Everyone who prays has to admit that we fail a lot in the task of praying. There are lots of times when we just don't pray. We don't do it.
Those of us who do spiritual direction know that we are not alone in this. "How is your prayer life?" is a question that often gets the answer "Oh, I feel so bad. I just haven't been doing it. I know I should, but I just haven't gotten around to it." (or, "I haven't made the time", or "I just can't seem to manage it" or whatever version we can find to describe our dilemma).
I admit it: this is definitely part of my life. I hear it a lot from other people, and I experience it in myself. More times than I would like to admit, my prayer life consists of not doing it.
There, I've said it.
Why? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? That's what I've been thinking about lately. What is the real reason here? I have a real urge to prayer. I'm a monk for God's sake! What are my excuses? What are the excuses that I hear from others? When I don't get around to it, what's going on?
There are a lot of different things here, but they fall in some definite categories. I could do this whole blog by listing reasons I've heard or said, but I don't feel like doing that. Instead, I'll give you three of my favorites, with some commentary.
I'm too busy.
This is a great one. It's very popular, and I hear it all the time. I even say it with some frequency. This is especially popular with Americans. Americans really love being too busy. We complain about it, sure, but we wouldn't be without it. It's part of our national character. I've heard it said that we are the only society that actively admires addiction to overworking. It may be killing us, but we love it. We derive a sense of importance from being too busy to pray. Being too busy indicates that "they" can't do without me and my work.
And there's the rub. There's a lot of emptiness underneath this one. We have to be too busy or we might not be important. Who are we if we aren't too busy? And prayer steps right in the middle of it here, because prayer involves sitting down and (gasp!) doing nothing. It deals with this excuse by facing it head-on. There's a sort of irresistible force meeting an unmovable object here. Being too busy is irresistible. Prayer is the unmovable occasion that puts itself directly in the way of this force. It forces us to examine just why we are too busy. And that is an examination that few of us want to make.
But it's an important examination. It may, in fact be crucial - even a matter of life and death. What are we doing to ourselves? That's what God asks us to face. What changes do we need to make? That's the big one.
I don't want to pray. or I don't feel like it.
Often this one isn't said directly, at least out loud. Usually there are other excuses offered. But when you get down to it, there is a lack of will or interest. We think we ought to have enough motivation to pray, but in fact, we don't. We may even think it's shameful to be this way, which is why we often don't say it to anyone, but there it is. It doesn't feel good, but we're stuck with it.
What to do? From my point of view the first thing to tackle is the sense of guilt. We're unlikely to get to the bottom of this one if it's feeding off our sense that we are "bad" or "wrong" because we feel this way. This is going to go around in circles, feeding on itself, until we can bring ourselves to just look at it. Forget the self-judgment. Can the guilt. This is just a fact. We're uninterested. Or we don't have the energy. Or whatever. It's just that. Not a judgment, just a reality. Once we get there we can look at it. What does it feel like? Where did it come from? Is there anything underneath here? The answers may not be evident right away. This is something that can take a good deal of patient observation. Don't worry. This is an examination that is a really good use of prayer time. Just take your lack of motivation and look at it, feel it, ask it a few questions. And then pause and see what the answer is. If it's silence, be patient. It may take some time for the situation to emerge.
Something is about to emerge.
This is often the result of the two situations discussed above. Being too busy and discovering that we just aren't going to pray can be important symptoms; symptoms that something is coming down the road to meet us. We often understand intuitively that something is coming up for us before we actually know what that agenda is. And our sense that something from down in our unconscious is about to rise makes us uneasy, jittery, unable to settle. No one likes to have their cage rattled and so we usually react by trying to keep things just as they are. So, prayer becomes more difficult. Sitting quietly and just letting God do as God wants to do with us is an open invitation for change; sometimes major change. And when we sense major change approaching we can do anything from getting nervous to shutting down altogether.
You get through this with the same attitude that gets you through so much else in the spiritual life: no judgment, no recrimination. If you can't, you can't. If you look carefully enough you can tell the difference between "I can't" and "I won't". "I can't" needs to be honored. I had a period of several months some time ago when the only way I could meditate at all was to get up in the morning, have my shower, make a cup of tea and then crawl back into bed with some spiritual reading. The tea, the gentle book, and some slow rumination was all I could manage, and then only if I was lying down. Honoring that managed to keep things moving forward gently until the time finally came that I could do something more focused. It turned out to be some old stuff - memories emerging from the far distant past, stuff I no longer need and that was ready to come out and go on its way, leaving me lighter and freer within. But I had to let it have its way before I got there.
Times when prayer and meditation are difficult or impossible can be very important transitional times. But for us to get the message that they always contain we have to approach them as though they were teachers; teachers who have come from far away or deep within to let us know what is coming next. It's really easy to get impatient or angry with ourselves when we fall into these behaviors, but treating them as enemies or sins is usually unprofitable. I try to remember the watchwords of my meditation teacher - no judgment, no recrimination. Difficult times can be wonderful teachers if they are welcomed as situations that just may be full of possibilities. Quietly facing them with questions such as "What's here for me?" or "What am I to learn here?" or just "What's this?" keep us facing in the right direction and keep us open. That's what's needed - an open heart. That will take us into the mystery that is unfolding.