Praying in the Flesh vs. Praying in the Spirit

St. Paul tells us that the Spirit will always be opposed to the flesh to the point where we sometimes find ourselves behaving in ways we otherwise wouldn’t choose (cf. Gal. 5:17). This is something, I believe, we all deal with. It is difficult to live in the Spirit while at the same time living in a materialistic, hyper-sexualized culture. I think this is due in part because the culture at large measures success based on said terms. It’s difficult to escape. Sometimes this way of thinking even seeps into our prayer life. We find ourselves praying not for heavenly graces, but rather for worldly success. Instead of seeking to grow in the virtuous life, we pray to grow in the things that often times lead to vices. Yes, there is nothing wrong with asking the Lord to help us get through financial hurdles, but the principal purpose of prayer is to draw us closer God.

The issue at hand is that we find ourselves praying for what makes us happy over what should make us holy. There is a false notion being promoted in society that feeling “happy” holds primacy in the ethos of how we ought to navigate through life. This leads to all the things Paul warns us against: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like” (Gal 5:19-20). All these behaviors are rooted in the flesh. Paul does not mince words: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21).

“I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”

When I pray the Office (the prayers priests and religious are obliged to pray), I often stop myself when my mind begins to wander towards what St. Ignatius calls “low and earthly things.” Why do my thoughts tend to dwell on such things? This forces me to examine my priorities, or in Augustinian terms, “my loves.” I am convinced that this is God’s way of showing me where my heart is. In God’s infinite wisdom, this period of meditation within prayer, I believe, is God’s way of communicating the areas of my life that require re-orientation.

“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”

This, I believe, is what it means to pray in the Spirit because at it’s very core is self-discipline. Paul states: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22). I find it that when one prays in the flesh, with more worldly things in mind, what is evidently absent is the desire for self-mastery. The virtuous life demands self-control from worldly pleasures. This is something, I feel, is not being communicated enough in today’s age. The people of God, by and large, are not being challenged enough to detach themselves from the plethora of placebos that offer no real lasting joy. These placebos, more often than not, wage war against the soul (cf. 1 Pt 2:11).

Isn’t it odd that those who seem to have the most success also seem to have the most dysfunction? Look at those who live the Hollywood lifestyle, those the world showcase as the pinnacle of achievement. Why is the suicide rate exponentially higher among those who live in first world nations? I believe it’s because we’ve placed the measure of our self-worth and the value of life on the material. This breeds a culture of envy and jealousy that is diametrically opposed to the Spirit. Let us pray for the grace to seek the things that point heavenward. Let us pray for the things that will lead us to sanctity rather than profit, purity rather than pleasure, and selflessness rather than jealousy.

– Fr. Michael Garcia

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