I have struggled off and on in my prayer life. There are days when I really enjoy praying and others when I’m not really in the mood to sit and participate in a typical prayer experience. Of course defining that typical prayer experience can be a difficult job quite honestly.
Ruth Haley Barton in her book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation that “prayer is all the ways in which we communicate and commune with God.” I think she is right. Prayer is like the relationship you have with your spouse. Some days you talk and talk and talk. Other days just being in the same room is a wonderfully intimate moment. A relationship requires diversity and since prayer is a process of leading us into relationship and communion with God, our prayers and our praying should be diverse.
Early in our spiritual lives, many of us experience intimacy with God through the words we say to Him. We begin to talk to God as if he were in the same room and one of our good friends. This is a process of self-disclosure and self-revelation. In doing this, we often sound out our own fears and failures, our hopes and dreams, and what we think about life. It is stimulating, revealing, and encouraging.
Then we begin to read what others have to say about God. He begins something to be studied. We read and reflect on the truth and mystery of God. This is an exciting and stimulating time as well.
But there comes a time when in the whole praying process that we have been doing just doesn’t work any more. Our praying dries up. Our prayers seem like they stop at the ceiling. We may think we can try harder and do more but nothing seems to work. This is especially difficult when those periods of dryness are extended periods. It seems we seem to have no control over what does or does not happen in our relationship with God.
This period can be especially difficult. We may get angry with God about his perceived absence. We can get confused. We may wonder what sin we have committed that would keep us from connecting and relating to God. Somewhere in all this we may just come to realize that we do not know how to pray at all.
This experience, according to Barton, signals a “major transition in the life of prayer and thus in our relationship with God. It signals an invitation to deeper levels of intimacy that will move us beyond communication, which primarily involves words and concepts, into communion, which is primarily beyond words.”
Barton notes several signs that we are transitioning to a new phase in the life of prayer:
1. What you are doing isn’t working, no matter how much effort you put into it.
2. Your desire for God continues to be strong even though you have no desire for anything external – works, images, previous structures for prayer, including the scriptures. Words fail. The hunger for intimacy-to just hang out with God-is all there is.
3. You find yourself enjoying being alone, aware of God’s presence without structured activity.
This transition can be a scary place. It requires us to let go of what we have known and open ourselves us to something new and mysterious.
This is part of the formative process. It is God moving us into the quiet spirit of contentment with Him alone. It is a fight and a struggle. It is a period of wrestling with our understanding of God, of leaving behind the framework we have developed and letting Him construct a relationship that is ever-growing, ever-trusting, and ever-evolving.