Breaking Down the Barriers to Prayer

The heart hardens with a kind of moral crust that excludes compassion for others and prevents communication with others, especially God. Habits of sin, especially the seven deadly sins, keep us focused on our own pleasure, honor, and comfort, and an inability to pray.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  (Mt 6:5-8 RSVCE)

The critique of Jesus issued to his disciples in Matthew 6 reminds the reader of Buddhists spinning prayer wheels, or Muslims using their prayer beads or … Catholics praying the Rosary or reciting St. Faustina’s devotion to the Divine Mercy. Anyone involved in a visible way in defending or promoting the Church has to face the inevitable question—isn’t this or that devotion an example of what our Lord is prohibiting, praying, over and over again, for something he already knows we need?

Now the repetition of prayers, particularly the Kyrie Eleison, has long been associated with the Church’s public worship. The practice was so important that it was ordered by the Second Council (synod) of Vaison in 529 A.D. for regular use at Mass, and in the Divine Office. 1 The latter daily prayer has always been based on the psalms, several of which, like Psalms 103 and 136, incorporate repetition. The triple repetition, “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” which begins the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass (and is also used in the Te Deum at Matins), probably has ancient roots, because it is attributed to the four living creatures in Revelation 4:8. And in the same book, the acclamations “Alleluia” and “Amen” are frequently repeated. In fact, Jesus himself is identified as “the Amen” in Revelation 3:14.

We must conclude that Jesus is not excoriating prayers that use “many words,” but is criticizing the pagan notion that multiplying the words of prayer will get the god’s attention and increase the chances of “being heard.” We can read a satirical account in 1 Kings 18:21-29 of the lengths the prophets of Baal went to in order to get the attention of that false god. Part of their “prayer” was resorting to self-mutilation.

In direct contrast, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one true God, is pictured in the Old Testament as constantly full of loving kindness and compassion for his people. The prayer book of the Second Temple, the Book of Psalms, uses God’s hesed and ‘emet as a repeated theme. “His steadfast love endures forever” is the refrain of the litany we know as Psalm 136 (RSVCE). God’s love is unchanging. God’s will for our good is immutable. 2  The communications channel between God and the faithful (and even the unfaithful) is always open in the God-to-man direction. This means we must look for the obstacles to prayer on our end. God is speaking; God is listening. If we can’t hear or get through, it’s not the fault of our Lord.

The Tragedy of the Heart

The Holy Spirit tells us in Genesis 6 that at one point in human history the Lord regretted making man on the earth, because “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and … every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gn 6:5). This inclination to sin, called concupiscence, is a weakness of will 3  that keeps human beings centered on self, and lusting after immediate gratification. Human tragedy begins with the hardness of heart that is the result. The heart hardens with a kind of moral crust that excludes compassion for others and prevents communication with others, especially God. Habits of sin, especially the seven deadly sins, keep us focused on our own pleasure, honor, and comfort, and an inability to pray. For example, it is a well-established principle of spiritual direction that chronic self-abusers cannot pray. They are also hampered in communicating with their spouses and children.

There is a physical analogy to the hard human heart that I especially regard for its depth of application. In Texas, during March and April, if winter has been kind to us with rainfall, we get an explosion of wildflowers along our roads, rivers, and unplanted fields. Prominent among these flowers is the Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) with its compound leaves and tall, blue flower stems tipped in white.

What is pertinent to our study of prayer and the human heart, however, is the bluebonnet’s seed.  “Like most legume seed, it has a very hard seed coat which will break down over time by decay from bacteria and other microscopic organisms, abrasion, or a freeze/thaw. It may take several years for some seed coats to deteriorate enough to germinate, while others will germinate the first year. This staggering insures that some seeds will survive from one year to the next because seeds are protected from the environment as long as they remain dormant and do not germinate.” 4 

The human heart, imprisoned in its sinful seed coat that just gets thicker and harder each time man sins, cannot escape and grow into the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by itself. The grace of God is needed in order to break through that hard carapace of evil inclination. We can learn much about the workings of God in the lives of the humans he loves by studying the process of scarification.

Scarification opens the seed coat and allows the bluebonnet to germinate, as long as there is enough water for the plant to live and grow. Scarification increases the number of seeds that will sprout at one time, but also makes the plant community more vulnerable to drought and other weather events. How can the gardener scarify seeds? Here’s how the horticulturists describe the alternatives:

  • Physically nick the seed with a knife.
  • Rub the seed with sandpaper.
  • Freeze seed overnight, soak for several days at room temperature.
  • Freeze seed overnight, then pour boiling water over the seed quickly: soak for several hours at room temperature.
  • Soak seed in concentrated sulfuric acid for one hour followed by a thorough rinsing in fresh water. (Caution: sulfuric acid requires special handling procedures, and should not be attempted without proper equipment such as gloves, masks, and a ventilation hood.) 5 

Now legume seeds can’t feel pain, but the processes listed above would be severely painful if they had nervous systems. With the human heart, God, in his love and mercy, often uses scarification, and not only on those shackled by serious sin. He uses scarification on those he loves. The knife of betrayal by a close friend; the sandpaper of a constant irritation, a nagging companion, or physical defect. The freezing that is a period of spiritual aridity, followed by a soaking with constant demands by a superior. Most trying of all is an hour’s soaking in the acid of others’ complaints, or of a debilitating personal illness. All these scarifying events are painful to the spirit, and sometimes to the body. But they get our attention, and if followed by a thorough rinsing in the sacrament of reconciliation, they can enable the soul to turn outward to others and grow in spiritual power and service.

The Power of Repetitive Prayer

A hard heart is also like a great wall of fortification erected against what C.S. Lewis called “the Enemy” of Satan, namely our Lord. The hard heart is a fortress against the love of God. Before the invention of gunpowder-based artillery, the most effective techniques of bringing down a wall involved either mining under the wall, or smashing the gate. In the first case, protected engineers tunneled under the wall and replaced the stone supports with burnable timber. Then, at the time of the assault, they set the timber on fire, and the wall would collapse. In the second case, engineers protected by shields or other devices would bring a heavy ram up and batter down the gate.

For the Christian who wants to pray more effectively, who wants to experience the thinning or erosion of the wall that disables prayer, both methods are available. If the wall is self-centeredness, then the daily cultivation of the four cardinal virtues will undermine that wall, and provide a framework for the Holy Spirit to set on fire. To pray for prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and then allow the loving Spirit to erect these in place, on a scaffold of the Word of God, is the way. Praying for others who are in need also directs our thoughts outward. Performing a direct or indirect service for the needy, particularly when we get nothing for it, also helps to bring the wall down over time.

Repetitive prayer is like a battering ram against the gate of selfishness. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is particularly effective for this purpose. 6  All should know that the Holy Rosary is a most effective weapon against the real enemy. The mass recitation of the Rosary by Catholics was instrumental in the 1571 defeat of the Ottomans at Lepanto. At Fatima, the Blessed Virgin often repeated her request for the faithful to pray the Rosary daily. That was specifically aimed at ending World War I, and disrupting the hardening influence of Satan. St. Faustina’s vision of the Divine Mercy is embossed with the “javelin” prayer: “Jesus, I trust in you,” which many have found to be a most effective “mantra” in time of trouble.

What we must all remember is that our desire must be that the Holy Spirit do the praying in us, and for us. We do not know how to pray, as St. Paul teaches (Rom 8:26). So the Holy Spirit engages our human spirit (in the Internet age we might call it “docking”) and enables us to hear and speak to God, even if our expression is only a “groan.” In difficult times, from our imprisoned state, sometimes a moan or sigh is all the physical sign we can manage.

But that’s not important. Outside the wall, and pressing against it with divine force, is the unimaginable power of divine love. A tiny crack opened by the exercise of our free will, and leveraged by the working of the Holy Spirit, is enough for that Love to first seep through, then, in time, burst in. Our need is great, and our resistance is great, but to a willing heart, the love and strength of our Lord is greater still, and he will never turn a deaf ear or mute voice to anyone who wants to speak with him.

  1. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1971 ed. at 1453.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 1066.
  3. Ibid. art. 418.
  4. This is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 435.
Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham is a retired deacon of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, but continues to serve at St. Pius X Church in that city. He holds a Master’s degree in Theology from St. Mary’s University of Texas and has written for HPR and other Catholic publications since 1975.


  1. Avatar Dcn Paul Lister says:


    Profound, very helpful article; thank you for writing it.

  2. Thank you, Deacon. I appreciate the whole emphasis on “hardness of heart,” because I believe that it is so deadly to the life of prayer in a Christian. And a hardness of heart so hard that it is impervious even to the mercy of God, may be more common than one might think. The Catechism, in its teaching on the Our Father, speaks of a “daunting” human barrier to the infinite mercy of God – the refusal to forgive:

    Catechism 2840 Now – and this is daunting – this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see. [Cf. l Jn 4:20] In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.

    The last sentence in that Catechism paragraph ought to be shocking in its implications, and in its urgent potency.