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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pastoral care, spiritual disciplines, spiritual formation, spiritual transformation

Prayer Personality is Real


In all of my years of following Jesus (Christian spirituality), the theme of deserving or proving that I am good enough to be loved by God is a constant in my readings and struggling in my own life.  It is a battle, una batalla.  Why is it so hard to receive and experience the unconditional love of God?  

In prayer, God is inviting us to experience the presence of love.  

“All we need to do is to be open and available to the undeserved and unreserved love that God has for us…In prayer the true self can emerge because the person is loved and accepted without condition or qualification.”

Guided by the Spirit: A Jesuit Perspective On Spiritual Direction

Prayer is a means to experience the love of God.

Prayer is a means to meet our true self that is loved and accepted without condition or qualification.

To be liberated then is to uncover and discover the true self as we experience the tender and fierce love of God for us.  

Prayer will become more unique to each person, much like a fingerprint is unique to each person.  No one person prays the same because there is no one else like you.  We might be comforted and learn from the way others pray.  But God’s love compels us to discover the unique way we respond to God’s initiatives in our lives.  

My prayer life is a lot like my daily relationships and life.  I like to have conversations with others where there is a time to listen and a time to share, a time to ask questions and a time to make statements.  A time to laugh, cry, or sit in wonder.  I see a counselor and we have deep and great convos.  I hang out with my wife and we talk about anything that’s on our minds and hearts.  We also argue.  I like to be outside of my house and breathe under the sun.  I like to plan and think about the future.  I like to dream.  

This is also how I pray.  It’s very dynamic, emotional, and honest.  

“Prayer is God’s revelation in the joys, pains, moods, and day-to-day ordinary events of life.  All this and more forms the stuff and substance of prayer…Prayer is a gift from God.  It does not create God’s presence or make God any more loving or available.  It simply helps one to become more aware of the various creative ways that God is already present and active in one’s life.  It consists not so much of what we do, but how much we allow God to do, to act in and through us, to gift us.  Prayer is an awareness of God’s constant and loving presence and action.”

Guided by the Spirit: A Jesuit Perspective On Spiritual Direction

This paradigm flips the whole notion of prayer on its head.  Some like the “roteness” of a schedule to pray.  It’s part of their personality.  And in some seasons of life, it will be needed.  Others like it to be much more dynamic and fluid.  Whatever someone’s prayer personality is, the one truth needed is that prayer is God’s primary effort. 

God is wooing us to pray.  We just ask for the gift of grace to become aware and respond.  

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pastoral care, spiritual disciplines, spiritual formation, spiritual transformation

Spiritual Formation: on Evasion

“Evasion is directly related to both the closeness of God’s approach to us and to our instinctive withdrawal from God‘s presence. Experiences of God as mystery evoke awe, even fear, in the face of the numinous and uncontrollable otherness of God….T.S. Elliot [says]… ‘if you’ve never run away from God, I wonder who your God is.’”

Janet K. Ruffing, Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings
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pastoral care, prayer, self-care, spiritual disciplines, spiritual formation, spiritual transformation

A Reflection on Death, Abundance, and Compassion

Today’s scripture readings have a few themes:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120617.cfm

  1.  Death
  2.  Abundance
  3.  comfort/compassion

Death

In my late 20’s and early 30’s, I struggled with panic attacks.  I had an immense amount of anxiety about dying.  This manifested itself in different ways, mostly through a fear of getting sick or having a heart attack.  A few factors contributed that I could think of.  One, I was a new father.  We had Christopher and David a year apart and I was pretty nervous about not being present or available to them.  This had symbolic meaning to me as a fear of abandonment.  I didn’t want to abandon my kids and see them struggle without a father and I also had to cope with my own fears of being left fending for myself.  Two, I was just starting to work as a corporate chaplain and the stories I was hearing were very overwhelming.  Three, lack of self care.  I wasn’t eating, sleeping, or exercising very well.  The result?  Panic attacks.  

Here’s what helped me:  

  1. Talking with a therapist.  I was able to talk about the pain of being abandoned and how much it hurt.  It helped me realize that, while I felt abandoned, I could learn new ways of parenting myself so that I’d know that I can handle whatever life might throw my way.  In spiritual terms, I learned that I was never alone and that the Higher Power (Jesus) would be with me.  Growing up latino and in a pentecostal home, seeing a therapist was a taboo because we were taught that we really didn’t “trust God”.  That was nonsense!  🙂
  2. Self-care.  For me, this meant getting 8 hours of sleep, staying away from fast food and greasy food, and cycling.  I took up road biking, lost 20 lbs, and felt great. I also started making time to take regular retreats throughout the year.  I have to plan them in advance and then stick to them.
  3. Community.  I needed more friends in my life that I could go to eat with, go to concerts, and just be silly and laugh.  I needed connection and deep friendships.  

Abundance

We grew up with not a lot of money so I developed a fear of not having enough.  It’s driven many of my financial decisions.  But as I think about life and God, the scripture is clear that God thinks in terms of abundance, not scarcity.  I’m not talking about or promoting a “prosperity gospel” where abundance is the sign that God loves you and that you are more special than others.  But God does care about abundance and wants to lack no good thing.  I’d be very wary if someone used this to try and make a case for materialism or consumerism.  That’s just bad theology.  I’m talking about being able to have an attitude and heart that is at rest with what we have and isn’t ruled by “stuff”.  Fear of not having can be very costly.  And it usually doesn’t get us what we really want. 

Comfort/Compassion

In each reading, there is provision and comfort for the hungry, the needy, and the sick.  Death is overcome.  Sickness is healed.  And there is a feast of table for all people.  Jesus has compassion on the crowd.  Some are sick.  Others are hungry.  We read about a God who cares about the daily stuff, about the burdens that we carry.  He is not a god who sits by idly.  Jesus is engaged with the people and is about making wrongs right.  

I’m not sure I wholeheartedly believe that God is that compassionate.  I feel like have to earn his abundance and comfort.  I feel like if I don’t perform well as a disciple, I will be mistreated.  When I feel this way, I look at a picture of my sons or a picture of “little Roy” and imagine how much God loves us.  I want to trust that love from a Heavenly Father who is in heaven, and yet breaking into my world to transform my heart and mind.  This the concept of grace at work.  This energy, favor, love that God bestows is His hearts’ disposition.  

Questions for Reflection

*What are you most afraid of these days?  Can you tell God about it?

*Where do you feel like you are lacking?  Ask the Great Shepherd to lead you beside still waters and restore your soul.  

*How might God want to comfort you today?  Tell him where the pain is.

Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name.
May your new life fill us afresh.
May you cause to see how you are abundant in our lives.
May you have compassion on us.

Amen

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