1. Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People (Ignatius 2008)
2. Finding True Happiness: Satisfying our Restless Hearts (Ignatius 2015).
These two resources will help you to develop three other kinds of prayer:
- Contemplative prayer
- Transformational prayer (called the “Examen Prayer”), and
- A primer on how to follow the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit (including a summary of “St. Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits”).
Catholics will want to become more deeply aware of the significance of the Holy Eucharist according to Jesus—this can be found in Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life as well as another resource, God so Loved the World: Clues to our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus.
The power, peace, and communion of this gift of the Lord at the Last Supper cannot be underestimated.
This article was originally published on the Magis Center blog.
More Content on Prayer
You may also be interested in these resources on prayer from Ascension:
- Oremus: A Guide to Catholic Prayer
- Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina
- Psalms: The School of Prayer
- How to Pray Like Mary
For more articles on prayer from the Magis Center, click here.
For videos, podcasts, and articles from Ascension Media on prayer, click here.
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About Fr. Robert Spitzer
Fr. Spitzer was President of Gonzaga University from 1998 to 2009. While president, he significantly increased the programs and curricula in faith, ethics, service, and leadership. He has appeared on Larry King Live, the Today Show, The History Channel, and PBS. He appears weekly on EWTN in “Father Spitzer’s Universe“.