Q: Father John, I have been praying (mental prayer) for a long time. But lately I seem to be experiencing dryness in my prayer - I just don’t seem to get as much out of it as I used to. Is this the “dark night of the soul”? If not, what’s going on, and what should I do?
Dryness in prayer is the contrary of consolation (the sense of satisfaction that God gives our emotions, imagination, intellect and will when we encounter his truth, goodness, and beauty). Dryness is the absence or lessening of those consolations, either every once in awhile, or for long periods of time. And the Catechism identifies dryness as one of the key obstacles in prayer. But we won’t be able to understand how to deal with the obstacle unless we understand, at least a little bit, what causes it.
Dryness in prayer surfaces for one of two reasons: because of us, or because of God. Let’s start with the first reason.
When the Going Gets Tough
When we aren’t making a reasonable effort to do our part in the quest of prayer, dryness happens because of us. At times in the spiritual life, especially (but not only) at the beginning, God sends frequent and intense consolation to our souls. It is like a courtship, and he is courting us. He sends us flowers, gives us candy, takes us out on beautiful dates (in the spiritual sense). He is trying to convince us of his goodness, wisdom, and power. He is trying to win us over. As our relationship deepens, we realize that following God involves not just getting good gifts from him, but giving him the gift of ourselves. This we do through obeying his commandments and his will, through following his example, growing in virtue, building up the Church, loving our neighbor… All these things, since they are based on our desire to grow in our friendship with the One who is calling us, takes an effort on our part. We have to freely choose to respond to God’s action in our lives; it’s not automatic (if it were automatic, it wouldn’t be a relationship of love, or friendship).
As this journey continues, we sometimes grow weary. We begin to hanker after the “onions of Egypt,” as the Israelites did during their sojourn in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. We long for an easier life, for the pleasures of self-indulgence, for the seductive comforts and passing gratifications that thirty pieces of silver can purchase for us. Moments like these are crucial for spiritual growth. They give us a chance to mature our love for God, to grow up a little bit more. But the tug of our fallen nature, egged on by the glitter of popular culture and the twittering of the devil on our interior homepage, is strong.
One reaction that we can have in these times is to begin simply going through the motions in our prayer life. On the surface, we are continuing with the same prayer commitments that we have always kept, commitments that have the blessing of our spiritual director. And yet, we start fulfilling them in a routine way, not making a concerted effort to concentrate on our vocal prayers, for instance, or not carefully following the method of our mental prayer. We get careless. We don’t prepare the material for our meditation ahead of time. We don’t guard our interior silence during the day. We cut off a couple of minutes now and then from our meditation, or toy with involuntary distractions instead of putting forth the necessary effort to deflect them… Sometimes this diminishing effort is extremely subtle, even subconscious. Sometimes it is glaringly obvious: we are avoiding looking into God’s eyes because of an un-repented and un-confessed sin (dishonesty, infidelity, impurity, disordered ambition, willful consent to self-righteous anger or envy…). Whether subtle or flagrant, slacking off in our reasonable efforts to pay attention to God when we pray will often inhibit us from hearing his voice. Not always, because God can make himself heard even when we’re not listening, but almost always.
When our inbox is overly cluttered, we lose motivation to roll up our sleeves and get to work, so we procrastinate or look for busy-work to distract ourselves. This inhibits us from experiencing the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, from meeting goals and following objective priorities. Likewise in the spiritual life. When we hit a steep section of the road as we’re following Christ, we can stray off to the side, take a rest, or even go looking for a shortcut, though we know very well that our Lord is standing on the upgrade beckoning us forward. Until we get back on track, we won’t be able to experience the consolation God has for us, because we won’t be meeting God (the source of consolation) where he is waiting to meet us.
Think of a gymnast who reaches a plateau in her training. Her coach knows that she needs to maintain the same effort that she was putting out while she was making visible, rapid progress. But she starts getting discouraged, precisely because her progress isn’t so rapid and visible at the moment. If she trusts her coach and perseveres, soon she will be beyond the plateau, achieving higher levels of excellence and experiencing the satisfaction that goes with it. The coach can encourage her, but in the end she has to decide if she will keep putting forth the effort, doing her part.
The First Question
So this is the first question we need to ask ourselves if we are experiencing dryness in prayer: Am I still doing my part? Or has some un-confessed sin or subtle self-pity - or just plain laziness (be humble) - drained my efforts? To find an objective answer to that question, it is often helpful to go over our prayer commitments with our spiritual director, to describe how we are praying the Rosary, the Mass, the meditation, the morning offering… It can also be useful to go over the basic guidelines of prayer again, e.g. reading The Fundamentals of Christian Meditation from the first section of The Better Part. (For your convenience, I have included a checklist below that can help remind you of what doing your part in the daily meditation entails.)
If you discover that, indeed, you have been slacking off a bit. Don’t be afraid! Bring it up in confession, and then make some small adjustments to your commitments that will help motivate you to get back in the swing. For example, change the book you are using to help you meditate, or the place of your morning prayer, or the time of day, or buy yourself a new Rosary… A fresh start can be sparked without these kinds of external tricks, but they can sometimes help.
If, on the other hand, after a calm and objective self-evaluation, you are convinced that you are still making a reasonable effort to do your part, then the dryness you are experiencing probably isn’t because of you, it’s probably because of God. Next time, we will talk about why God sometimes withholds his consolations. (By the way, I keep saying “reasonable effort” because that’s all God asks of us. Some people tend to think that if their effort isn’t perfect in every way, it isn’t reasonable. That’s not true. God knows we are not angels.)
…[from "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer"]… On any given day, then, measuring whether your meditation went well or badly is not so easy. Your meditation may have been quite pleasing to God and full of grace for your soul even when it was unpleasant and difficult from a strictly emotional perspective. An athlete may have a great practice session even though it was painful and frustrating - likewise with a daily meditation.
The best we can do is to give some indicators below. The most important thing, though, is simply to keep striving to pray better. Speak about your prayer life in spiritual direction and confession, and trust that if you are sincerely doing all your best, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
My meditation went badly when I…
Didn’t plan ahead regarding what material I would use, when and where I would meditate, turn off my cell phone, etc.
Simply gave in to the many distractions that vied for my attention
Let myself fall asleep
Skipped over the first step, Concentrate, or did it sloppily - how can my prayer go well if I am not keenly aware of God’s presence?
Didn’t humbly ask God to help me and to give me whatever graces I need to continue growing in my spiritual life
Spent the whole time reading, thinking or daydreaming, and didn’t stop to ask what God was saying to me and to respond from my heart
Tried to stir up fuzzy feelings and intense emotions instead of conversing heart-to-heart on the level of faith
Didn’t renew my commitment to Christ and his Kingdom at the end of the meditation
Shortened the time I had committed to without a really important reason
My meditation went well when I…
Actually fulfilled the commitment I have made to spend a certain amount of time in meditation every day
Faithfully followed the methodology in spite of tiredness, distractions, dryness, or any other difficulty, or if it was impossible to follow the four-step method, I did my best to give praise to God in whatever way I could throughout my meditation time
Stayed with the points of consideration that struck me most as long as I found material there for reflection and conversation
Was seeking only to know and love Christ better, so as to be able to follow him better
Made sure to speak to Christ from my heart about whatever I was meditating on (or whatever was most on my heart), even when it was hard to find the words
Was completely honest in my conversation - I didn’t say things to God just out of routine or because I wanted to impress him with my eloquence; I told him what was really in my heart
Made a sincere effort to listen to what God was saying to me throughout the time of prayer, seeking applications for my own life, circumstances, needs, and challenges
Finished the meditation more firmly convinced of God’s goodness and more firmly committed to doing my best to follow him faithfully
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Fr John Bartunek, LC, STL, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990, graduating cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. He entered the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He has since received ecclesiastical degrees in philosophy and theology and worked in youth and college ministries. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, Inside the Passion, the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He has appeared on Larry King Live, Hannity and Colmes, and the Laura Ingraham radio show. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. Fr John currently resides in New York, where he is engaged in doctoral research and continuing his writing apostolate.