Lately I’ve been writing books on prayer, in particular about praying on empty. Maybe you can identify with this: During your prayer you keep checking the time and the minute hand seems barely to have moved. You understand why St. Teresa of Avila shook her hourglass as she prayed, attempting to speed up the time. Instead of enjoying time with your Lord, you are restless and your mind is full of distractions. You don’t sense God’s presence, and he certainly isn’t speaking to you. It’s as though you are talking to yourself. Periods of dryness in prayer are frustrating and confusing. You might think that God no longer loves you or maybe you did something to displease God or, worse yet, maybe God doesn’t exist!
Take heart! This experience, which is compared to going through a dry, hot desert with no oasis in sight, is a normal stage in prayer. St. John of the Cross talks about the Dark Night of the Senses and then an even more advanced stage reserved for a few, the Dark Night of the Soul. This latter stage is what Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced for decades from the time she had the vision to work with the very poor until the day of her death. The world was shocked to learn this when her personal letters were made known. More impressive is the fact that from the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Not being able to pray can be due to natural causes. A traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or learning that you have a chronic disease, might lead to dryness in prayer (or have the opposite effect). Stress, overwork, and fatigue are other possible causes. Then too, an addiction, a habitual sin, or an attachment to something other than God can build a wall between you and God.
On the other hand, this feeling as though you are not praying at all could be a sign that our mysterious God is at work in your life. You are not really backsliding on your journey to God. Why would God make us think he is absent? To purify us and bring us to a more mature spiritual life. Prayer is a grace. We must realize that God is the utterly other, all-powerful partner in the communication we call prayer. He calls the shots. When he chooses to play hide-and-seek, we come to a deeper understanding of God. Fr. Thomas Greene suggests that we just go with the flow: float on the current. Spiritual writers say that the darkness that overcomes us during prayer is really “luminous darkness” because we are aware of God in a way that is beyond our natural senses, that transcends our minds. When we feel that nothing is happening, it could be that the most important things are happening.
Having to struggle with prayer is spiritual suffering. Like all suffering, it can be united with the suffering of Christ and contribute to the redemption of the world. Still, it doesn’t hurt to complain to God as the psalmist did, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?/ How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1–2).
When undergoing the test of dryness in prayer, one must be patient and persevere. So what if you’re not in the mood or don’t get anything out of prayer? Keep in mind the basic principle for all prayer: Seek not the consolations of God but the God of consolations.
What helps you when you feel like you can’t pray?