Prayer on Autopilot?

One afternoon in February of this year, I left work to go to an ultrasound appointment.  Little did I know that day that it would be my last day at the office for over five months!

To make a very long story short: I was 21 weeks pregnant with twins and this routine appointment led me to be admitted to the hospital, I had surgery the following day, and was ordered to bed-rest until the babies were born.  Luckily, we made it to 36 weeks (Halleluia!!) and welcomed two healthy boys into our family.

One month ago, I went back to work.  What a strange, strange feeling!!  I had not been there in so long.  In some ways it was like I had never left and nothing had changed; in others it felt like I had been gone forever.

One of the hardest things for me was something quite silly.  I couldn’t remember all the keyboard short-cuts I had taught myself over the years.  Due to problems I had developed years earlier in my wrists, I always look for ways to stay on the keyboard and not move back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse.  I had figured out so many short-cuts on my own through trial and error as well as by accident that I hardly ever used my mouse when in certain programs.  My first couple weeks back at work I worked a bit slower than what had been my usual pace and I found myself stopping more often to contemplate the keyboard, knowing there was a better way to do … whatever it was I was trying to do.

Then just this past week I made a break-through.  I realized that I had to stop thinking.  I needed to be on autopilot.  I shut off my brain and my fingers just knew what to do.  I found myself suddenly typing weird combinations of key strokes and wondering how I knew what I was doing.  The moment I tried to think about it, there would be hesitation.  I had to just stop and allow myself to go on autopilot.

Being on autopilot was exactly what I needed to do to get my “groove” back.  That’s one of the great things about being on autopilot.  I’m sure we’ve all had those moments.  But autopilot is not always a good thing.  Unfortunately it often happens in our prayer life.  I know it does mine and I’m sure it has infected everyone’s prayer life at some point or another … or it is right now.

Time to switch it off!!  Believe me, I know that is easier said than done!

At the same time that I was having this epiphany at work, my husband and I started putting the babies in their rockers/bouncers at the kitchen table with us so they could see us while we ate.  It’s funny how the way we pray the Prayer Before Meals changed when the babies were with us.  We said it slower, more deliberately; we said the sign of the cross fully and didn’t just do it on our own at the end.  It struck me that we are usually just on autopilot because we do it all the time, at every meal.

I mentioned this to my husband and he simply replied that of course we do it better, because the babies will need to learn.  True, but why aren’t we doing it better all the time; shouldn’t we be more deliberate in our prayer regularly, regardless of if the babies are present or not?

Interesting how this autopilot thing can be a blessing in some cases, but a hinderance in others.  I feel challenged now to turn off the autopilot while I pray, to allow the words to have more meaning to me and to really, fully understand them.  Have you ever stopped to think about the words you are saying when you recite the Creed at Mass?  I stumble over the Creed a lot more when I’m thinking about the words than I do when I just allow myself to say it out of habit.  It can be so easy to get into a habit and a routine, whether you are praying a standard prayer or praying in your own words.  Even praying in our own words can have a familiar routine that can also lose its meaning.

Are you also up for the challenge?  Have you sat back and re-examined your prayer life lately?  Do you, too, need to turn autopilot off in your prayer life?

9 Replies to “Prayer on Autopilot?”

  1. I think that tends to be a problem for me with rote prayers. Especially at the end of the day when my patience is fried and I just want everyone to scoot to bed. I know in my heart those are the times when I *most* need to focus on each of the words of the prayer. God wants our intent, not our words and while He blesses us when our minds aren’t 100% there, that doesn’t excuse us from our obligation to sincerely and genuinely give Him praise.

    Thanks for the awareness and the motivation to be mindful of my conversations with God, rote or otherwise. 🙂

  2. I’m frequently on auto pilot in my prayer life! I’ll be very deliberate for a few days and hten something happens – life gets in the way – and I fall right back in to auto pilot again.

    I do try to be very deliberate about prayer at certain times of the day. I heard once that one of the best wasys you can “pray without ceasing” as we’re called to do is to recite a Bible verse every time that we come to a red light. So unless I’m REALLY on auto-pilot (and sneaking some time to read my Blackberry because it just beeped telling me that an e-mail was there) I say “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” (Psalm 27:1). It calms me to say it – and reminds me that I need to be mindful as I move through my day.

    Sadly that must not be *enough* of a habit though, because I find myself realizing quite often that I need to get back to that task.

    Great post! =)

  3. wow, this is an awesome post. I feel like I am an auto pilot mom sometimes. Toddlers really can tell when your praise isn’t backed by true feeling when a mama is busy. Trying to work on not being on auto pilot with them for any reason. 🙂

  4. I actually think prayers on autopilot can be among our best. If you think about the word, it comes from the program the pilot puts the plane in to help stay on course. “Autopilot” helps the pilot to save his/ her strength and expertise for emergencies. In the same way, time honored prayers like the Hail Mary and Our Father help us to begin. They give us words to say so our hearts can be busy with soaring toward God. In reading the lives of the saints, I have learned that many prayed constantly simply by keeping their thoughts always on the Lord. The focus seemed less on making each word count than on becoming as close to one with God as possible.
    Your reminder that prayer should be something we work at is a great one. We will never “arrive” at that goal. But by turning our every thought, word and deed as much as possible to the great Love and Savior of our lives, all of our prayers–on autopilot or otherwise–will bring us closer to Him.

  5. I realized I didn’t do a good job of explaining what I meant in my comment above. I knew a priest once who told me that he set a goal of saying a “perfect rosary”–meaning perfect focus, concentration etc. He went to the chapel and tried to do it. He kept starting over as he lost focus for a second or two and the long and the short of it was he never was able to accomplish his goal. He is a priest I consider holy and hard working, The problem was not in his love of God. I truly believe that we human beings are so weak and fallible that we simply are not able to pray even one “perfect prayer”. Fortunately, praying the perfect prayer is not the goal. And when we think of our prayer lives, autopilot can be extremely helpful. If we take the time and have the discipline to develop a habit of praying at certain times and we are faithful in our commitment to do that, even if we are distracted at times, I believe we have done a great thing.
    We are trying to teach our children to seek God always, especially in the hard times. Of course, in the hard times, it can be extra difficult to concentrate but what a great thing to hit our knees, bow our heads and try. Again, I think the key is in the development of habits and in surrounding ourselves with reminders of God–like music, what we watch and what we read.
    I think the devil knows that we can be discouraged if we think our prayers must be perfect and that distracted or “rote” prayers don’t honor God. The rosary is the “rotest” prayer there is–given to us by God’s mother.
    So, as in all things, I encourage anyone reading this to “do you best and forget the rest”

    God bless.


  6. Thanks for all the great comments and thoughts. Just want to add that I was not at all saying that rote prayers aren’t good enough. I love all our Catholic prayers and I agree that we humans will never be able to pray in absolute and complete perfection. It absolutely is important that we are doing it even when distracted. I was more thinking along the lines of when we get into such a habit that we really aren’t putting any heart into it and it means nothing. I think that is different than when we want to do well but are distracted or not perfect in our praying. Hope that makes sense. Thanks again for the wonderful comments!!

  7. When I started homeschooling one of the unexpected blessings came about when I was teaching them their prayers. I went over the prayers line by line explaining what each line meant so that they would understand what they were saying. I discovered that this gave me a better appreciation of what these prayers meant. Not that I didn’t know, but I didn’t really think about it. Now I find that I will often think back to how I explained them to my girls as I am saying them myself. I spent so much time saying them by rote, that I forgot what I was really saying…what an impact it had when I actually thought about what I was saying, and how much more it meant!

  8. Totally relate to leaving work one day and not being back for an extended period of time. In my case, I was at a neuro appointment and my neuro FNP noticed that my blood pressure was weird. A week later, I had an emergency c-section to deliver my son and save both our lives. (HELLP Syndrome is evil.) I found that I didn’t have the words to pray that first week in the hospital — I was just so numb (and sick and sleep-deprived). What I learned was that Matthew 6:34 is the best verse ever (not worrying about tomorrow).

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