What to do When the Well Runs Dry? (Part I of II)

Dear Father John, there was a time early in my prayer life that I experienced what I think is known as consolations. I have continued to grow in virtue and holiness (if I even know what that means) but my prayer life seems like it doesn’t match my life of virtue. I have listened to Dan Burke’s webinar on the three ways and I am grateful to say that I don’t struggle with habitual sin at all. But, I feel like my prayer life is shallow. If I have moved beyond the purgative stage, where I am doesn’t feel anything like a contemplative life. I have practiced meditation for a few years according to your book The Better Part (which is fantastic by the way) but frankly I feel like the well is drying up. I don’t even know how to explain it but I just feel like my prayer life is stuck. What can I do?

Thank you for sending in this question, which I think many of our readers will be able to relate to. In the way you ask the question itself, you provide a lot of information that will help me give you an answer. In the first place, you show a lot of depth in regards to self-knowledge and a healthy ongoing reflection on what’s happening in your own soul. In other words, it’s clear that you are seeking an answer to this question not because you are lazy and looking for shortcuts, but because you feel deep in your soul a desire for greater intimacy with God, and you are not sure how to move in that direction in your current situation. Also, you show a wise recognition of the relationship between prayer and life. As the Catechism puts it (you clearly know this already, but I want to affirm it for you):

We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The “spiritual battle” of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer. (CCC 2725)

When you write that you are not stuck in habitual sin, therefore, you help identify an important factor that can contribute to dryness and feeling “stuck” in prayer. When we are consciously and regularly refusing to give God what he asks of us in our daily living, it becomes extremely difficult for us to encounter him in a satisfying way in prayer. But since you are clearly seeking to fulfill his will in your life and growing in Christ-like virtue, this is most likely not the reason behind your experience of dryness (what traditional spiritual writers call “aridity”) in prayer.

Why Does the Well Run Dry?
TheWomanOfSamariaAtTheWellJamesTissotSo what is going on? Although I would recommend that you speak about this with your spiritual director (if you have one), I can venture a possible explanation. As we move forward in our journey towards greater spiritual maturity, our prayer life changes. The consolations and insights that came to us with a certain frequency in earlier periods seem to dry up. If this is due to our own laziness and worldliness, we need to repent. As I have already mentioned, I don’t think this is the case with you. The other possible reason is because God is drawing you into a new stage of spiritual experience. By withholding consolations, by making himself seem absent during your prayer, he is actually leading you to exercise your faith, hope, and love more vigorously. He is guiding you to greater simplicity in prayer: Instead of being able to think and reflect and discover new ideas and new insights, you are simply staying in the Lord’s presence, longing for him and yearning for deeper contact with him.

Surprised and Confused
This type of prayer is so different from a more active kind of meditation that it surprises and worries you. You think that something is wrong, because prayer used to be very different. And yet, it could very well be that this is exactly the kind of prayer that God wants you to be engaging in. He wants you to feel the longing for him more deeply and intensely. He wants you to experience your limitations more palpably. He wants you to sense his absence in an almost painful way. All of this, in the divine pedagogy, is preparation for greater intimacy with him. He is purifying your soul of attachment to his gifts, so as to make more room for a more direct experience and embrace of the Giver of those gifts, God himself.

In part II, we will look at four specific things one can do when confronted with aridity or dryness that is not caused by one’s unfaithfulness to God. 

Art: The Woman of Samaria at the Well, James Tissot, between 1886-1894, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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