What to Do When Prayer Gets Dull

What to Do When Prayer Gets Dull March 20, 2018
Guide me, humbly, even through the desert, Lord.

A reader writes:

Hi Carl, hope you’re well. Just wanted to pick your brain again! I’ve encountered a new issue in my meditation, maybe you can help. I’ve realised that after a series of profound and deep mystical experiences during meditation, my practice has become dulled, difficult. It took me a while to figure out why. What’s actually happening is that after my mystical experiences, I have become afraid of the awesome power of God in the present moment. “It’s a fearful and terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” as St Paul says. How do I get over this fear? Feel free to use this in a blog post! peace, Kevin

It’s a great question. And a few things come to mind.

When folks talk about their prayer or contemplative practice seeming “dull” or “difficult,” I think of a classical word used to describe a common problem in the spiritual life: aridity.

As you can imagine, that’s just a fancy word for “dryness” — as in an arid desert. We associate water with the Spirit, so when our prayer feels dry or arid, it seems as if the Spirit is a long way away.

So my first comment is, welcome to the club! It’s quite normal for people with an ongoing prayer practice to bump into this sense of dullness or dryness. Suddenly God seems far away. Or the prayer seems lifeless. Or we can’t seem to find our inner silence, our time in prayer just seems to be an exercise in the roaring distractions that dance through the mind.

Sigh. As you say, it’s difficult. And too many people get discouraged when they hit these dull, difficult times. At its worst, such a sense of discouragement can lead a person to abandon regular prayer altogether. It’s usually not “intentional” — we don’t wake up one morning and say, “Gee, contemplative prayer seems so dull and difficult, that I’m just going to knock it off and spend my mornings on Facebook.” No, we don’t consciously choose that — but it’s all too easy to make such a choice unconsciously.

We notice that we’ve become too busy to pray. Our mornings have become too frantic. Our diaries are just too full. A week without prayer stretches into a month, a season, a year, a decade…

Moral of the story: if we aren’t careful, dryness or dullness in prayer can lead us to abandon our commitment to contemplation, even if we never consciously set out to give it up.

So Why Does Prayer Become Dull?

I think there are many reasons why prayer becomes dry or dull or difficult.

If you read some of the classic mystics, they’ll argue that this could be a sign of sin without repentance. And I suppose that could be true for some people, so it’s always a good idea to examine our conscience and ask the question, “Is there a reason why I don’t want God to get close?”

But I tend to agree with The Cloud of Unknowing which suggests that, as long as you are not conscious of serious sin, then you can in confidence engage in prayer. No one’s perfect, we all make mistakes — but scrupulosity will not foster your prayer life. So just be honest with yourself that you aren’t avoiding something big, and then be confident in your prayer.

Which means — if your prayer is still dull/dry/difficult, something else is afoot.

There are two likely scenarios I’d like for us to consider. The first is fear of losing control with God, and the second is God teaching us not to rely on experience.

Kevin (who submitted the question) suggests that the first of these factors is at work in his prayer life, and that may well be the case. But I’d like for him (and anyone else dealing with dry or dull prayer) to consider the second option as well.

“Afraid of the Awesome Power of God”

Kevin writes, “What’s actually happening is that after my mystical experiences, I have become afraid of the awesome power of God in the present moment” and goes on to ask, “How do I get over this fear?”

Fear is a feeling. It has no power over us, except for the power that we give it. As FDR said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Because, unfortunately, we often do tend to give our fear too much power over us! And then we’re stuck.

I once read a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It’s a pop-psychology, self-help book, but the title sure is a winner. We can’t just make fear disappear; it’s a normal biological response to situations where we feel out of control.

But we can feel the fear and then choose to follow through and whatever it is that’s freaking us out. And the more we learn to walk through our fear, the more we discover that it really doesn’t have power over us.

For you see, fear is just hope turned inside out. You’re afraid of losing your job? Well, reframe it: you hope to be successful at work. Afraid of having a coronary? You hope to take good care of yourself and thereby lower your risk of heart disease.

When we give our energy and attention to our hopes instead of our fears, we calibrate ourselves to take action — even if it’s a little scary at first.

So, you’re afraid of God’s awesome power? Doesn’t that really mean you hope to receive God’s tender love and compassion? Or that you want to grow in trusting God?

Orient  your prayer to your hopes. Pray for the gift of trust, for the ability to feel and receive God’s love, and the capacity to give yourself fully to God — holding nothing back!

When The Well Just Stays Dry

But now — let’s say you’ve prayed your way through your fears, and are willing to give yourself without reservation to God… and your prayer life remains dull, dry, and difficult? What do you do then?

At this point I think it may be time to consider that God is calling you to a deeper dimension of your prayer life — and is using dryness and dullness to wean you off of your love of, as Kevin puts it, “mystical experiences.”

Anyone who’s been reading my blog for a while knows that I’m not too keen on mystical experiences anyway. I agree with Saint John of the Cross, that “experiences” tend to be a distraction.

Some people have dramatic prayer lives filled with extraordinary inner sensations, locutions, visionary experiences, and so forth. Others have very little of such psychic fireworks.

The real question is: is your prayer life  helping you to be a more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more merciful person? That’s the sign of a maturing prayer life.

And it seems to me that the more dramatic our early “experiences” of God are, the more devastating it feels when the dry times eventually comes. And they come to everyone. 

A wonderful Jesuit writer named Thomas Green wrote a couple of books: When the Well Runs Dry and Drinking From a Dry Well — about how prayer evolves as we mature in our spiritual life.

Father Green draws from some of the great masters of the spiritual life — including doctors of the church like St. John of the Cross — to point out that spiritual teachers have long insisted that dryness in prayer can sometimes be a sign that God wants us to grow beyond the beginnings. God wants our prayer to be wholly dependent on God, and not on our “experiences” — mystical or otherwise.

I remember when I was in my thirties, and struggling with aridity in prayer. I went to talk to a Jesuit priest, and he very gently said, “Carl, get used to it. Most people find that the older they get, the more their prayer life becomes quieter and less dramatic.”

Think of Mother Teresa, who spent decades of her life struggling with a sense that God was absent. All while she was working hard to serve the poorest of the poor in Calcutta — and start a religious order that continues to carry on her good work even after her passing.

This is not necessarily the kind of feedback people like to hear: we want to know that the dryness in our prayer life will be temporary, just a blip. But sometimes God is trying to wean us off of experiential prayer, the same way a mother must wean her toddler off of breast milk. It’s a necessary step on the path — but just as a child is unhappy to lose the intimacy of breast-feeding, we can feel a real sense of loss when we lose the “pleasure” of an experiential sense of God’s presence.

But the child must graduate from breastfeeding to “grown up food” in order to mature. Same thing with us when we pray.

So, my friend Kevin, if you think your dryness in prayer is driven by your fear of God, then work on trusting God more. But if your prayer remains dry, consider that this could be God’s way of asking you to let your prayer life evolve and become more mature.

If you (or anyone else reading this) wants more personalized insight into this process, I would strongly recommend you consult a qualified spiritual director. Indeed, I would say anyone who is committed to daily prayer ought to find someone to accompany you along your spiritual journey — ideal someone with whom you could meet, in person, once a month or so. We know that we need mentoring in so many areas of life: business coaches, financial planners, therapists, so forth. The spiritual life is no different. Having someone you can trust, and who will listen and help you discern how God is at work in your life is an important part of any sustained (and sustainable) spiritual practice.

Best of luck to you, Kevin. Keep praying!

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