But let me back up a minute to fill in a bit of background. I’ve been enjoying bearing’s series of posts on St Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life and have been slowly making my way through them. (Really good stuff, you should check them out.)
In this early post bearing wrote that she wasn’t sure that the Liturgy of the Hours was really a devotion that suited her, even though it appeals to her a great deal. (This was following a quotation from IDL about different devotions being more or less suitable for people with different situations.):
Devotion requires discretion; “those who fancy themselves devout” commonly commit the indiscretion of attempting methods of devotion that are not suitable for their station in life.
I find this to be tougher to work out than it sounds. From time to time, for example, I’ve tried to steadily pray the Liturgy of the Hours—usually just one or two offices—as a personal devotion. Now, let me stress that the LOTH appeals to me personally a great deal. love coming to know the psalms. I love knowing that I’m praying the “prayer of the whole church” right along with the whole church. I love having a big fat worn dog-eared book with slips of paper and Post-it notes stuck in it, and praying intensely while flipping the pages back and forth from this section to that, like an engineering student taking an open-book thermodynamics exam. It suits me.
It takes concentration, I find, to really “do.” And concentration is something of which I don’t have enough on the regular basis that LOTH demands as a steady devotion. I tried, because it seemed that I should be able to make room for this prayer that I like so much. But it rarely works out. Either it’s early in the morning or late at night and I’m too tired, or the children interrupt me. It seems I can only use this as an occasional treat, not my daily bread.
I wrote out a lengthy response because I have found myself facing the same sorts of difficulties in praying LOTH and because many wonderful friends have encouraged me to persist even through those difficulties.
Here, in slightly edited form, is my response. (I’ve kept bearing’s bolded emphasis because I thought it was helpful. I’ve added subheaders to make it easier to read. I’ve also tried to expand some sections where I had additional thoughts and clarifications.
I’d also like to add that most of the wisdom I share here did not originate with me; but is what I’ve gleaned from others. i have been very blessed with good counselors.)
I agree that you shouldn’t force yourself to stick with a devotion that simply isn’t working. However, I have had some success with modifying my preconceived ideas of how LOTH should work so that it meshes better with my life as mom of little ones. So you may find that LOTH just doesn’t work for you; but perhaps you might also have some success by tweaking the way you approach it.
Be Flexible and Expect Interruptions
I have found that I can mostly fit LOTH into my chaotic life as a mom of little ones; but I have had to learn to be very flexible and interruptible and to loosen my expectations. I did already have the habit of saying morning and evening prayer before I was married, so I did have a leg up in that regard, I suppose. I also started praying LOTH by being loose in my expectations. I was in grad school at the time and kept very irregular hours and was very short in discipline. I said morning prayer whenever I first got up (even if if was at noon), no matter how tired I was. And if I fell asleep a dozen times as I tried to pray, well, that’s just how it went. And evening prayer I would say last thing before going to bed, also falling asleep many nights multiple times before I got through it all.
Focus on the Habit of Prayer Rather than the Quality of Prayer
Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good. Yes, the best prayer is one in which your entire mind and heart are engaged; but good prayer is also a gift from God. Some days you are going to be distracted and your prayer will be less than perfect. Some days God withholds the gift of perfect prayer. I think maybe he allows distractions to help us to grow in perseverance. Perfectionism can definitely get in the way of accepting the less obvious gift of imperfect, distracted prayer.
For me developing the habit of daily prayer was more important than the quality of the prayer on any given day. So yes my concentration wasn’t what I’d like it to be; but I think one can pray the hours with reduced concentration and there is still much good that comes from just saying the words even if it feels very empty. But like I said, I was single then, so I did push myself to finish each hour. If you have the freedom to do that, it’s a great discipline; but if you can’t finish each hour, there’s a discipline in letting go of the prayer to take care of needy little ones too.
When Your Vocation Interrupts, Let It
Your first duty as a mother is to care for your little ones. Older children can be trained to wait until your prayer time is over, babies and toddlers cannot. Sometimes their interruption is your monastery bell that signals the end to prayer time.
In these hectic days of motherhood those prayer habits from my single life do stand me in good stead. Still, some mornings I only get through part of one psalm before I’m interrupted. And I’ve learned to count that as my morning prayer time and just pick up on the next hour and do the best I can. (Karen Edmisten has a beautiful post elaborating on this point: A Mother’s Prayer Time.) It’s been very hard to overcome my perfectionist tendencies which try to insist that it doesn’t “count” if I don’t say the whole hour’s psalmody and reading and intentions and prayers; but I’ve definitely made progress in that regard in the past couple of years.
Have a Back-Up Plan
Like Kate suggested (in an earlier comment to bearing’s post), I print out some of my favorite hymns and post them on the kitchen cabinets and sing as I cook breakfast and wash the dishes. They are my backup plan. On mornings when LOTH is interrupted or disappears completely, I try to at least start with a mumbled morning offering, try to say the Invitatory Psalm (95), which I’ve memorized, and then sing a few hymns as I go about my morning, feeding children, making breakfast and doing dishes.
Other Hourly Devotions Can Also Supplement LOTH
I do like the idea of praying at a set time just because the bell signals that it is time to stop and pray. Therefore, at noon I have my cell phone set to ring and we all pray the Angelus, the prayer which is the original working man’s substitute for the longer devotions of the LOTH. (2 yr old Sophie and 4 year old Bella know most of the prayers and often join in; but I don’t require it of them.) I try to stop, fold my hands and bow my head like in the famous painting by Millet. But often I can’t stop and if I can’t, I don’t wait, because then I’m apt to forget. I just pray regardless of what I’m doing, I don’t stop momming: changing a diaper, dishing out lunch, moderating an argument, etc. This nice thing about memorized short prayers is they can be said while working.
Pray According to the Rhythm of Your Household, Not the Clock
Little ones don’t obey clock time. At least not in my house. So I pray when I can, saying the hour that is most appropriate for the time of day.
If I can, during nap/afternoon quiet time I pray either the short midday or midafternoon prayer or the longer Office of Readings. Which one I say depends on how much I need to sleep. If I fall asleep during these prayers, I figure that sleep is God’s good gift to a tired mother.
Then evening prayer usually doesn’t happen these days till after the kids are in bed, which may be 8 or 9 pm. I’m often nodding off or very distracted; but I do my best to get through. If I’m really tired, I just skip evening prayer and say the much shorter night prayer and if I’m super tired I do a shortened version of night prayer that omits the psalm and just says the responsory and canticle and closing prayer. (I’ve written previously about our shortened version of night prayer, which Bella often requests when she’s having trouble sleeping.)
Pray with Your Children
I’ve also had success in getting the kids involved in praying LOTH with me instead of fighting to keep them away, trying to make them be quiet. I allow myself to be distracted by my children and figure God will give me quiet prayer times when I need it and at other times praying in the midst of interruptions and the circus is undoubtedly good for me too.
I approach praying the LOTH with children like I approach the Mass with children. Sometimes the greatest devotion I can offer God is the hard work of teaching my children how to pray. In serving them I serve him and his grace suffices to make up for the lack of quiet contemplation.
Even the youngest children can pray along with you if you are creative. I have a big pile of laminated holy cards in my prayer book and hand them to the toddlers to look at as I pray. Sometimes that becomes my prayer as I use the cards for an improvised litany of the saints: That’s St Patrick. St Patrick, pray for us… That’s St Joseph. St Joseph, pray for us….That’s Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Blessed Teresa, pray for us. It is very, very sweet to hear a toddler lisping along, pway a us. It’s catechism and prayer rolled into one and just think of all the saints who are helping me to pray!
The girls have both learned how to repeat the antiphons after me and like praying with me. (In part, I think, because I invite them but never force them to participate.) Another way to get them involved was to listen to the LOTH at divineoffice.org I was totally able to feed the baby and listen to that while I got stuff done. Not optimal to multi-task while praying; but better than not praying, no?
Nursing Moms Have a Built-In Call to Prayer
When I’ve got a new baby I try to use the nursing sessions as my monastery bell and say at least a part of the nearest hour whenever I sit down to nurse. Having a laptop nearby allows me to access universalis. Or with the latest baby I did the readings on iBreviary my ipod touch. Very handy technology which lets you scroll with one finger and works until baby is old enough to be fascinated with the shiny thing in mama’s hand. If you’re praying with a book, it’s a bit harder to balance the book and turn pages (I’d sort of prop it up with a pillow); but it can be done. I did it with both Bella and Sophie. At least until the baby is old enough to be distracted by the rustle of the pages and starts grabbing.
You aren’t going to succeed every day. Right now in the midst of my first trimester I am once again struggling against nausea and exhaustion. Some days I just give up and don’t pray. (Not that that’s good, it’s just what is.) But I try not to punish myself for my failures with an excess of negative thoughts. (Mary of evlogia has a great post on how we can sabotage our good efforts with negativity and self-criticism: Logismoi.)
I think I might have given up early on if I hadn’t had many cheerleaders telling me it could still work for me, especially if I changed my expectations of what LOTH requires.
Like I said before, it’s kind of the same thing I’ve learned about attending Mass. I may be very distracted by keeping the baby and toddlers from screaming and fighting and I may not hear the readings and I may miss the homily and even have to leave to change a diaper and miss the consecration; but there is a grace at simply being present as much as I am able and allowing God to be present even in the midst of the distractions and interruptions. I’ve become convinced that liturgy doesn’t require our full attention and concentration to be a source of grace for us—though it is good for us to try to give it as much as possible.
Bearing suggested that this comment might become a whole series of how to pray LOTH with toddlers. I’m open to the idea; but for now I just figured I’d post what I already have. I do think perhaps I need to follow bearing’s example and try to compile a master index post of everything I’ve written about LOTH.
Meanwhile, any suggestions on how I might expand this to a series of posts on the topic? Any questions about the details or things you’d like me to elaborate on in further blog posts?