August 27, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
This is the fourth and final post of my “Moral of the Story” series about the lessons I learned while serving as a missionary to the homeless in Denver over the past year. I began by discussing how all human beings are social beings who need community, and that the homeless often don’t experience the love they desperately need. In my second post, following the suicide of Robin Williams, I talked about what I learned about the reality of mental illness and the challenges that it presents for much of the chronically homeless population. My third major lesson learned was about encountering Christ in the poor while also being Christ to everyone that we interact with.
My final lesson is the most important one and the one that I needed to learn the most: Prayer and frequent reception of the Sacraments are absolutely needed if you are ever going to experience peace and love anyone fully.
Missionary life was incredibly taxing on several occasions. There were days when I’d meet a friend on the streets who seemed to be recovering with addictions last week and find that he was more intoxicated than I’d ever seen him before. Days when I was told by someone that he or she wished that we didn’t come out there trying to help people. Days when I was called a hypocrite who had never lived a day in a poor man’s shoes. Days when it was below 0 degrees outside and I’d walk around the city for hours with my missionary partner hoping to find someone, anyone, so we could give them hot chocolate, while also silently wishing that everyone found shelter last night and no one I knew had frozen to death outside overnight.
Some people may think that sort of work would be impossible for them to ever do. And you wouldn’t be the only one. For a year I would describe my job after being asked “So what do you do?” and the most common response was “Wow, I could never do that.”
And it would have been impossible for me too if it hadn’t been for one thing.
I was blessed to have prayer as a part of my daily life as a missionary because it established a routine that I’ve had an easy time continuing even after leaving the program. We started and ended each day with prayer. We prayed before and after meals. As the year went on and I found myself more and more emotionally exhausted from my apostolate, I prayed during my free time too. If you offer up your concerns and worries to God, he will take them from you and give you the strength to carry your load.
I also noticed a trend related to the times when I felt most stressed out and angry at the world. Those weeks where it seemed like nothing was going right, that my work was hopeless, and that I was wasting my time- those were also the weeks when I was praying the least. Those were the times when I was leaving communal prayer at the earliest possible moment. They were the times when I had gone several weeks, if not months, without receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They were the times when everything else took priority over moments of personal conversation with God. As soon as I realized that I hadn’t been praying much and did something about it, those anxieties were taken from me.
This isn’t just something that worked for me. It’s something that Jesus himself promised, and something that was a part of his way of life. The gospels frequently mention times when Jesus went off to pray by himself, from the beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:35) until his final night on Earth before his passion (Matthew 26:36-46). He encouraged us to take our anxieties to him in prayer:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11:28-30
St. John Chrysostom also had some wise words to say concerning prayer:
“It is simply impossible to lead, without the aid of prayer, a virtuous life.”
“Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness.”
So prayer is a great thing, but what should it look like in your life? Should you pray a rosary every day? Does this mean daily mass is necessary to live a virtuous and peace-filled life?
Those are certainly good starting points, and I can’t say enough good things about receiving the Body and Blood of Christ on a daily basis, but for me a simple change that helped tremendously was to incorporate into my prayer routine every day an examination of conscience, a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of the day, and if needed, a bit of a rant to God about the things that I found challenging that day so that he could help me put it all in perspective (Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…). Apologizing for the ways I failed God, asking for the strength to do better the next time, and thanking him for the things that went right brought me a great amount of serenity that lasted throughout the day.
If you’re wondering how you can live a life of greater peace, and want to know how you can love others more fully and more selflessly, all you need to do is go to God and ask for it.
“Promise me a quarter of an hour’s prayer every day, and I, in the name of Jesus Christ, will promise you Heaven.” – St. Teresa