One of the great challenges of motherhood for me is the reality that, every few weeks, something in my children’s routine seems to change. There are sleep regressions, illnesses, milestones, and new likes or dislikes. Every couple of weeks, it’s something different. In the first year or so of a child’s life, this means that my routine also needs to change, especially my prayer routine.
I have always loved praying early in the morning. Beginning in middle school, I used to wake up a little after 5 AM so that I could study scripture before school. Later, I discovered the divine office and began to add Morning Prayer to my routine. Once I learned about Centering Prayer, I tried to incorporate ten or 20 minutes of meditation into my prayer time. I tried to wake up early enough that there was never a rush to get through my prayer: I wanted to revel in God during that first hour of my day.
Now that my son is sleeping through the night, I have finally been able to get back into this early morning prayer habit. The challenge, of course, is making it a habit once again. It requires a great act of my will to rise from my bed in the dark, wrap myself up in a warm shawl, turn on the dimmest of lights, and give the first minutes of my day to God.
The first few mornings, there was predictable delight. God is so good to beginners in prayer – even to those of us who are beginning again – and gives us consolations to encourage us. But after a few days, I noticed something else: my anxiety had ticked up. I felt a bit more reactionary, a bit more watchful and wary. I lost patience and felt surges of anger. I thought I had entered a period of what many have referred to as spiritual warfare.
Coincidently, I was also reading a bit about the neuroscience of habit formation and our brain’s resistance to change. One of the things that surprised me was that introducing a new habit, like waking up early to pray, could be perceived as a threat by my amygdala. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped region of the brain that is responsible for, amongst other things, our fight-or-flight response. It is closely connected to the prefrontal cortex, which is in turn responsible for learning and complex decision making. When we have to navigate significant changes in our lives and learn how to adapt to new situations, our prefrontal cortex can send our amygdala into overdrive. It interprets the change as a threat and may cause us to become anxious, fearful, angry, fatigued, or even depressed.
I took immediate comfort in thinking that the feelings I was experiencing were caused by my brain trying to process a new morning routine. I do not discount the reality of spiritual warfare at all, but I do recognize that we are tasked with the discernment of spirits. Spiritual warfare requires a different response than navigating the temporary discomfort of forming new neural pathways.
Recognizing that my brain was just working hard to learn a new habit enabled me to approach the situation with openness and gentleness rather than defensiveness. To help things along, I rewarded my early morning start with a small piece of chocolate and gave in to the need to rest when I felt especially tired. In other words, just as God was providing spiritual consolations, I allowed myself some physical consolations. Before I knew it, I was waking up for early morning prayer without the help of my alarm clock.
I draw two lessons from this experience: first, I cannot mistake the turbulence of the beginning for the deeper purification and transformation God will work in my soul over time if I stay faithful to the practice of prayer.
Perhaps more practically, I also realize the importance of working with my body rather than treating it like an enemy, especially when it comes to spiritual disciplines. It is, after all, through and with my body that I pray, fast, and most especially receive the Eucharist. Therefore, I must be patient and help it along with gentleness and kindness. This is a form of love that I can offer to myself so that I can, in turn, learn to love others and extend this same gentleness and kindness to them.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.