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How to Understand Dry and Difficult Prayer

December 28, 2015

Most who seek the Lord in prayer experience times of dryness and difficulty, times in which it seems to us that the Lord hides His face. We pray; we call out; we seek Him; but He doesn’t seem to answer; it almost seems as if He hides from us.

A well-known atheist was once asked what he would say to God if he were to discover upon his death that God exists. He replied simply, “I would ask, ‘Why did you hide?’” Many of us who do believe might respond, “He doesn’t hide! All creation shouts His presence, shouts, ‘I was designed!’” But most believers can sympathize to some extent and say that while we have once experienced God’s presence profoundly, there are also times in which we yearn for but cannot find Him, times in which He seems to hide from us.

So, then, it remains a legitimate concern, even among believers, that at times God mysteriously hides His face. Indeed the Psalms, inspired by God Himself, state clearly, Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul has sunk down into the dust; Our body cleaves to the earth (Ps 44:23-25).

Yes, the conundrum of God hiding His face, and the despair we experience because of it, are constant themes in the spiritual life.  Many saints, including St. Teresa of Avila and Blessed (soon-to-be-Saint) Teresa of Calcutta, have discussed long periods (even years) of dryness in prayer. It is typical of their spiritual experience.

What are we to make of this? How can we understand it?  Permit me to propose my own feeble answers. I am not a saint, just a fellow sinner still walking this earth. But I do walk with over twenty people in spiritual direction for them, and I myself have a spiritual director. I, too, ponder this deep problem. I refer you first to St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

I have only this advantage: I live along with you in the 21st century. Having read the saints, I can tell you that the difficulties, dryness, and distance in prayer are not new; they are common. They occur no less in our time than in theirs. Let me therefore, in humility, present you with my own thoughts on the matter of dry prayer. They are certainly drawn from the lives of the saints, but at the end of the day they are merely my own ideas.

I present the difficulties of prayer in the five subheadings below. I do not argue that the answer are complete, only that they are the result of pondering experiences from my life and from the lives of many spiritual “directees” (more than 40 over the years) who have frequented my rectory over the past 25 years.

At the outset, I want to prescind from the question of mortal sin. It goes without saying that those who are in unrepentant mortal sin are going to have difficulty beholding the face of God (if able to do so at all), due to a severely darkened intellect and a hardened heart. Scripture itself says, Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear (Is 59:1-2).

Therefore, the first step in deeper prayer is to strive to be free of mortal sin, particularly that of an unrepentant nature. There are some who struggle with frequent occurrences of what is it least objectively mortal sin, but in their humility they cry out to God and confess frequently. This is far less dangerous than those who are dismissive of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church, who pridefully call good what God calls sin. They claim to hear God, but it is really a demon they hear, one who deceives them by masquerading as an angel of light.

In this post, I do not propose to address those who are in obstinate mortal sin. Rather, the explanations here for dryness in prayer are addressed to those who are either largely free of mortal sin, or at least a repentant of it and frequent in confessing it.

With these disclaimers in mind, let’s consider five possible understandings of dryness and difficulty in prayer.

I. Normal – There is nothing unusual about experiencing dryness, difficulty, and distraction in prayer. Here, the word “normal” is used to mean that it is a common Christian experience. Every saint who has ever written about prayer has discussed it. Even the great mystics—who often experienced deep, unitive prayer—experienced, even in the midst of such profound encounters, that God seemed distant or even wholly absent.

Why this happens will be discussed more in some of the points to follow. But, to be sure, it is caught up in the mystery of God’s providence for us.

For the purpose of this first point, simply note that if you are experiencing dryness, distance, or difficulty in prayer, you are in good company. The greatest saints, far more holy than you and I, experienced the same thing. It is part of God’s mysterious providence for us. Acceptance, which is not the same as approval (in the sense of liking something), is essential for us.

God has his reasons for permitting this, even if those reasons are not immediately obvious to us. This is especially true for those of us who live in the commercial world, where the customer is always right and marketing seeks to be attractive, creative, and appealing at the most immediate and fleshly level of instant gratification. We expect next-day delivery or even immediate download of all that we desire. But God prefers crockpots to microwaves. Some of His gifts require lengthy preparation and a sturdy foundation. Further, many of his greatest blessings require paradoxical struggles. To continue the cooking imagery: you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

Here, simply note that difficulty, dryness, and distance in prayer are quite normal among those who seek God.

II. Needed – One of the great questions in our life is whether we seek the consolation of God or the God of consolation. Dryness, difficulty, and distance in prayer are ways of testing us. For indeed, if it is merely the consolations of God that inspire us to pray, one way to disclose this is to remove those very consolations. If prayer were all joy, and deep, satisfying union, it might be that the root of our prayer was merely wanting to experience those joys and pleasures on our terms. As St. Augustine points out in his Confessions, too easily do the beautiful gifts of God become ends in themselves rather than something that draws us to God, who made them (Conf. Lib. 7, 10, 18; 10, 27).

Our hearts are very complex; quite quickly we become content with the gifts rather than the giver. Thus, difficulty in prayer is needed in order to help us purify our desires, rooting them in desire for God Himself rather than merely in the consolations and gifts He can give us.

One of the most constant and unvarying mandates given by saints and spiritual directors down through the ages has been that we must persevere in prayer, consolations or not! Difficulty, dryness, and distance are need to help us to purify our desires.

III. Nature – Part of the explanation of our difficulty in prayer is merely our own human (fallen) nature. We tend to be enthralled by something when it is new, but quickly bored once it becomes “old” to us. Tragically, this is at the root of many marital struggles. A man marries a beautiful bride, but once he has uncovered the mystery of her, he grows bored. Unless his love for her is rooted more deeply than merely her body, he grows complacent and bored.

This happens in other relationships as well, including our relationship with God. Finding Him newly, we thrill in the glory of His truth revealed, but our zeal fades when the message repeats and the “spicy new foods” become the more basic “meat and potatoes” of doctrine and daily prayer.

Frankly, our natures are fallen. Though we thrill at what is new, we yawn at what is repeated and time-tested.” Marketers shout, “New and improved!” They do not crow, “Old and time-tested!” They know our fallen nature.

Given our nature, we need to ask the Lord to help us overcome this difficulty in prayer. The honest truth is that what wins the day is the basic meat and potatoes of prayer, scripture, sacraments, and holy fellowship (cf Acts 2:42). Spicy foods are tasty, but they often produce heartburn and indigestion. Bland foods may be less immediately desirable, but they ultimately nourish us and provide what we need. We must ask the Lord to help us overcome our fallen nature. We must ask the Lord to deliver us from a kind of “attention deficit disorder.” We cannot bear lengthy conversations; we want only brief sound bites. Our fallen condition seeks mere entertainment rather than true enlightenment. We want relief more than healing.

IV. Not alone – Personal prayer is not the only aspect of our spiritual lives. Other aspects are communal prayer, the reception of the sacraments, the reading of Scripture, and holy fellowship. (cf acts 2:42).  When at times you find that your private prayer has become dry, you should look more widely to other aspects of your spiritual life.

It has been my own experience that when personal prayer grows dry, other aspects of my spiritual life light up. For example, I may find the breviary and the reading of Scriptures to be particularly inspirational. Or perhaps, I may find liturgy to be lively and moving. Perhaps I will find my capacity to find Christ in others, in what they say and offer to me, to be particularly powerful.

God speaks to us in many ways, not merely in our private or personal prayer. Look for God in creation, in the people whom you encounter, and in the events of your day. Listen for Him in the Scriptures and in the holy liturgy. Even when your personal prayer is in a state of difficulty, perhaps you will find that the sound of a particular song or the glory of the Mass will move you.

Look to the Lord and all the ways that He reveals Himself. Sometimes He is quiet during our personal prayer so that we will seek Him in other places: the liturgy or the celebration of the sacraments. Too easily, we insist on a personal relationship with the Lord in prayer. He is there, but He also insists we find Him communally in in the wider Church that is His Body.

V. Numbness is a feeling – Most people describe numbness (i.e., dryness) as a lack of feeling. But numbness actually is a feeling itself.

Consider the times you may have experienced a limb fall asleep. On one level, there seems to be no feeling in it or ability to move it. But on another, deeper level, there is a feeling, even a sort of pain that accompanies a limb that is going numb.

The numbness of our spiritual feelings may cause us to feel spiritually dead. But if we go a bit deeper, numbness speaks a kind of a pain of longing. All the great saints spoke of this as the dark side of contemplative prayer. So beautiful is the prayer of union, that its absence produces a kind of pain, a longing that hurts, but in a way, it “hurts so good.” It reminds us of the beauty of the prayer of union, just as thirst reminds us of the glory and beauty of water.

Absence often makes the heart grow fonder.

Yes, numbness is a feeling. And God permits it in order that our longings might grow ever deeper. Who appreciates a glass of water more, a man who is been in the desert for days or a man who has just had four beers? The answer is obvious. Aridity produces an intensity of longing that will not be satisfied until water is supplied. Too easily, abundance can draw us to contempt for spiritual gifts.  Therefore, God permits aridity in order to intensify our longing and to give us greater satisfaction in the water, when it is supplied.

These, then, are my own poor reflections on the difficulty, dryness, and distance that sometimes come with prayer. I speak from experience as both a spiritual director and a spiritual “directee.” Consult the saints first. If they tell you something different, then they are right and I am wrong. But if my words can help in any way, here they are.

This song speaks to spiritual difficulties and asking for God’s help:

Filed in: Prayer, Uncategorized

Comments (2)

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  1. Matt says:

    Great post Father! I have found that in addition to St. Theresa of Avila and Bl. Mother Theresa, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules of Discernment of Spirits very helpful in periods of spiritual dryness.

  2. John says:

    At the worst – it seemed my experiences at Adoration stopped…later a priest said I was in good company and talked of C. S. Lewis. Today after a month I looked and said hey! to God as he seemed to be not present at all in my mind’s wondering. I am reminded of my fellow who doesn’t work and goes to church all the time sitting in the seat and encouraged by the stuff here especially the Lord Jesus. “When all hope seemed lost, obviously that is how it felt, and I imagine I am not alone which actually does give me comfort truly because I know both Jesus and people have felt ignored…yesterday I got a word that someone had made a Christmas album after I prayed for them with a vision of angels listening to their older Christmas album. Another time all seemed lost, but the angels had the final word.