Breaking Out of our Pain: Rote prayer, Intercessory Prayer and our Mental Health

A couple of years ago, in that pre-pandemic time of what one friend refers to as “The Great Before”, I was playing dodgeball at a youth rally with a team of highly energetic young people who had banded together to resoundingly defeat our beloved bishop. 

At one point I found myself staring at a large, red ball hurtling towards me forcing me to hit the ground and slide beneath its trajectory. A few seconds later, we had won, but the twinge in my neck, and growing stiffness let me know a few things almost immediately;

  1. I will not be joining my team in leaping up and down in victory.
  2. I may need to see a doctor.
  3. I am over 50 years-old, not in great shape, and really have no business doing these kinds of things.

Both the pain in my neck, and my beloved wife served to remind me of these objective truths regularly over the coming months. 

Pain indeed has a purpose. It forces us to stop and look at it. It forces us to evaluate our circumstances and take action for our healing, and in the hopes of preventing future trauma. These are all good and essential things.

But pain can become a distraction. It can keep us from getting the rest we need, forcing unwise, out of shape, and aged dodgeball players to toss and turn for weeks, unable to find a position that did not make things even more uncomfortable than they already were. 

Over time, chronic pain can lead to depression, and beyond, to that state of profound apathy which some term ‘languishing’. It is that particular physical/emotional/spiritual state beyond sadness, hopelessness, and depression where, regardless of what kind of energy level you may have, one struggles to experience any joy, any desire, or move in any meaningful direction.

This is certainly true for those who experience chronic, physical pain, but it can be equally true, and far more difficult to recognize when we are experiencing prolonged emotional and spiritual pain and trauma.  As with physical pain, this kind of emotional and psychological pain also directs all of our attention towards it.  This can be as emotionally and spiritually debilitating as living with long-term physical pain.

We can find ourselves in a cycle where the pain we feel captures all or most of our attention, and the ways in which in which this discomfort causes us to neglect other areas of our lives; such as maintaining or seeking out essential social supports, simply escalates the pain, which captures our attention even more exclusively. And the cycle continues.

Our Catholic tradition provides us with several useful, spiritual tools to help us become more resilient in these kinds of situations; tools that can help to short-circuit this cycle.

Two of these, ‘rote’ and intercessory prayer, often go hand-in-hand and can provide us with readily available ways of coping with the adversity and challenge of the kinds of emotional and spiritual struggles chronic mental health issues can present in care-giving situations.

It’s not uncommon for us to forget the value of rote prayer. These written, easily memorized and recited prayers sometimes get a bad rap because they don’t seem to require us to invest a lot in them. 

The kind of routine that can be found in the The Liturgy of the Hours, the Jesus Prayer, or a regular routine of praying the Rosary, can be as helpful for our emotional and spiritual lives as a piece of driftwood is for a drowning man.

Don’t get me wrong, impromptu and improvised conversations with Christ whether they take place in the car, the shower, a walk, or as you drift off to sleep are themselves great gifts, but there are many times when we can find ourselves without any words to say except I hurt, my loved one hurts, we’re all hurting. Days of extended OUCH!  
On days like these, the Jesus Prayer – “Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner“, the Hail Mary, Mary’s Memorare, or St. Ignatius’ Sucipe;

Take Lord, receive Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own

…or the different offices of the Liturgy of the Hours, can break the self-absorbing cycle of chronic spiritual and emotional pain and turn our attention outside of ourselves.

Inclusion of religious and spiritual practices into one’s life, such as rote or intercessory prayer, has been shown to reduce clinical symptoms associated with mental health such as depression and anxiety. And taking time in our daily for regular, private prayer, which may include rote prayers like these, has shown “significant benefit for depression, optimism, coping, and other mental health conditions such as anxiety.”

Further, rote prayers, like the Jesus Prayer, the Sucipe, or the Lord’s Prayer, can steep us in a world view that is centered outside of ourselves, outside of the pain we are carrying, and focused on trusting a God whose love for us and those whom we love far exceeds our own.

On an emotional and physical level, the rhythmic breathing and vocal cadences involved in repeating short, easily memorized words of prayer like these can have a significant effect on stress levels and our ability to surrender control of situations that are often already outside of our scope to change on our own.

When practiced regularly; on waking, before bed, and through the course of a day, these prayers can become lifelines or anchors keeping us grounded and helping to bind the moments of our days together in a ‘spiritual cocoon’ suited well for healing.  The kind of routine that can be found in the The Liturgy of the Hours, the Jesus Prayer, or a regular routine of praying the Rosary, can be as helpful for our emotional and spiritual lives as a piece of driftwood is for a drowning man.

These rote prayers are also often intercessory in nature.  The Liturgy of the Hours have general intercessions built into Morning and Evening prayer. The Rosary is traditionally prayed with particular intentions in mind, and Mary’s Memorare; 

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

…presumes that we are seeking Mary’s intercession for ourselves and especially for others.

These, over time, help to alleviate one of the more crippling symptoms of prolonged pain; that it takes up most all of our attention and forces us over and over again to look inward, and only see the hurt we are in.  Practiced often, we can build a habit of observing others, asking about their needs, and building essential personal connections by letting them know we are praying for them in specific ways, and also by checking in with them in the days that follow.  All things that turn our vision away from our own hurts. 

This is one of the reasons we end all of our Emmaus Family Support peer-support meetings by taking time to ask members to pray for each other’s specific needs. Intercessory prayer is a regular encounter with speaking words of prayer for others that, over time, can turn our vision outside of our small, hurting selves, and towards others. Even if just for a few moments.  This too can be a powerful, healing grace.

If you are a caregiver, or someone struggling with mental health challenges, try working with Christ and the Holy Spirit to spin a healing spiritual cocoon around your life by adding rote, and intercessory prayer into your self-care toolkit. 

Peace and God Bless,

Deacon Eric Gurash

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