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What is going on with my prayer life? Should I really just be sitting in silence?

Dear Father John, I am struggling with my prayer life. I go to my 30-minute prayer time and nothing happens. But I stick it out anyway, as best I can. It seems like sheer willpower (and invisible grace) against everything else. “Well, I have nothing better to do for the next 47 years, Lord. I’ll wait it out like this, if that’s what you want.” I am frustrated.

This is a great question, but it’s hard to answer without a bit more context. Let me give some short answers pointed towards some hypothetical contexts.

Let’s say you are a normal lay person, or even a young religious, who has recently discovered the reality of God’s love for you, maybe through a retreat or a parish Bible study that set your heart on fire. You now desire to develop a deeper prayer life. You start by setting aside time on a daily basis to spend just with God – your daily God-time. But when you go there, you find it hard to concentrate. It’s not so easy as when you were on retreat, for some reason. And even when you do concentrate, you don’t seem to hear God speaking to you – nothing seems to happen. What’s the deal?

The Liberation of Structure

In this case, the best thing you can do is to give structure to your daily God-time. Structure, in general, actually frees us for more meaningful activity, contrary to much of popular opinion. We can only be free to play a Mozart sonata once we have disciplined ourselves regarding certain structures of music. In personal prayer, having a structure frees you to allow the Holy Spirit to work in your soul however he wishes. You are not just looking and waiting for dramatic manifestations of the Spirit, which you may have had on retreat or at the parish activities. Rather, you use your mind, heart, and imagination to search for a deeper knowledge and experience of God. And Jesus made a promise regarding that: “Search, and you shall find…” (Matthew 7:7).

What structure should you use? Here no hard and fast rules apply. You can make up your own, get ideas from someone you respect or from your spiritual director, use structures, materials, and recommendations from other sources… The important thing is always to remember that no structure is perfect, and no structure will actually do your prayer for you. But by having a structure, you take the pressure off yourself, and free yourself to be open to whatever God may want from you. I highly recommend the structure explained and embodied in The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer. But other structures abound. The important thing is to start using one. You can adjust as you go. In any event, a key element for mental prayer, even for religious, is having some material that you can use to spark your reflection and conversation with Christ. I often recommend simply taking a good, solid, spiritual book (like This Tremendous Lover or I Believe in Love) and using the following structure for your daily God-time:

  1. Recall that you are in God’s presence and ask him to bless your time together.
  2. Read a short passage from the book.
  3. Reflect on the passage: What does this really mean? What does it mean for me?
  4. Respond to the ideas that struck you by speaking to God in your own words: thanking him, praising him, questioning him, asking him for grace…
  5. Reflect on another passage…
  6. Respond again…
  7. Resolve, at the end of your daily God-time, to live out in during the day to come the insights that the Holy Spirit gave to your mind and heart during the prayer. Thank God for his blessings, and launch into the activities of the day.

If you begin following a structure in your daily God-time, and you still experience that “nothing happens,” then you need simply to persevere, and maybe experiment with other structures. Clearly, your soul needs to be disciplined and purified by ascesis (our own spiritual effort) in order for you to hear what God is saying to you. This ascesis may also necessitate some alterations in the habits of your daily life – use of mass media, rooting out of sinful habits, building in periods of silence… In such a situation, a spiritual director is of invaluable help.

The Case of Passive Purgation

A different case is someone who has been engaged in structured, daily mental prayer for many years, and how has no habits of sin or sinful attachments. This may be a lay person or a religious, and they have been traveling along the journey to spiritual maturity for many years, receiving plenty of guidance from competent spiritual directors. If someone in this situation goes to their daily period of mental prayer and “nothing happens,” it is most like a spiritual trial being sent by God. This trial requires the soul to throw itself into God’s arms, abandon the hopes of sensible consolation, and persevere in humble acts of faith, hope, and love, in spite of the seeming lack of reward. These trials are a preparation of the soul for greater intimacy with God, what’s called a “passive purification.” The Divine Doctor is operating on your soul while you are experiencing a kind of spiritual anesthesia. Take comfort from the example of the saints, keep doing your part, and trust that God knows what he’s up to – “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

In any case, we all can use the reminder our Lord gave to his followers many centuries ago: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up…” (Luke 18:1).

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published three other titles: Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions, "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", Inside the Passion--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Meditations for Mothers, and A Guide to Christian Meditation.

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  • Maria

    I could have asked this question! Thank you Father for answering it and to whomever asked it! I’ve felt this way these past few months but did not know how to ask or what to do. Sometimes I’m able to meditate, but many times, nothing happens either. Thank you! 

  • Dmunoz1943

    I struggle with my prayer life, which goes from short conversations, prayer to nothing at all for long periods of time…I try to call out God’s name everyday…just so that He doesn’t think I forgot about him! I have too many distractions, thank you for this information..

  • Melissa

    Don’t give up!! God has put it on your heart to desire a deeper relationship with him, and He will answer you. I think the suggestions here provided are a wonderful place to start. Consider speaking with your parish priest, a spiritual advisor or mature person of faith who you respect. They can all be sources of help and guidance. There is a terrific online Jesuit retreat at Creighton University (a Catholic University in Nebraska)  that is totally free and is a great resource to deepen your relationship with Christ and your prayer life. Here’s the link:
     http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/cmo-retreat.html (I hope it’s ok to post links on this site.)
    You work at your own pace, and it gives you reflections to meditate on and is based on the works of St. Ignatious of Loyola. The weekly meditations and suggestions for prayer helped me move closer
    to Christ. Keep asking God to direct to you what you need to read or hear or see to strengthen your prayer life, and it will happen. May God Bless you and keep you!

  • Mizue Inokuchui

    Thank you very much for healing and resolution.

  • Josephpang883

    Does praying rosary put structure in our prayer?

  • Jan_England

    Praying the Divine Office provides an excellent structure for prayer time., and silence is a great facilitator.  I used to live in a city where there are two monasteries in close proximity to one another.  At both monasteries it was easy to find silence before and after Mass where one could enter into prayer.  Silence is essential for prayer.  Now it is difficult for me to find a church where I live where people are not talking aloud or praying aloud  (casual conversation or the rosary, for example) before and after Masses. This is a trial in itself for me.  I appreciate people have the need to communicate with one another – but couldn’t they do this outside the church?  And I appreciate that people like to pray the rosary together out loud – but what of those people who long for silence?  But then, perhaps I just need to be grateful I have churches to go to where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered!

    • Bridgitabita

      I totally agree about the talking in church before and after mass. It shows lack of reverence and is inconsiderate. Especially after Eucharist when you should be focused on Christ within.
      On the Rosary however I disagree, perhaps changing your outlook on it can be of benefit. You should join in, you receive the benefit of all the rosaries of each person praying. If you also include prayers for the Holy Father (our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be..) you also gain a plenary indulgence while can be applied to the Holy Souls in purgatory or keep for yourself. Also the Rosary is an excellent way to center yourself for mass and meditate on the mysteries. God bless and keep you.

      • Jan England

        Thank you Bridgitabita.  I am a lay Carmelite and have an obligation to pray the Divine Office every day.  I often do not have time to pray a group Rosary and morning prayer as well before and/or after Mass.  But nothing is perfectly how we want it!  It’s just that when some people have a private devotion they prefer (i.e. praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, Stations of the Cross, Rosary, Divine Office etc.) when it is done out loud it precludes the possibility for other people to be able to pray the devotion they wish within the gift of silence.

    • Becky313

      I believe it was Thomas Merton who said that it is better to be in the world and long for silence, than to be in silence and long for the world. :)  I can relate!!

      Pray for these people…….it is a gift when we understand and desire silence.  Not everyone understands this and prayer is a very effective way to handle the problem.  I have found that as I pray for others it becomes easier for me to deal with the distractions and noise.

    • Freciabrom

      I agree with you, Jan, 100%.  How can people be so disrespectful to Our Lord who is humanly and spiritualy present in the church.  Yes, and why can’t they talk as loud as they want outside the church!  Sometimes, I do get very cranky and I tell Him so; it makes me I feel guilty for being cranky . . . .  

  • asydwy

    I would like to encourage all here with my own prayerful experience using Father Bartunek’s The Better Part in structuring my time with God.  I use whatever the gospel reading for the day to enter into
    these wonderful meditations that have definitely inspired me to keep going in my search for God…along with the Magnificat, that is really like the Divine Office with wonderful daily meditations. Both these
    are immensely helpful in daily prayer. I am hoping, Father, that at
    some time in the near future you might publish similar mediations using the Old Testament.  God bless you for being “the light” for
    those of us who do not have access to a personal Spiritual Advisor.

  • Bridgitabita

    Wonderful commentary!

  • Clare

    Doth Thy Word say, 
    Love, Love Love? Mercy, Mercy, Mercy? Peace, Peace, Peace?
    Ney, In Thy Word is only found Holy, Holy, Holy.

    It is in the SILENCE of Holy or Holiness that is daughter’s strongest Prayer.
    No words are spoken
    Silence between us
    Starts with a gaze

    There in this Silence, a soul is set apart,
    for what is doth not know now

    A bridge is made-all the efforts are on God’s Part

    A small place He opens, in this Silence, a piece of His Goodness, a Canopy He spreads from His Heavenly, for a soul to dwell

    There Our Lord does His finest work, for there, in Silence, He fills our souls with His Love and Graces and plants unto us what Pleases Him the most,
    With endless Mercy, Forgiveness, and in plants Knowledge of His Obedience and Desires of His Will

    All in Silence
    No Words spoken
    Holy, Holy, Holy    the Holiness of Silence
    Come souls- thirst for it!

    You who are experiencing Silence-come unto this! 

    It is especially powerful in His Eucharistic Presence.

    Clare

    • Judy

       Clare, could you give the source of this quote?

      • Clare

        Dear one,

        It is unmerited,unearned, and greatly undeserved favor from My Lord,

        I wonder if I should publish such Words on this site

        I shake every time I do so, as not to offend My Lord in this.

        I received such strong words to do so, for He wants many of you to know that if you are in Silence- it is Here in Him, as said above, where He wants you.

        Too many of us mistake Silence for “desolation”  or “a dark night” as this site puts it, might not be so.

        And the message is so strong for “Silence with Eucharistic Adoration”.

        I have NOT a Theological “bone” in my body nor am well read, if read at all, in the lives and writings of the Saints, SO,
        I go on this site to receive and try to understanding of what I have been given. Perhaps those who write on this site can give an insight to what I have received.

        I still wonder if I should speak of these things,
        Clare

        • judeen

          I am sorry I did not know you wrote to me.. I could not get on my computer at home.. on this site.. or ewtn…
              you are right on … silence.. just being present infrom of the Holy Euchrist… is so powerful.. can you feel His power? see visions? hear words or get scripture.. some timess….. I do .. I write them down…  I do not know anything . the scripture that I say is from God.. I barely can read.. and can not spell at all… you come to this site cause the Holy Spirit brings you here… you do have something to share… the shaking is from the Holy Spirit. I do this too.. I think it is in scripture… do not know it just happens… God bless hope you get this….. judy

    • Maripe

      I like your prayer? Poem?  especially “the Holiness of Silence” thank you!

  • Sojrnr

    Pope John Paul II said something to the effect that the Rosary is an invaluable approach to prayer and it is a wonderful means of meeting Jesus through Mary. St. Louis de Montfort  strongly encouraged the Rosary and the Hail Mary as the gateway to Mary and through Her to Jesus. His reflections on Mary, especially his book True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin is a profound work worthy of reflection and meditation. His Secret of the Rosary is inspired.

    Lighthouse has a wonderful cd on the Rosary by Edward Sri. In the cd he presents wonderful suggestions for centering meditation onthe this amazing prayer. One suggestion I find particularly helpful is that we slow down, see the Rosary as the Gospel in miniature, and meditate, not just on the whole mystery, which I find very difficult, but after every Hail Mary consider a particular part of the Mystery and let it sink in. For example, I have taken particular note of all that our Lord suffered during the Agony in the Garden. I find that when reflecting on the Mystery it is very inspiring to take a single aspect, say Jesus leaving the upper room, and really focusing on what the Lord experienced. Using your imagination really helps. Again, for example, what did he feel, think, etc. as He rose from the table knowing He was about to be abandoned by His friends? Start with “What would I feel, then consider how the King of Kings, God Himself, felt–He must have felt very alone. Then, on the next bead pick something else, pause at the end of the first part of the Hail Mary and consider that His experince as He walked into the Garden knowing He was about to be abandoned even by His Father. I pick out the smallest things and find that by the end of the mystery I have grasped something about the Passion I had never before considered.

    I find this a great entry into the mind of God.

    Just a suggestion. This is much easier to do when praying the Rosary alone so that you can go at your own pace.

    I have often wondered why we rush through the Rosary.

    Get a copy of Sri’s cd from lighthouse. It may help!

  • Kathy AE

    I can identify with the question as well; I’ve been faithful to a quiet time with God for over 2 years now (since I’ve returned to the Church after 25 years away!)  I find the Liturgy of the Hours so helpful, and I pray the rosary daily, meditating on the mysteries.  I maintain my parish church’s website, and we have several pages devoted to building the spiritual life, especially the DEVOTIONS page.  Scroll down to the section on the Divine Office, or the rosary, and a page called PRAYING WITH THE PSALMS.  
             I find myself returning to favorite little scriptural passages as I “sit in silence”.  Sometimes I am led deeper into silent communion; other times, I just read a little and reflect, as the Spirit leads.  This is everything, to follow as the Spirit leads.  I used to try to read Scripture, but I never knew where to turn.  The readings for Daily Mass give a direction, and the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms are also excellent ways to begin.  I am always consoled to remember that Jesus and Mary knew and prayed with the Psalms.

  • Kathy AE

    So sorry! Forgot to post the link to St. Paul’s website and the devotions page:  
    http://stpaulbr.webs.com/devotions.htm

  • $20540928

    When silence and dark nights bring nothing….God has not abandoned us..He is testing our character and faith. Please
    hold on and pray deeper. Our Lord is always listening…but 
    not with or by our understanding…All Saints have gone through
    these dark passages..when no answer was given…so never
    give up. 

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