Contemplative Prayer, prayer, spiritual disciplines, spiritual formation, spiritual transformation

Difficulties in Prayer

Reading and reflecting on “Guided by the Spirit: A Jesuit Perspective on Spiritual Direction” by Frank J. Houdek, SJ


I remember Eugene Peterson once saying that someone wanted to talk to him about their marriage issues.  But before they started, he asked them about their prayer life.  What does prayer have to do with marriage (or any other circumstance we’re facing)?  Everything!  

The ministry of spiritual direction has been life changing for me. Prayer is God’s responsibility and primary effort to be in communion with humanity. God initiates prayer that we might response by receiving such a free gift of consolation and communion; that we might become aware and alert to God’s wooing in our lives.

In “Guided by the Spirit”, Frank Houdek writes about some of the difficulties of prayer within the  spiritual direction (informally, many pastoral interactions) relationship.  Previously, Houdek is saying that prayer is an invitation into a deeper surrender and trust with the Source of Life.  Prayer invites us into a freedom to be our truest self where we experience God’s unconditional love for who we are.

Houdek points out a few difficulties we may experience in prayer:

  • Prayer is difficult because it requires deeper levels of trust that God loves us and is acting on our behalf.
  • Prayer styles and ruts are real. 
    •  It’s easy to get stuck on a style of prayer because that’s all we know.  Yet we’re not experiencing freedom, flow, or authenticity.  
    • We have a limited view of prayer that can diminish our experience instead of expanding God’s love.
  • An exaggerated preoccupation with the self.
    • “Often the source of this difficulty is a long-term sense of personal inadequacy…a lowered self-esteem, a sense of personal deficiency…[causing the person concern about doing prayer the right way].
  • We exert too much effort in making prayer “successful”
    • Houdek says that we may have a “…self-righteous approach to prayer predicated on the understanding that prayer is something one does and that, if one does it intensely enough, then God must respond.”
  • Exaggerated guilt can hinder growth and development in prayer
    • The directee recognizes the gap between proposed ideal behavior and actual performance”
    • What is the working image of God in this experience?  Most likely the demanding and judgmental God-parent.  
  • A pattern of moral disorder or real moral fault.
    • The person is aware that their personal behavior is destructive to oneself or others.  They’re doing life in such a way that is contrary to the love of God in their life.  

Houdek would say that these are very common difficulties that come to the surface in spiritual direction.  

For each difficulty, he offers some insights that are helpful in working through them.  I’ll highlight a few:

  • Find new styles, places, postures, to pray.
    • Prayer must be authentic to who you are.  You can sing, listen to music, meditate, pray in a group, do a prayer walk, charismatic prayer, scripture reading and prayer.
    • If you feel caught in a routine for a lengthy period of time that is not producing inner freedom and helping you to respond to the actions and initiatives of God, try changing up the prayer routine.
  • Discover and accept a clearer realization of God’s unconditional and unqualified love for you.
    • We need personal freedom from the constant and debilitating negative self-preoccupation.  (For some, it might help to pray with a spiritual director or trusted friend to remind them of God’s unmerited love).
  • How does a flower grow?  
    • By receiving sun and rain.  So too is success in prayer.  It’s a gift we received, something God is shining and raining upon us.
  • Practice some form of physical relaxation exercises such as breathing prayer, nature walks, contemplative prayer, art visualization prayer, or religious music to release rigidity towards prayer.  This will help lead a person towards more freedom and liberation from debilitating experiences.  
  • Concentrate on your values rather than ideals.
    • Too often, we can idealize our prayer lives.  “A focus on values and a concentration on commitment to value will gradually liberate the [person] from the tyranny of the ideal.”
  • Recognize the difference between feelings and morality
    • Feelings are morally neutral (and may point to a need to be attended to)
    • “It is how we choose to act that raises the issue of morality.”
    • Too often, we can deal with feelings of guilt in prayer over our “feelings” which are neutral.  Bring the feelings–anger, sexuality, guilt–into God’s healing presence.

Houdek says that “At best, prayer is always a matter of purity of intention by which every aspect and dimension of life is continually and consciously being redirected toward the living God.  It is the normal and ordinary response to the realization of God’s gifts to the person.  As this realization and awareness grows and takes hold of one’s consciousness–that God is gracious and constant in gift-giving– the [person] will pray more maturely and more responsibly, with considerable devotion, personal satisfaction, and spiritual consolation.”

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Contemplative Prayer

Obscurity and Deeper Longings

What do I long for? A sense of being whole, accepted, and in congruity with a true self that keeps calling out to me.

“For all of us, however, there are moments of dawning awareness, little cracks in our armor that reveal glimpses of our deeper longing and our true nature. We generally don’t like what we see there, because it forces us to admit we are fundamentally dissatisfied. We begin to see that the results of our efforts are not quite as perfect as we had hoped for. Perhaps the career we worked so hard to achieve is not as rewarding as we’d expected. Maybe the love relationship we thought would make us complete has become timeworn and frayed. Things that gave us pleasure in the past may now seem empty. Such glimpses occur in unique ways for each person, but they always happen. They happen repeatedly. Each time, they represent a twilight of the dark night of the soul.”

The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald May (p.64)

I can’t explain it. I only get glimpses of it periodically. This sense that there is a deeper true self buried in my soul. One that can access wisdom, love, and courage. One that has love for God and others at its core. One that embraces the self’s gifts as well as the limitations.

But I have to admit that I don’t truly live out of that place. I know something is calling me because of the irritable state I’m in. I’m not angry AT anybody per se. But I feel the disjointedness in our circles, in me. I can having this image of a deep cave underneath all the grass, dirt, and rocks. A beautiful place of life that is buried. But I hit walls to get there.

I sense God’s presence in that image. I also sense the anger is part of the digging and learning. And I intuit that the deeper longings are clamoring to be heard.

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Contemplative Prayer, prayer, self-care, spiritual formation

A Prayer of Desire by Thomas Merton

Source:

A Prayer of Desire by Thomas Merton

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

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Contemplative Prayer, listening, pastoral care, Pastoral Counseling, Pastoral Presence, Pastoral Theology, prayer

Listening: the art of Pastoral Presence

When I think about our work, I think of the God who listens.  He hears our cries, petitions, longings, and hopes.  In Jesus, we find the Good Shepherd making space for others to share their stories (i.e. Samaritan woman, the blind man at the pool).  We see them share specifics as Jesus asks poignant questions.

When we listen to the stories of others, we entering into a dialogue that is already happening with the person and God.  The Spirit is active, working to heal, save, and renew.  So as the people share, we are being invited into the work of the Spirit in their lives.  

  • Be attentive to the specifics.
  • Notice the words, pictures, thoughts.
  • What feelings are you most present to?  
  • How might the Spirit be stirring?

We learn to listen in silence and solitude.  We can only learn to listen as we take moments throughout the day to be still and know that He is God.  God spoke to Elijah in the silence.  Jesus got away to be with His Father…to listen.  

We can deepen our ability to listen through contemplative prayer—the prayer of active silence.  Try it for a few minutes in the morning.  See how it changes the inner contours.  See how you’re more attentive and able to listen.

In contemplative prayer, we silence the mind and heart of anything that is heavy, burdensome, and release it to the One who can carry it.  We even release all thoughts of good intentions, our gifts, and words so that we might receive the Word.  And it’s in receiving that we can then return to the world with a heart that is able to listen.

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