Several years ago, a friend shared this story with me: Raised a Roman Catholic and essentially faithful in going to church and in trying to live an honest moral life, he found himself, in his mid-forties, plagued by doubts, unable to pray, and unable (when he was honest with himself) to even believe in the existence of God.
Anxious about this and looking for spiritual guidance, he went to see a Jesuit priest who had a reputation as a spiritual director. He anticipated the usual counsel about dark nights of the soul and how these are given to us to purify our faith and, already familiar with that literature, he wasn’t expecting much. Certainly he wasn’t expecting the advice he received.
His Jesuit guide didn’t try to engage him in any deep theological reflections on doubt and dark nights of faith. Instead, like Elisha to Naaman, the Syrian leper, he gave my friend a counsel that sounded so simplistic that it triggered irritation rather than hope: The Jesuit simply told him: Make a promise to yourself to sit in silent prayer for a half an hour a day for the next six months. I promise you that if you are faithful to that you will, by that time, recover your sense of God.
My friend, beyond being upset with what he felt was an over-simplistic bit of advice, protested that the biggest part of his problem was precisely that he couldn’t pray, that he couldn’t talk to a God whom he didn’t believe existed: How can I pray when I no longer believe that there is a God?
The Jesuit persisted: “Just do it! Show up and sit in silent prayer for half an hour a day, even if you feel like you are talking to a wall. It’s the only practical advice I can give you.”
Despite his skepticism, my friend took the Jesuit’s advice and faithfully sat in silent prayer for half an hour a day for six months and, by the end of that time, his sense of God had returned, as had his sense of prayer.
This story, I believe, highlights something important: Our sense of God’s existence is very much linked to fidelity to prayer. However, and this is the catch-22, it is hard to sustain a life of prayer precisely because our sense of God is often weak. Simply put, it is not easy to pray. We have easy words about prayer, but we struggle to sustain, long term, real prayer in our lives.
Prayer is easy only for beginners and for those who are already saints. During all the long years in between, it is difficult. Why? Because prayer has the same inner dynamics as love and love is sweet only in its initial stage, when we first fall in love, and again its final, mature stage. In between, love is hard work, dogged fidelity, and needs willful commitment beyond what is normally provided by our emotions and our imagination.
Prayer works in the same way. Initially when we first begin to pray, like someone young and in love, we tend to have a period of fervor, of passion, a time when our emotions and our imaginations help give us a sense that God exists and that God hears our prayers. But as we grow deeper and more mature in our relationship to God, just as in a relationship to someone we love, reality begins to dispel an illusion. It’s not that we become disillusioned with God, but rather that we come to realize that so many of the warm thoughts and feelings we believed were about God were really about ourselves. Disillusionment is a good thing. It’s the dispelling of an illusion. What we thought was prayer was partly a spell of enchantment about ourselves.
When that disillusionment sets in, and this a maturing moment in our lives, it is easy to believe that we were deluded about the other, the person we had fallen in love with or, in the case of prayer, God. The easy response then is to back away, to quit, to see the whole thing as having been an illusion, a false start. In the spiritual life, that’s usually when we stop praying.
But it the opposite is called for. What we need to do then is to show up, just as we did before, minus the warm thoughts and feelings, bored, uncertain, and stripped of our enchantment about ourselves. The deeper we go in relationships and in prayer, the more unsure of ourselves we become, and this is the beginning of maturity: It’s when I say, I don’t know how to love and I don’t know how to pray, that I first begin to understand what love and prayer actually are.
Hence, there is no better advice than that given by this Jesuit priest to my friend who thought himself an atheist: Just show up! Sit in humility and silence long enough so that you can begin to hear someone else, not yourself.