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.”

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.  

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.

Morning Mess

Don’t write or talk until there has been time allotted to silence and solitude, prayer and reflection, lament and repentance. The mind and heart may not know what truth and love really are.

If I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is check my messages or jump on social media, I lose the magic of a subconscious that has been released through sleep, dreams, and rest.

But if I can overcome the temptation of social media stimulation and messages, then I may have a chance at entering into Presence and peace.

There are too many inner demons that are trying to distract and deter me. I need to hear the Voice of Love and Truth. Especially in the morning when it feels like there’s a fresh start at life.