By Paul Dumbrille
If your experience of prayer is anything like mine, at times you wonder if God is really there when you pray. Sometimes we have a deep sense of God’s presence, and sometimes we have no sense of the Divine reality. We can’t imagine that God exists. Sometimes we have deep feelings about God’s goodness and love, and sometimes we feel only boredom and distraction. Sometimes our eyes become teary, and sometimes they wander to our wristwatch to see how much more time we still need to spend in prayer. Sometimes we would like to stay in our place of prayer forever, and sometimes we can hardly wait to look at our smartphone. Prayer has a huge ebb and flow.
Persons who have experienced powerful religious emotions and special times of close connection with God, sometimes experience boredom or dryness when those emotions fade or disappear. They might feel that their prayers don’t have meaning and their connection to God has disappeared. Some people who have powerfully experienced God through Scripture may find that they can no longer find meaning because they can’t feel God’s presence.
This kind of experience is neither uncommon nor new. Theresa of Avila, after a season of deep fervour in prayer, experienced eighteen years of boredom and dryness. It is also found in the journals of Mother Theresa who, like Theresa of Avila, after some initial enthusiasm in prayer, experienced sixty years of dryness.
We often harbour an ideal image about what constitutes prayer, and how we might sustain ourselves in it. Behind this notion is the belief that prayer is always meant to be full of excitement, interesting, warm, carrying spiritual insight, and carrying the feeling that God is near. Coupled with this is the equally erroneous notion that the way to sustain feeling and fervour in prayer is through constant novelty and variety, or through dogged concentration. Classical writers in spirituality assure us that, while this is often true in some stages of our prayer lives, when we are neophytes at prayer and in the honeymoon stage of our spiritual lives, it becomes less and less true the deeper we advance in prayer and spirituality.
Fortunately for anyone who has tried to sustain a prayer life over a long period of time, the great mystics tell us that once we are beyond the early, honeymoon stage of prayer, the single greatest obstacle to sustaining a life of prayer is simple boredom and the sense that nothing meaningful is happening. But that doesn’t mean that we are regressing in prayer. It often means the opposite.
I can express this no better than Ron Rohlheiser, OMI, who provides a useful way of looking at this kind of situation when he writes as follows:
“Imagine you have an aged mother who is confined to a retirement home. You’re the dutiful daughter or son and, every night after work, for one hour, you stop and spend time with her, helping her with her evening meal, sharing the events of the day, and simply being with her as her daughter or son. I doubt that, save for a rare occasion, you will have many deeply emotive or even interesting conversations with her. On the surface your visits will seem mostly routine, dry, and dutiful. Most days you will be talking about trivial, everyday, things, and you will be sneaking the occasional glance at the clock to see when your hour with her will be over. However, if you persevere in these regular visits with her, month after month, year after year, among everyone in the whole world you will grow to know your mother most deeply and she will grow to know you most deeply because, as the mystics affirm, at a certain deep level of relationship the real connection between us takes place below the surface of our conversations. We begin to know each other through simple presence. You can recognize this in its opposite: notice how your mother relates to your siblings who visit her only very occasionally. During those rare, occasional visits there will be emotions, tears, and conversations beyond the weather and the trivia of everyday life. But that’s because your mother sees these others so rarely. Prayer is the same. If we pray only occasionally, we might well experience some pretty deep emotions in our prayer. However, if we pray faithfully every day, year in and year out, we can expect little excitement, lots of boredom, regular temptations to look at the clock during prayer … but, a very deep, growing bond with our God.”