Last week I mentioned how pleasantly surprised I was by Eugene Boylan’s book, Difficulties in Mental Prayer. Much of his very helpful advice centered on avoiding artificial formality and stiffness with God.
Another pitfall Boylan addresses is being needlessly systematic and methodical. Prayer is not a procedure to be marched through with correct technique for maximum efficiency.
It’s supposed to be something as simple and beautiful as the “elevation of the mind and heart to God.” Yet we manage to turn it into a mindless or an obsessive and joyless reeling-off of particular words in a particular order a particular number of times. Boylan elaborates:
For example, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament can be made with few or no words and, if we find a facility for doing so, no consideration of indulgence or any such profit should be allowed to interfere and to lead us to plunge into a long series of repeated vocal prayers, which will only weary the soul, give it a distaste for prayer, and keep it away from our Lord.
Excessive concern for efficiency can be a poisonous thing. as Bl. John Paul II suggests in Evangelium vitae and elsewhere. Pope Francis, too, takes on the cult of loveless efficiency at every turn.
After all, human persons (especially if they’re very old, very young, or very sick) do wreak havoc on our well-oiled agendas. The temptation to sidestep the havoc altogether is partly what’s behind contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.
It leads to less dramatic, less obviously tragic tendencies as well.
On the other hand, some of us don’t suffer from an inordinate concern with efficiency. Our defects, as our husbands or roommates or children could attest, run to the other extreme. Not all chaos is happy chaos, we need to be reminded. Not all spontaneity is charming. Good intentions are all very well, but a little efficiency, it seems, is just what the doctor ordered.
How to distinguish, then, between impersonal, inordinately valued efficiency and the fruitful kind?
One illuminating angle comes from one of my favorite bloggers, Jen Fulweiler,
The other day I remarked to my husband that I was surprised at how smoothly the last re-write went … To him, this was not a surprise at all. He said he knew I’d get it done the moment I set word count goals and tracked my progress against them. “You get what you measure,” he remarked with a shrug, as if making a statement about the greenness of grass.
You get what you measure.
I guess this is an obvious statement to people with MBAs, but to me, it was revolutionary. I thought about other times that I have measured some aspect of my life, and realized that it almost always yielded results: When we started tracking our debt on a spreadsheet that we updated month-to-month, it went down at a higher rate than before. When I kept a food journal to track what and how much I ate each day, my eating habits improved. When I started noting how long I could run without stopping, my stamina increased significantly. ... In each case, the improvements occurred with little obvious effort on my part. The simple act of measuring this area of my life put it on my mental radar …
So that's one key: finding a way to keep spiritual matters on your mental radar. Not to obsess, not to wallow in either self-hatred or self-congratulation, but to keep track of them in some way, with as much attention as you'd give to monthly expenses or dentist appointments.
You don’t measure your worth by whether you’ve checked off prayers, or good works, or whatever, on your checklist. It's not empirical proof of how satisfied God is (or isn’t) with you. You don't see Him as an accountant, and you don't aspire to be one, either.
But you might use measurement as a tool, not for efficiency, exactly, but to see that you do what you set out to do. You don't prize efficiency at the expense of persons, but you use ordinary human devices efficiently in the service of persons (including God). You set goals; you shift the focus of your examination of conscience when that makes sense; you try to manage your time, including prayer time. You take a periodic, honest look at what you have and haven't done for God, for evangelization, for your own soul.
Be efficient. But never be efficient for efficiency's sake.