Is prayer a good way to relieve stress?
April 18, 2019
Everyone in our culture seems to be seeking relief from stress. Some turn to Buddhist meditation techniques, yoga or mindfulness. Others ask if traditional Christian ways of praying can make one more peaceful. Pope Francis addressed this issue recently, asking about our prayers, “Do we mean them as tranquilizers to be taken in regular doses, to get some relief from stress?”
He answered his own question: “No, prayer is a gesture of love, it is being with God and bringing him the life of the world: It is an indispensable work of spiritual mercy.”
Sometimes we can bring a worldly attitude to prayer. In the world, people tout this or that technique, the most recent fads, as means for stress relief. If Eastern meditation can make one feel more peaceful, why can’t we use Christian prayer for the same purpose?
When we are anxious or grieving, the best solution to our problems is prayer. Spending time with Christ reminds us that we do not carry our burdens alone. Jesus carries them with us. In prayer, he gives us the strength to take up our daily crosses. So in that sense, we will often feel more peaceful after we pray.
As the pope stated, however, the purpose of prayer is love. If we think of prayer as just another technique, we ironically will not receive the peace we seek. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27).
Jesus does give us peace, but he gives it in unexpected ways. The peace that he brings does not come from an altered state of consciousness, breathing techniques or the use of mantras. It does not consist in something that doctors can measure – although it might as a side benefit result in physical benefits. In prayer, Jesus gives us himself.
Our growing relationship with God through Christ makes him our daily companion. He loves us. He desires to share our burdens. Our peace comes through trust in him. The more time we spend with him, the more we believe that he will never abandon us. He always has our good in mind and is working it out through all our circumstances. In his plan, everything works for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28), even those things that cause temporary suffering.
We gain peace through prayer because prayer transforms us. We do not seek peace as the primary end of prayer, any more than we seek material goods or health or temporal happiness. We seek God’s will above our petitions, even as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane: “If it is possible …. Yet, not my will, but yours be done” (Mt 26:39). Submission to the will of the Father brings peace, even if we do not receive what we ask for.
As we perform our daily duties, this peace stays wit us. It is deeper than a peace based on circumstances or a stress-relieving technique. St. Paul writes, “The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:5-7). That is much better than the promises of any passing fad.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of The Contemplative Rosary just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.