How to pray and keep prayingHow do I pray when prayer seems impossible? Throughout Christian history, when people sought to deepen their relationship with God they went into the desert. They pursued isolation. This way of living the Christian vocation was called the solitary life. Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers, used to say to his novices, “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Those early monks who fled into the desert were imitating Jesus in his isolation. There are many times in the gospels where Jesus deliberately removes himself from people. He disappears off to a deserted place to pray (Mark 1.32). He dismisses the crowds and goes up a mountain on his own (Matthew 14.23). He sits by a well in the desert (John 4.5). He prays on his own on the night before his death (Luke 22.41). In particular, the monks remembered the days Jesus spent in the wilderness and the temptations he faced there (Matthew 4.1–11).
Encountering the darkness
The spiritual life always involves an encounter with darkness. The people of Israel are led through the desert into the Promised Land. Jesus began his ministry being driven into the wilderness. The garden of the resurrection is entered through his suffering on Calvary. Similarly, our faith must pass through periods of barren difficulty, doubt and despair.
But doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of doubt is certainty. Doubting is part of believing. It is the shadow that is created by the light. This is why when people become Christians, we do not ask them to say that they know beyond doubt that Jesus is the one they must follow. We ask them if they believe and trust.
When we follow Christ we are not giving our assent to a set of abstract propositions, but to a person. To the living God who is made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are saying that God is community, and that we are called to live our lives in community with God and with each other.
It is often in prayer that we become most aware of the dark and difficult times of the Christian journey.
Sometimes this is because we are facing a crisis or a tragedy in our life or in the life of the world. Sometimes it can be what feels like a loss of faith. We feel angry and resentful towards God. It feels as if God has let us down, or even abandoned us. Prayer suddenly feels impossible or useless. God seems absent.
When this happens prayer becomes empty, familiar words and rituals lose their comfort. Church becomes boring. Other Christians become irritating, and faith can suddenly feel a ridiculous charade. The energy of our faith is sapped.
Although these experiences are dark and terrible, they are also normal and inevitable. All the great spiritual writers speak of the desert experience as part of the Christian journey.
Many Christians are ill-prepared for the dark times that will inevitably come. Often people not only give up on prayer, but give up on God when they find themselves in the desert.
You might be feeling great despair and darkness right now. Prayer might have become very difficult. But if all you do is hold on to your desire to pray, then you are already on the road to recovery.
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 hold onto it tightly through the desert.Discern what it is that still connects
you to God, and hold onto it tightly. Some of the things you have read about here can be your oasis in this desert. Even if it is just clutching the holding cross in your pocket. Or crying out the name of Jesus from the depths of sadness and fear, 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, 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. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Do you know Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, which is itself a beautiful prayer? Find a copy of the text, and next time you are feeling sad, read from it.
O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life,
until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we pray, we are not putting money in the heavenly slot machine to get what we want or to make a transaction with God. Prayer isn’t just asking for things. We can and do ask for things. What could be more natural than to come to the one we love with the requests and concerns of our hearts? But more than asking for what we want, prayer is receiving from God what God wants to give us. When we pray, we are resting in the presence of the one who loves us and who knows what is best for us.
Many people find prayer difficult because they have a picture in their mind of what it is supposed to be like. Then they feel a failure if their prayers don’t match up. Sitting in blissful silence for half an hour, your mind empty of everything but God? A wildly joyful and ecstatic experience in which you speak in tongues of Pentecostal fire? Or eloquently bringing before God the needs of everyone and everything in the world? If you imagine that prayer will always be like one of these, then you probably won’t get very far.
But prayer is relationship with God. So, like every other relationship, it is nurtured in small acts of attentive kindness. In the best and most intimate relationships sometimes it’s just enough to be in the presence of the one you love. You don’t necessarily have to do or say anything. But small words and gestures of love will always help.
Knowing God is not the only way to be happy in life. There are many happy and fulfilled people in the world who are not Christians. But the fullness that we long for only comes from God, because everything which is good and fulfilling ultimately comes from God. And nothing which is good is outside the heart of God. So, when we seek the heart of God in prayer, we are seeking the deepest joy of all and the deepest fulfilment. When we pray, we come to the peak of the mountain in whose foothills we have always wandered. More than asking for what we want,
prayer is receiving from God what
God wants to give us.Also, the results, such as they are, are most likely to be seen by others, not us. As St Paul says, as we see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, so we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (1 Corinthians 3.18).
Making your life a prayer
When we start to live this way – knowing we are loved by God, being secure in that love, and bringing everything to God – then we find that the whole of life becomes a prayer, an offering of praise to God. This life is nurtured and watered by regular times of prayer. But slowly – and over the course of a lifetime it changes everything. Even the world. When we start to live this way . . . we find that the whole of life becomes a prayer.
<span style="font-size: 1rem;">Someone once asked me how long this takes? I was able to give them a precise answer. It takes a lifetime. By happy coincidence that is exactly how much time each one of us has been given.</span>
Sometimes you will taste and see how good the Lord is …
Sometimes you will be dry and joyless …
Sometimes you will be able to do nothing else
but take your whole life and everything in you
and bring them before God.
Every hour has its own possibilities of genuine prayer.
So set yourself again and again on the way of prayer.”
Go back through this material and highlight parts that call out to you. Think about how you could act on one of them today.
If you’ve found this helpful, who do you know who would benefit from reading this? Find a way to share it with them. Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.