As part of the C/E prayer series I mentioned last week, a question was raised which seemed to speak into the way a number of people have told me they’re feeling at the moment. The question was, “How do I pray when prayer seems impossible?”
Given the year we’ve had, it is not surprising that some people are in this place. Some have described feeling as though God has let them down, or has even abandoned them. Prayer has become impossible or even pointless. It feels empty, with familiar words and rituals losing their comfort.
Although these experiences are dark and painful, I’d say they are also normal and inevitable. All the great spiritual writers speak of times like these as “desert experience”, and are part and parcel of the Christian journey.
If this is true for you, I’d say “Hang in there”. When I was going through a time like this many years ago, a wise spiritual Director said two things which I have always remembered. The first was, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t”, and “Take the body along and the soul will follow”.
When you journey through the desert, what you look for is an oasis: a place where you can quench your thirst. The oasis will be different for each of us: it might be a familiar prayer; a verse from scripture; a piece of music; a photograph; or even some symbolic action. Discern what it is – no matter how small and seemingly insignificant – that still connects you to God, and then hold onto it tightly through the desert.
I have personally found it helpful to have something physical to hold onto. Whether it’s my rosary beads, or the holding cross made from one of the original crosses at Walsingham, I can get a sense that, as I hold onto these items, God continues to hold onto me, no matter what I’m feeling like, nor whether I recognise Him or not.
Sometimes, the opening words of Ps 130 can be a comfort, “Out of the depths I have cried to you O Lord; Lord, hear my voice”. At others, simply saying “Come, Lord Jesus”, over and over again.
If you can do any of these things, then you are a person of prayer, in community with God and held by Jesus. As you hold onto him and cry out to him in whatever way you choose, he is holding you.
In the Bible, the desert is always a place of discovery. The prophet Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.” (Isaiah 35.1)
May this be true for you, too.
With my love and prayers,
The image is of the Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus Christ as the True Vine. It is to be found in the Byzantine & Christian Museum, Athens, Greece and dates from the 16th century. Creative Commons CC0 License