In response to a post I wrote last year — “What to Do When Prayer Gets Dull” — a reader recently left this comment on Facebook:
Carl, I think it would be useful to guide folks about what to do if the dryness period persists….I find comfort in reading mystic poetry, coloring mandalas, exercising creativity and turning these activities into prayer….taking slow walks in the woods, dancing, etc. What do you think?
Thanks for your comment, and here’s what I think.
I was tempted to call this post something like “Five Steps You Can Take to Persevere Through the Dry Times of Prayer.” That, at least in the eyes of all the internet-marketing gurus, would have been a snappy, click-worthy headline.
But… I don’t think it’s helpful to try to boil down an experience as profound and potentially life-altering as aridity in prayer to just a simple “formula for success.”
So I’ve resisted that urge, and hopefully this post can offer a more meaningful perspective.
Which is not to say that there aren’t helpful “things to do” when prayer seems dry, lifeless, rote, dull, a chore rather than a delight. I love my reader’s suggestions, all of them. Here they are again, along with a few of my own.
- Read mystic poetry — which can include poetry by the mystics (check out The Poetry of Saint John of the Cross, The Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver: Devotions, The Essential Rumi and The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse for a few starters). But take it even more broadly, since much great poetry invites us deep into mystery even when the poets themselves are not “known” as mystics. Denise Levertov, R. S. Thomas, Mark Doty, Emily Dickinson, Gerary Manley Hopkins, Edna St. Vincent Millay, for just as a few of the many poets whose words call us to dance with silence.
- Coloring Mandalas, Exercising Creativity — there are so many ways to exercise our creativity! With color, with sound, with movement, with food, with words, with photography. Parker Palmer wrote a book on vocation called Let Your Life Speak — but that’s great advice beyond merely figuring our one’s next career move. Look for ways to create the voice of your soul — to give it space to sing, to lament, to complain, to praise, even to whine or to curse. Welcome all of your inner life into forms of outer expression.
- Get a Move On — walk a labyrinth (or just take a walk in general). Do yoga, tai chi, qigong. Go dancing. Go hiking, rafting, backpacking. Make love with your spouse. Get a massage. And when it’s all over, take a long, luxurious bubble bath.
- Tend to Something Living — Plant a garden. Walk the dog. Water the houseplants. Watch the neighbors’ kids so they can have a date night.
- Be of Service — Volunteer at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a safe house, a nursing home. Teach refugees English.
- Turn All of the Above into Prayer — I often invoke a song by an old Christian rock group called the 2nd Chapter of Acts. The song is called “Make My Life a Prayer to You.” Yes! Make all of life a prayer. Everything we do: our creative acts, our labor, our chores, our efforts to wash the dishes or balance the checkbook. It’s all prayer — or it all can be prayer, if we only open our eyes to see it as such. Julian of Norwich said “the fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” The corollary: joy is fully found when all becomes prayer.
So there’s plenty to “do” when prayer gets dry. But here’s why I don’t want to reduce this question to a list: sometimes, prayer needs to be dry. Sometimes, dry prayer is not a problem to be solved, but a deeper invitation to be lived into.
Sometimes, filling up our to-do list when prayer seems arid can actually be an avoidance maneuver.
For that matter, everyone’s prayer journey is unique, which means that no two people enter the spiritual desert in just the same way or for just the same reasons. One person might need a spiritual pep talk, and an action plan. But the next person might actually need to embrace solitude, stillness and silence even more deeply than before.
This is why spiritual companionship is so important. We all need a soul friend or spiritual director because each of us has a one-of-a-kind love affair with God. I need someone I can talk to (and pray with) who can listen to what’s unique about my dance with the Divine. A good spiritual companion might not be able to offer anything more than compassion and a listening ear. But sometimes, maybe often, that’s all we need.
There are practical things about having a spiritual companion: I’m much more likely to persevere (no matter what that looks like) when I have someone I am regularly talking to. Prayer requires perseverence to grow: even if the only “persevering” we’re doing is holding on to our existing rule of life and daily discipline, right in the midst of the dryness.
I once heard a marriage therapist give a talk where she said that the biochemistry of “falling in love” had an expiration date: for many people, after about four years — especially of marriage — the heady feelings of being “in love” typically have run their course. As that happens, that doesn’t mean the marriage is doomed, but that it will require something more than just animal magnetism to sustain itself. I wonder how many marriages end because one partner tells the other “I don’t love you any more” when what’s really going is that one or both of them haven’t learned how to love at a level deeper than mere feelings or experience?
I think our “love affair with God” probably has a similar trajectory. At first, it’s anchored in the experience of feeling loved by God, of finding prayer to be joyful, peaceful, or consoling in some other way(s). But those feelings aren’t guaranteed to last: in fact, I think we can count on the opposite: after the juiciness of feeling “in love with God” will come the long desert experience of learning to love God by intention and commitment rather than in response to experience.
This isn’t to say that the “good experiences” of prayer will disappear forever. Just as a healthy marriage continues to have much joy, warmth and affection (as well as lovemaking!) years and even decades into the bond, so too a long-term prayer relationship with God will have moments and seasons of joy throughout its lifespan. But the nature of those experiences will change, in frequency, in depth, in relation to other life issues and concerns. Persevering in prayer means learning to respond to God’s love at a level deeper than our feelings.
It’s not always easy. But it is always possible, with God’s grace.