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:
- Recall that you are in God’s presence and ask him to bless your time together.
- Read a short passage from the book.
- Reflect on the passage: What does this really mean? What does it mean for me?
- 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…
- Reflect on another passage…
- Respond again…
- 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).