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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why is Prayer So Difficult?

In the previous post, How to Listen to God, Faith posits the question, "I understand that praying isn't easy. My question, is: Why is this so?"

Isn't that another great question???  Thanks, Faith.  :-)

Let's go back to the definition of prayer:  prayer is a conversation with God.

Conversations are easy, right? Sometimes. Yes. No...well, maybe...or...not so much.  Hmmmm.

I think I'd answer it like this:  Prayer is easy.  WE are difficult!

When we look at Faith's question in light of the most basic definition of prayer, and recall that the other party in the conversation is God, the Creator of the Universe, our Father, our Beloved Savior, the Holy Spirit who groans on our behalf for the words we cannot speak., well, that can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming. Perhaps it challenges our faith to recognize that God truly wants this relationship with us and is inviting our participation.

Remember:  God is immutable. 
He does not change. He cannot change.

When we pray, therefore, we are forced to recognize who we are in the face of God, and sometimes He holds up a mirror, and the reflection there ain't so pretty, is it? Sometimes we get a good look at ourselves through His eyes because we've got a few flaws He wants to point out, and perhaps we don't want to see those flaws. Or perhaps we KNOW they are there but we don't really want to recognize them, or work on them. We'd rather just push past that mirror of self-knowledge and say, "Yeah, God, I know all that, but I really really really want to experience the heights of ecstasy like St. Teresa of Avila. Can't you make just one tiny exception...for me? Please? Pretty-pretty-please with sugar on top?"

And there God sits, immovable, loving us as we squirm under His directed, uncondemning gaze. We try to look away, but we just can't...and there we sit. That's kind of a prayer-killer, there, isn't it?

Think about it:  when we look away and refuse to take that mirror into our own hands, go to Confession, and own up to the fact we have a lot of sins holding us back from fulfilling our end of our relationship with God, we're the ones sticking a fork in prayer. We're the ones being difficult. The responsibility for that rests solely upon ourselves.

Sin isn't the only problem making prayer difficult, though, is it?

I don't know about you, but I have often found that, especially when I have sinned seriously, or maybe not mortally but enough to make me feel especially bad about something, my prayer life gets a bit wacky. Sometimes I'm almost afraid to pray, but always, always, if I take my sorry self to the chapel to pray, or open up the Liturgy of the Hours, God gives me certain consolations, and often those consolations are exactly what buoys me right into the line for Confession, even if I'm shaking in my shoes.  Then, the moment I'm out of Confession and offer my penance and pray a prayer of thanksgiving for God's mercy, BANG! I suddenly can't seem to pray anymore!

At times I've sat almost shell-shocked in the chapel, staring at the Blessed Sacrament, asking Jesus, "Hey! Where did You go? Come back!"

In that case, I've removed the obstacle of sin, but there I am, in the desert. Spiritually, that desert is stretching far in front of me...and even though Jesus is right there, I can't "feel" Him anymore. I know intellectually all the theological stuff that tells me He is right there and especially after Confession when I've managed not to sin for about 30 seconds or so, that the Holy Spirit burns within my soul...but Jesus just sits there and looks at me stoically, asking, "Are you still going to talk to me even when it's hard?"

Yes, Lord. Thy Will Be Done.  *ow*!

This is a lesson often spoken of through the Spiritual Masters:  dryness in prayer. 

When we first begin to pray, and we are falling in love with Jesus, there may be a certain spiritual high. We are doing something new and exciting, maybe we are reading about the great mystics and, their words for God and about God still burning on the pages of their journals, we, too are ignited and desire with all our hearts that same kind of love for God...and that knowledge of God's love for us.

So it is that we sometimes experience emotional "highs"; we may weep during prayer, we feel a deep emotional joy, we may look forward to any moment we can get to pray.

Over time, though, that tends to fade. Prayer isn't as pleasurable anymore. We haven't experienced the heights of mystical ecstasy, we haven't seen any apparitions or heard any Divine voices. Maybe we struggle just to pray a single Hail Mary or Our Father, and we feel guilty, for maybe we fear we have fallen out of love with God.

Maybe we even stop feeling pleasure at attending Mass; it becomes more of a drudgery than a joy, and we deeply feel a sense of guilt about t his, and perhaps don't even want to bring it up to anyone for fear they may point at us and scream HERETIC! YOU HATE GOD!

It's easy to romance the idea of the Saints at prayer, but the reality of their prayer lives was the daily drudgery of it. The constant conversation with God, the sheer tedium; that is what truly brought them to holiness. Not a single Saint was canonized because God granted them infused prayer; they were canonized because they persevered even when  or perhaps especially when prayer itself was a trial.

What is the Purpose of Prayer?

If you struggle with prayer, ask yourself what you're trying to get out of it. What are YOUR goals? WHY are you praying?

Then take a step back and look at God. Ask Him what He gets out of this relationship with us. Realize...nothing. God doesn't get ANYTHING out of it. He doesn't NEED us, but rather, WE need HIM! God created us entirely for Himself and wills our good - only our good! Our very ability to pray is in and of itself a pure gift from God.

Prayer is the way we come to know and love God, and through the Sacraments which lead us more deeply into prayer, we become sanctified.  The purpose, then, of to make us Holy!

It's so easy to forget that. We all have long laundry lists of needs and wants. We have unrequited desires, deep wounds in need of healing, fears for loved ones...and a will that needs to be purified.

God Will Not Be Manipulated

In going back to the original question - why is prayer so difficult - I stated that prayer is not difficult:  We are!

We are fallen, and in our fallen nature we try to manipulate others to get what we want. We are selfish, self-centered, egotistical little worms and we usually do things because those things make us feel good or get us something that we want. We do good for others because it makes us feel good to do so; ergo, for a selfish reason. Over time this basic childish tendency can be tempered as we begin to do good things for others because it is RIGHT, even if at times we must suffer for doing the right thing.

In our relationships with others, using the office as an example, we tend to do good things for our co-workers because we know it might advance our careers. Certainly ethics are involved; I'm not saying we all go around trampling on others to get what we want, but rather, we look at the ends we desire and we do what we can in our current positions so as to advance over the guy in the next cube. "If I volunteer to take that overtime on July 4 that no one wants, that's a big star in my file and might be the thing to tip the next promotion in my favor...".  Sure, we might tell our teammates, or just let them think we're "taking at hit for the team" but no, we're just manipulating the team.

Even in the closest friendships, we do the same thing; we humans have a HUGE capacity for manipulation, and unfortunately, that sometimes transfers over into prayer.

All too often we go to prayer and tell God what WE want, and when the outcome is not what we dictate to Him, we become angry with God. We rail at Him, curse Jesus in taking His name in vain, stamp our little feet, cry, scream and say we're going to leave the Church unless He does what we tell Him to do.

If that kind of response to God's disobedience to us isn't part of our temperament, then maybe we delve into more passive-aggressive techniques designed to put Him in His place, such as using devotions in a superstitious or talismanic manner, or looking for "prayer" techniques that might get us what we want when we want it while bypassing the pesky necessity of God's Will.

(Are you squirming yet? I am. Aren't you glad God is merciful? I am.)

We forget that God is immutable; our temper tantrums and techniques are not part of His plan.  Certainly He may respond favorably to our prayers IN SPITE of ourselves, but we must remember:  God cannot be manipulated. He laughs at our attempts.

Sometimes we even delude ourselves, saying that this or that "technique" or even "devotion" is what got us something like a certain consolation. We forget that healthy skepticism is also important; we are not blind fools; to be so is an insult to God who created our intellects and will in His own image. We sometimes forget the lessons of self-knowledge, comforting ourselves by the delusion that our complicated techniques won for us a feeling of euphoria when in actuality, all we did was hyperventilate and get too much oxygen into our brains. Or maybe we just saw "signs" that weren't there but through our own wishful interpretation in ignorance of reality.

Here's the Final Blow - Brace Yourself:

Prayer really isn't so difficult. A simple conversation with God is the easiest thing in the world. God is not trying to trick us or trip us up. He loves us too much and honors the dignity He gave us too much to make building a relationship with him something akin to figuring out the geometry, physics, and mathematics of a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Prayer is simplicity itself. What is difficult is letting go of ourselves and our own wills enough to let God decide what and when...or maybe never. We have to let go of pride and realize that we can't manipulate Him. We HAVE to become like little children, the children that we are, if we are to truly pray.

A toddler can pray just fine, and pray very effectively, for when they do so, they pray in innocent sincerity - completely unlike most adults!

The biggest comfort to me, believe it or not, is not when adults tell me they are praying for me, but when they tell me their 3-year-old child is praying for me!  I'll take the prayers of a toddler over that of the Holy Father himself ANY day! (No offense to our dear Pope Benedict XVI, whom I dearly love and believe to be a very holy man!)  

Prayer is difficult because we make it so, and of course, because at some point God has to wean us from the bottle of consolations He delights to pour out to encourage we children in the faith. At some point, though, we have to grow up and learn the sacrifices demanded by divine charity; difficulty and obstacles to prayer.

It is a greater sacrifice, of much greater merit, to pray when it is difficult, for in that sacrifice, we complete the task in spite of the fact we don't "feel" like it. When we go to Mass even if we don't "feel like it" or when we say we don't "get anything out of it anymore" but still go because we love God, that is an act of far greater love and holiness than going when it feels good to do so.

Why is prayer difficult?  Because through prayer, God is sanctifying us, is calling us to greater trials, conforming us to Himself, calling us to the Cross...all so that we might become Holy and spend eternity with Him. 

Thank you, Jesus. It really hurts to say it, and I don't know what's coming but....Thy will be done.


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Thanks for your question, Faith (and by the way, I love your name!). You made me ponder and pray a lot over this one - sorry it turned into a book in and of itself!


Mark said...

I've very much enjoyed reading your two blog posts on prayer.

There's a desperate need for this kind of theologically informed writing on prayer and the spiritual life, but there's surprisingly little of it on the Catholic blogosphere.

I think a lot of people are going to find this series of posts tremedously helpful.

Adoro said...

Mark ~ Thank you. I hope it's helpful to someone!

Faith said...

I agree. Forcing yourself to pray or forcing to do anything for God, is better than doing what comes naturally. It's like my husband shoveling snow so I can get out of the driveway. He doesn't want to do it, but he does it for me.

Adoro said...

Faith ~ Exactly. And I'm sure you do plenty of things for your husband simply because you love him. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that. Important issue!

kleine_katerine said...

"...but there I am, in the desert. Spiritually, that desert is stretching far in front of me...and even though Jesus is right there, I can't "feel" Him anymore."

I find myself not being able to 'feel' Christ's presence more often than I'd like and each and every time I always end up being reminded of the same thing; Mary Magdalene standing outside Jesus' tomb, crying her eyes out (I've been known to do a fair bit of that too), asking the gardener where his body had been removed to. There He is, right in front of her, and she just can't see it. I think that, for me personally at least, I get this kind of blindness during prayer because I am so busy trying to find Christ on my terms, see the face I've decided He has, that I'm cutting myself off, not letting God in to show just how much better than anything and everything I can ever imagine.

Thanks for your post, twas very insightful.

Adoro said...

Kleine_Katerine ~ I love your insight on the comparison of Mary Magdalene. I'm going to use that image. Thanks! :-)