We all have our moments of chaos and crisis. Loss, death, sickness, disappointment, hurt, loneliness, hatred, jealousy, obsession, fear, these come into our lives and often we find ourselves overwhelmed by the darkness they cause. What can we do about them? How can we pull ourselves out of the dark chaos they put us into? The simple answer of course is prayer. But that answer is given far too simplistically. We all have heard the phrases, so true in themselves: “Pray it through! Take your troubles to the chapel! Give it to God! God will help you!” I can speak only for myself, though I suspect that my experience has its parallels in other lives, and I have found that often when I try to pray through some deep hurt I find no relief and, at times, end up more depressed, more immersed in the chaos, and more obsessively self-preoccupied than before praying. Often I end up sucking the prayer into my own narcissism.

Too often we try to pray when hurting, the prayer serves not to uproot the hurt and the narcissism, but to root it even more deeply in self-pity, self-preoccupation  and darkness. We end up further letting go of God’s Spirit and, instead, giving in to panic, fear, chaos, nonforgiveness, obsession and resentment, in a word, to the posture of masturbation, of nonprayer. Why? Is God not willing to help? Is it simply a question of patience, God will eventually help, but not yet? God is always willing to help and, yes, we must be patient, healing always takes time. But there is more involved. When we pray and our prayers do not help, then we are praying incorrectly. I have learned this painfully, through years of mistakes.

Prayer is a focus upon God, not upon ourselves. When we are hurting or obsessed, the problem is that we are able to think about only one thing, the object of our hurt or loss.

That concentration becomes depressive, oppressively focusing us so much upon one thing that we are unfree emotionally to think about or enjoy other things. Depression is an over-concentration. For this reason, whenever we are caught up in depression, it is important that our prayer be completely focused upon God and not upon ourselves. If we do what comes naturally when trying to “pray through a crisis” we will end up thinking about the crisis, wallowing in our own sufferings. Instead of freeing ourselves from the sense of loss or obsession, we will pull the wound inward, make the pain worse and the depression even more paralyzing. When we pray in a crisis we must force ourselves to focus upon God or Jesus or upon some aspect of their sacred mystery, and we must resist entirely the urge to relate that encounter immediately to our wounded experience.

Let me illustrate this with an example: Imagine yourself suffering the loss of someone you deeply loved. Hurt, unable to think about anything else, you go to pray. Immediately the temptation will be to focus upon your heart, your obsession. You will try to “talk it through,” however sincerely. But the result will be disastrous. You will find yourself becoming more fixed upon what you are trying to free yourself from. Your depression will intensify. Conversely, if you force yourself, and this will be extremely difficult, to focus upon God; for example, as he reveals himself in some mystery of Christ’s life, your depression will be broken. You will experience God, slowly but gently, widening again the scope of your heart and mind. With that will come an emotional loosening and freeing. When a wounded child climbs into its mother’s lap, it draws so much strength from the mother’s presence that its own wound becomes insignificant. So too with us when we climb into the lap of our great Mother, God. Our crisis soon domesticates and comes into a peaceful perspective, not because it goes away, but because the presence of God so overshadows us.

But this means we must genuinely climb into the lap of God. Like the wounded child we must be focused upon the mother, not upon ourselves. Concretely this means that, when praying in a crisis, we must refuse to think about ourselves at all, we must refuse even to relate the mystery we are mediating to ourselves and our wound. Like a child, we must simply be content to sit and be held by the mother. That will be hard, very hard, to do. Initially every emotion in us will demand that we focus ourselves back upon our hurt. But that is the key, don’t! Don’t, under the guise of prayer, wallow further in hurt. Rather focus upon God. Then, like a sobbing child at its mother’s breast, in silence, we will drink that which nurtures and brings peace. At the breast of God, we drink the Holy Spirit, the milk of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, mildness, long-suffering, faith, chastity, hope and fidelity. In that nourishment lies peace.