I recently received an instant message from a friend who has been experiencing difficulty in prayer.
Friend: I stink at praying. I’m meeting with Father in a few hours.
Me: That’s not uncommon though . . . [trying to be encouraging]
Friend: I want to be uncommon.
Me: Nice! Actually difficulty in prayer can be a sign of spiritual growth . . . [still trying to be encouraging]
Friend: Okay, that sounds cool.
And then they were off to their meeting with Father.
I wanted to be encouraging to my friend because it seems that those who sincerely want to grow in their spiritual life and are actively working at it – but hit a wall – tend to get discouraged by thinking that they aren’t “doing it right” or that “it’s not for them” and may be tempted to stop trying altogether.
Prayer is an essential, like oxygen for the soul, but it’s not always easy or straightforward. Periods of difficulty in prayer can indicate a time of ‘spiritual dryness’. You’ll notice these times of difficulty in prayer when you can’t seem to pray at all in your own words (mental prayer) and instead can only manage to pray if you’re reading from a prayer book.
Difficulty in prayer can be due to a variety of causes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a poor prayer. Of course we can always improve in prayer, but this experience of dryness might mean that you’re experiencing a period of spiritual growth.
This dryness could be related to a period of spiritual ‘purgation’ during which souls that are pursuing God more are being prepared for greater intimacy with Him. This time of purgation then can be seen as a positive thing, and certainly not something to get discouraged about!
Your prayer life is definitely something you should pay attention to, and in order to get to the bottom of what’s going on when you encounter difficulty, as my friend did, you should talk to a priest.
But don’t be surprised when you experience difficulty in prayer. A deeper spiritual life isn’t something that’s easily won. I think of it like swimming in the ocean; some days the water is calm and you just glide ahead. Some days the water is rough and you’re just trying to stay afloat. Sometimes you get disoriented, losing your sense of direction. Other days you are circled by sharks trying to take you out.
Thinking about the spiritual life in a visual way such as this was one of the methods employed by St. Theresa of Avila in her book Interior Castle as she described the spiritual life, how to move from one room in the castle into the next more intimate room, and all the obstacles to be overcome between each.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you experience difficulty in prayer is to never give in to discouragement or despair or give up. Perseverance and patience is key.
Take a tip from St. Therese of Lisieux:
When I am in this state of spiritual dryness, unable to pray or to practice virtue, I look for little opportunities for the smallest trifles to please Jesus, such as a smile, a kindly word when I would rather be silent. . . . If no such occasion offers itself, I try at least to say over and over again that I love Him.
Copyright 2013 Gretchen Filz