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

Progression of Desires

During my training as a spiritual director, I was fascinated with how much Ignatian spirituality was focused on exploring desires. It’s one of Jesus’ primary questions: “What do you want?” This was life changing for me because we are basically a big mess of desires! And who doesn’t care deeply about their desires, their wants!

I don’t know this for sure but it may be that Dallas Willard “borrowed” his VIM language (vision, intention, means) from Gerald May. Here’s Jane Ruffing explaining how we deepen in our desires with God:

Gerald may describe a simple progression that begins with desire, moves to intention, and ends with control. He writes: “Desire is wanting something, longing for some satisfaction. Intention is claiming the wanting, consciously owning it, and choosing to seek satisfaction. Control is what we are able to do to make the satisfaction happen. “

Janet Ruffing, Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings

*Desire (Vision): wanting something, longings

*Intention (same): claiming the want, owning it

*Control (Means): what we are able to do to make it happen

Spiritual disciplines help foster all three movements of this progression. It could be that a discipline helps us to come in contact with our desire. Or that it helps us to keep saying YES to intention and desire. Or the discipline is focused on the action part.

All of this is most helpful in a setting where it can be discerned and processed with someone (or a group) such as a spiritual director.

Here’s my picture drawings of how I envision this:

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pastoral care, Pastoral Counseling

When Popular Messages Leave Us Feeling Empty

Many of the messages that I hear in certain church settings are based on “getting your best life” or “fulfilling your purpose/potential/call”. I think we have purpose, potential, and a call. Yet why do they seem to leave me feeling empty? I’ve reached some potential/call/purpose, but it’s not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

“This is your season” messages may not leave room for losses so the message is preached yet again for a lifetime, like a constant loop (i.e. “It’s your season…”, “A season of favor is upon you…”, “you’ll reach the nations…”) .

There will come a time when Jesus will have to be enough.
There will come a time when deep intimacy with Jesus, self, and others is more than enough.

Contentment with our current state is a good spiritual discipline to cultivate in our hearts.  What’s also helpful is grieving losses as part of the life cycle.

As we grieve losses, we can trust that God will resurrect new ways of being that are more commiserate to our stage of life/faith. We may have to practice more contentment or forgiveness; learn to give rather than receive; learn to be fully present to God/self/others and not just our wants/needs.

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