What My Mother Taught Me About Mindless Prayer

I was all alone, and the pain was coming back. “Oh gosh. Oh dear God.” Quickly it escalated to an electric pitch. Sudden and unexpected these words gasped out: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I love you, save souls.” More like a scream this time: “JESUS MARY JOSEPH! I love you, save souls!” The pain abated almost as quickly as it came.  And as my mind cleared, I thought, “Wow, that prayer really helped.”

Labor with my second child had been underway for 12 hours already, and I was in the transition stage–meaning, it was almost as bad as it was going to get. My husband was bringing our two-year-old son to a friend’s house so that we could go to the hospital unencumbered; hence for a time I had to handle the pain solo. After we got checked in, my husband continued to pray Hail Marys with me and for me, when I could no longer speak during contractions. To our surprise, our Catholic nurse joined us with every prayer. Despite the agony induced fog I was in, I could still realize what a gift it was to be surrounded by prayer. These prayers were far, far more efficacious in handling the pain than any of the breathing exercises or pain management techniques we used during the birth of our first child.

After our little Lucy made her debut (90 minutes after arriving at the hospital), my mind kept going back to the power of prayer. Certainly, the Blessed Mother was present with us, assisting me in my time of need. But the most surprising moment in the whole experience was when the holy names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph practically erupted out of me. There was no thought involved; at that time, thought was hardly possible. All my lofty plans to “offer it up for so-and-so” had gone out with a definite puff of “I’ve had enough! Surely I’ve offered up enough? Who could possibly expect me to offer up more? I AM DONE.” Pain and fear were the only things on my mind, until those holy names illumined my thoughts and gave both relief, and a purpose for the pain. Reflecting on the efficacy of prayer, I realized—not for the first time—the debt of gratitude I owe to both my parents. In this particular case, my Mom plays the leading role.

My Mom and Dad gave me a treasure, THE treasure: the Faith; and within that treasure are so many riches, including prayer with its several types. When my siblings and I were kids, I remember so many times when Mom taught us aspirations—”Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I love you, save souls,” among others, and also ideas regarding when to use them. We’d be driving through a neighborhood, and somebody would say “Hey Mom, there’s a statue of Mary in that person’s yard!” and Mom would say some variation of “you can use that as a reminder to say a quick prayer, maybe ‘Mary my hope!’” Or, upon hearing someone take the Lord’s name in vain, Mom would tell us, “Just say to yourself ‘Blessed be the name of Jesus.’” And once, when our car hit black ice, I remember Mom shouting “Oh God, HELP US!” We laughed about that one afterwards, for the sheer drama of it; but really, it was a profound moment. When in need, Mom knows Who to call on first. And the car didn’t crash.

Prayer in general is a treasure of the Church. That is an article all to itself. Aspirations, or ejaculatory prayers, have a more specific place and purpose. St. Paul tell us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18: “Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” To pray without ceasing requires not a constant flow of formulaic prayers, but rather a spirit of prayer. While liturgical prayer (the Mass and liturgy of the hours, for example) and community prayers (such as the Rosary, and the Way of the Cross, among others) are both more exalted and more central to one’s life of Faith, personal prayer, including aspirations, is that which helps one to form a spirit of prayer, and ultimately to participate better in both liturgy and communal prayer. For it is not possible always to be in Mass, or to say the Rosary from morning until night while still performing the duties required to live a healthy human life. To have a spirit of prayer is to keep in mind God’s presence throughout the day, and to lift up one’s thoughts to him when possible. Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 2002 to 2008, put it this way:

But the injunction (to pray always) becomes possible if we understand it to mean to have a spirit of prayer throughout the day, to strive to remain united with God without trying at every moment to have an express conscious awareness of his presence. It is possible to offer the major actions of the day to God by some brief ejaculatory prayer.

In other words, ejaculatory prayer is effective in raising our minds to God when there is no time to say anything more formal. In some way it truly makes him present to us. In addition, the habit of remembering God’s presence essentially brings about an ease of action so that, when the frailties of humanity make it impossible to consciously direct our thoughts or actions to him, we do it all the same, unconsciously. In some sense, it’s as if constant repetition creates a worn path by which he can present himself to one’s mind when one’s mind cannot seek him.

The Holy Name of Jesus provides the archetype of the mightiness of an aspiration. His name has power. Recall this passage from Philippians 2:8-11: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names:  That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth:  And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.” There was nothing new under the sun; sinful day following sinful day, vanities following upon vanities, until the Incarnation. And the Incarnate Word allowed himself to be named, named so that we might know him and call upon him. It is not that the letters or the composition of the name have intrinsic value; but rather he whom the name recalls gives significance to it. God himself took flesh, and was born a human like to us in every way, except for sin. And like every other human being he was named. The name of Jesus would be of little import apart from the Word who became flesh and died so that mankind might have eternal life.

In The Wonders of The Holy Name, Fr. Paul O’Sullivan writes, “He was called ‘Jesus,’ so that when we say ‘Jesus,’ we offer to the Eternal Father the infinite love, the infinite merits of Jesus Christ; in a word, we offer Him His own Divine Son Himself; we offer Him the great Mystery of the Incarnation.” The good Bard may indeed have written, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Oh dear, dear, Shakespeare, elsewhere I hasten to sing your praises. But in this I heartily disagree. There is at least one Name like unto none in beauty, power, and goodness. Souls are saved, suffering redeemed, demons struck with terror all through this one name.

Thank you Mom, for teaching me to invoke it.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Virgin in Prayer” was painted by Sassoferrato between 1640 and 1650.

Elizabeth Anderson

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Elizabeth Anderson is a stay at home mother and independent writer. After graduating from Christendom College, she worked for several years for Population Research Institute. She resides in Michigan with her husband, Matthew, and their three small children.

  • Beth

    Beautiful, Elizabeth! Thanks for the reminders to teach my children these treasures!

  • Deborah

    Thank you Elizabeth—a wonderful article!
    Some years ago I read an article about purring. (You know–purring–what cats do.)
    The writer said that there were two benefits to purring. First, it provides comfort to the cat, and second, it strengthens the bones. I have a great love for the Jesus Prayer and for me it’s like purring. It enters my day and accompanies me. When worried, it becomes my best way to address the concern. It rides on my breath when i awake at night and on a crowded streetcar, it is my way of interceding for all the anonymous people who close in on me.
    My poor prayer would have no efficacy were it not for the fact that this poor prayer is linked to the eternal prayer of the Son, loving the Father in the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts. It’s a hidden prayer but it has the mighty power of Jesus’ Name.
    Again, thank you for writing this piece.

  • St JD George

    Good habits learned early are a life long treasure. On the flip side, I used to remind young people I ran across who used profanity that beyond the moral dimension (though of course the word use has no meaning beyond shock value), if they let themselves get to a point that it was just became part of their vernacular then those same words would come out naturally at a very inappropriate time and embarrass them. I like your positive experience much better though.

  • Megan Fraser

    Great article Elizabeth!

  • Vinny

    Sounds akin to Opus Dei. “Work, family life, and other ordinary activities are occasions for spiritual union with Jesus Christ.”

  • hombre111

    The old saints called it “recollection,” and the ejaculations (modern sexual preoccupations might ask us to rename these prayers “arrow prayers,” which is a literal translation of the Latin world) play a key role. “Breath-prayer” is another description, and the Jesus Prayer is the most ancient form. Also, the prayers of the Celtic saints. People who practice this prayer constantly walk in the presence of God.

  • Martha

    Amen! I love ‘mindless’ prayer! I used to feel inferior to my more charismatic friends that I wasn’t an expert at spontaneous prayer, but I’ve since learned better.

    And yes, nothing like the rosary or even just a ‘Jesus, help me, Mary help me’ to get you through labor. 😉 Best medicine there is.

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