Dryness in prayer is an inevitable stage in the life of the committed Christian. Not many who reach that stage of dryness have any idea how to proceed. Hence, these posts on the topic. The source of much of the material, besides the counsel of some wonderful spiritual directors and my own experiences, is the marvelous book, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings, by Thomas Green, SJ, as well as a less-known gem, Common Mystic Prayer, by Gabriel Diefenbach. If you’re struggling in prayer, yet long for closeness with the Lord, these posts are for you!
By “dryness in prayer”, I don’t mean the lack of experience of the Lord that those who’ve never made a commitment to Him, and never or rarely pray, experience. I refer to those who’ve made a decisive commitment to the Lord, after which they’ve experienced a deep sense of devotion, a “honeymoon” with the Lord. The honeymoon (much as when one first falls in love) features emotional highs, even pleasant physical sensations of elation or warmth. At this point, Scripture in particular comes alive, but all prayer is sweet most of the time – whether verbal, liturgical, or meditative. Praise, adoration, thanksgiving, worship may also come to the fore.
Inevitably, though – sometimes within a few months, sometimes after a year or two – the honeymoon ends. Periods of “consolation” – of experiencing the Lord’s presence and sweetness – become infrequent, and dryness in prayer becomes the rule instead of the exception. This transition means it’s time to shift to a different mode of prayer altogether: contemplative or mystical prayer.
While the honeymoon lasts, we might do Scripture reading; talking to God; rote prayers such as novenas, the Rosary, or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; liturgical prayers such as the Mass. Some of these are normally done alone, others often or (in the Mass) always in community. Another form of prayer we might do is meditation, which involves nonverbal but structured prayer in which we think about this or that truth or “mystery” of the faith, or some event in Scripture. Examples of meditation include the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross. As prayer, none of these modes are just reciting words, or thinking. They are motivated by devotion to the Lord and open to the Holy Spirit.
In the beginning, all of these types of prayer may yield sweetness. And then, as Green notes, “the well runs dry.” When I first experienced more and more dryness in prayer, after a year or so post-conversion “honeymoon”, I assumed I was doing something wrong. I tried reading more Scripture; journaling more; spending more time interceding for people or praising and thanking God. I read additional spiritual books. Through many activities, I tried to get the feeling back, but nothing worked. My activities in prayer seemed to get in the way of closeness to God. Strangely, I longed for Him more than ever. But what was I to do?
Thank God, I went to see a Franciscan priest, Fr. Roch, for spiritual direction. In response to my frustration, he asked, “Why are you doing all of those things in prayer?” Surprised, I said, “Well, I have to do something!” To which he responded, “Do you?”
Fr. Roch explained that in contemplation, prayer becomes more God’s work in us than our work. Our role shifts from much activity to “active passivity”: receptivity to the Holy Spirit’s working in prayer. Prayer becomes more and more, not what I do with God’s help, but what God does in me. As in the episode about Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42), I learn to stop “doing things” in prayer, and I learn to sit at the Lord’s feet. Practically, this involves setting aside the activities – even including “listening prayer” – and simply sitting before the Lord, “gazing” at Him while He gazes at me. Fr. Roch stressed that it was more important to keep in mind that God was gazing at me, than I at Him.
And my prayer life – my life – changed forever.
In my next post, I’ll look at how to know if God is leading you into contemplative prayer; how to pray contemplatively; why the journey of prayer normally lead to contemplation; and what are the (wonderful, life-changing) fruits of contemplation; and what is its basis in the Scriptures. Thanks be to God, there is a path through the desert, prepared for us by prayer warriors like St. John and St. Teresa. We don’t have to wander in thirst: we can blossom in the desert.