Monday, May 15, 2017

Keeping faithful to prayer when it is hard.

When we were seminarians studying for the priesthood, in one of the spiritual conferences given by a religious priest, one of us asked a question “Father, what should we do when prayer is dry?” 

Without missing a beat, and with the sense of humour he was known for, this priest replied “Tell me, brother, what is a wet prayer?”  His reply forced us to articulate several things about common-held notions of prayer that affect many people.  What are we experiencing when this so-called dryness shows up in our prayer?  What does it mean?  How do we handle it?  When we pray in this state, does it affect our prayer? 

In the purest sense of the word, prayer is the act of turning our gaze and attention outside of ourselves and onto God.  God is the ultimate focus of prayer.  This fulfills that definition of prayer that says it is a call to adore, worship and glorify God.  It is primarily God-centered.  When we understand this, it will be clear that anything that turns the focus and attention ourselves, be they our needs or what troubles us, is the secondary purpose of prayer. 

Whenever we speak about feelings or sentiments, the focus is always on us and not God. 

In prayer spirituality, the phrases “consolations” and “desolations” are often used when referring to what experiences we go through during prayer.  Some of us tend to confuse this with prayer being dry or not.    

Consolations in prayer have very much do to with God and how our hearts and minds are drawn to him, loving him for who he is, regardless of what is happening in our world.  To give a very graphic example, let’s say that you were living in New York City when 9/11 happened, and the day after the horrendous incident, you went into prayer and you were drawn to loving God despite the way that life was literally interrupted for you and for countless others.  If your prayer was mainly centered on God, and not asking for his divine justice, it would be a consolation that you had been given.  It was prayer in its finest definition – praise and love of God.  In short, your prayer was not about you or your circumstance.  During that time spent in prayer, your heart was beating in tandem and in harmony with God, who had been knocking on the door of your heart.

However, when one experiences spiritual desolations, one’s focus is often away from God and on the self.  One’s mind and heart are only filled with the matters of the self and the world, and this can lead to the false belief that one’s prayer makes no difference, leading to the temptation to abandon prayer altogether.  At these times, one doesn’t at all feel attracted or drawn to God nor hear his gentle knocking on the doors of our hearts. 

In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius speaks about how our lives are affected by two spirits – good and evil.  When he speaks about desolations in our spiritual lives, he makes it clear that they are caused by the ‘evil spirit’.  When we read the words ‘evil spirit’, we must not only have the idea of a malevolent force that is destructive.  Whatever does not contribute to our desire for God and his goodness is a spirit that is evil.  It doesn’t even have to be an evil that is personal in form.

So what should we do when it comes to dealing with desolations in our prayer life?  St Ignatius gives us very useful instructions so as not to go from desolation to despair.

1)   He instructs firstly that we need to want divine assistance in our spiritual growth.  St Ignatius must have seen that many men and women were never really concerted in their desire to get close to God.  Articulating this as a desire and intention is therefore the first step.  It cannot be something that is merely passive in intention.

2)   Put effort in meditation on the words of Sacred Scripture, where God’s promises his undying and unconditional presence in our lives.  Passages which remind us that God is ever faithful are held in our minds in silence.  Some useful passages are Deuteronomy 7:9, Psalms 36:5, 89:8, 119:90, Romans 3:3, 1 Cor 1:9, 1 Cor 10:9 and Heb 10:23.

3)   A thorough and sincere self-examination often helps to uncover and reveal where we may have contributed to this state of affairs.  Sometimes, the desolations we experience can be traced to the time when our lives entered morally troubled waters, or when we were slipping into some addiction that went out of control.  If we have been living double lives or lives that are deceitful in any way, our prayer life will always be affected.  Humility is of great help in not only identifying these, but also in wanting to do something that can help us manage these concerns well.

4)   Lastly, the taking on of mortification or penances in our lives are noble ways to counter the destructive forces and tendencies of spiritual desolation.  Fasting is highly recommended, as well as works of mercy that make others and their needs greater than ours.  Mortifications of all sorts tend to train us to be humble.  Certainly, one should avail oneself to the sanctifying grace that comes to us every time we go to a priest for the sacrament of reconciliation. 

Experiencing challenges and difficulties in prayer will always abound simply because we are human.  We tend to take into our prayer psyche so much from the way that we deal with worldly things.  The truth is that our spiritual lives have a depth and dynamics that are more different than the way the world works.  There is a lot more that is uncommon than common.  We tend to give up or stop doing something that is painful or arduous, or not bearing the kind of fruit that we want it to.  In the spiritual life, especially when it comes to prayer, this would be the worst thing that we can do.

The following quote is often attributed to the statesman Sir Winston Churchill, but apparently, the veracity of this has yet to be substantiated.  Apparently, he is known to have said “If you find that you are going through hell, just keep going.  Hell is not a place for anyone to stop.”  We would do well to apply this kind of tenacity to our prayer life.


  1. The cause of this dryness is also sometimes due to monotony and not just lack of effort and perseverance.

    In sports science, drill and repetition develops the muscle rapidly and there is definitely benefit in persevering through the aches and pains to learn a new skill.

    However, after there is general mastery of the skill, muscle memory develops and the body tends to get bored because it is not being challenged. There is also the issue of recovery as muscles used repeatedly in the same manner tend to become strained and sore without rest.I think the same holds true for our spiritual muscles in prayer to some extent.

    If I might be so bold as to use the the same language as the religious priest, sometimes to get the wetness back,I think one has to vary the intensity, duration and technique of one's prayer.

    Sometimes, quickie prayers that are short but intense are just as effective as prayers of longer duration and one can also experiment with other techniques taught by the Saints who were experts in praying.

    The Church in my mind has the " Kamasutra "when it comes to the rich variety of spiritual practices and prayers one can adopt. The key is to find an individual method that works in whatever dry circumstances one finds himself in.If St Ignatius is not working,try St Benedict, St. John of the Cross, St Teresa and so many other Catholic Saint and non Saints who have written on the subject of prayer.Keep trying and don't stop until you find something that brings the wetness back.

    Just like physical fitness, it does not really matter how you exercise or your general fitness level to begin with as long as you commit to move your body constantly no matter what.

    The goal is to keep working up a sweat or your muscles will just atrophy and slowly die. Stop praying and your spiritual muscles will atrophy and die as well.


  2. Prayer

    "Experiencing challenges and difficulties in prayer will always abound simply because we are human." - totally agree with you there.

    I believe that to be a follower of Christ , I have to learn to pray and to love to pray! Prayer is sometimes tiresome & challenging coz it's elusive & mysterious - yet also exciting & necessary to school the senses & discipline the slothful soul - all these I've also found out through personal experience - both, humiliating as well as profound.

    It was through a happy "error" that I learnt about God being the initiator of prayer (for He first seeks the encounter with us) through his word, the Daily Scriptures and of course through the Word made flesh -in the Eucharist. I learnt also that I must keep my mouth shut & listen good, meditate - before asking questions & launching into petitionary mode………...(a difficult, irrepressible task especially when there are floods of questions) - and here I learnt that there's such a thing as spiritual mortification. So it can be done - with practice, patience & discipline?

    Setting aside a sacred space & time helps too. But it does not totally abolish the struggle to be faithful in prayer.

    It does help to learn the many forms of as to enliven & spice up one's prayer life. Recently I had the good fortune to stumble upon the writings of a Saint that I used to abhor. I was pleasantly surprised at how relevant his teaching/advice- were to our time & age.... targeted at the laity seeking holiness in everyday life……..especially on the subject of prayer!

    Thank you for an enlightening post.

    God bless u, Fr


  3. There are a few saints I abhor too.(Not St Ignatius)Specifically those who seemed to be overly obsessed about sin and self mortification. In fact, some psychiatrists have diagnosed them as probably having been afflicted by mental illness. I am not belittling them,sin,or mental illness in any way. Even if it was true they are all the more heroic in my view.

    I initially wanted to comment on this but deleted it as I may be stepping on heretical ground but here goes.

    I think Mortification should ideally be the fruit of drawing closer to God. Mortifying yourself to achieve a result or to counter sin works for some people but we are all different and at different stages in our spiritual life.Choose your Saint carefully!

    If I might use the story of the prodigal son to illustrate my point,our Father is overjoyed to receive us as long as we turn back and take small steps to come home.The father never required his son to confess his sins,do penance or perform self mortification first.I believe the son would have eventually done those after being lavished with so much love from his father.

    I submit that as long as we have the spiritual disposition like the son, ie we are just asking our Father to take us back as a servant and nothing more, everything else concerning sin(be it confession, mortification, penance) is secondary. It will come naturally after we persevere in our dry prayers and eventually find back our wet prayer and receive the Father's abundant love.

    It is rather disturbing that many Catholics are not receiving communion when they come for Sunday Mass. It is extremely sad if it's because of their sin or because they are not quite spiritually ready to go to confession and are scared of committing more sin by receiving communion. I think the more one is in sin, the more you should receive communion as long as you have the same disposition as the son returning home. The more one stays away from communion, whatever the reason,the worse things will get spiritually.

    1. Thank you Jonathan, but I am afraid that your last paragraph may lead others to think that even if they have serious sins on their souls, that they should just go ahead and receive The Lord in Holy Communion. This would be committing the sin of presumption AND the sin of sacrilege. In fact, if the person who has committed serious sin refrains from Holy Communion, it is a much more laudable act of piety than one who simply goes up to receive The Lord because everyone else is doing so and he or she is afraid to 'lose face'. This would be the sin of pride acting in a covert way.

      We need to be clear about this - as long as we know that we are in serious sin, where we have purposefully cut off ourselves from God's grace and/or good relations with our brother and sister, we need to be humble and seek the Lord's forgiveness in humility and with contrition, and then, when the time comes for Holy Communion, with great reverence receive the Lord. I agree with you that the more one stays away from Communion, the worse things will get spiritually. But the more one makes sacrilegious Communion, the less one will even think that there is a need for repentance and conversion.