There comes a time when God appears to change. This may happen many times in a life. It is not so much that God feels distant or absent, though this may also be the case. It is more that you look for God in the usual place, or you think of God in the usual way, and this no longer seems to work. The usual is no longer satisfying, or now seems childish or naïve, or has become intellectually lacking. It is not that you no longer want God. It is not that you no longer want to pray. It is that you thought you knew and now you are not so sure.
When I was a chemistry teacher in the early 1980s, a few students to whom I taught GCSE decided to continue into ‘A’-level. In GCSE we had learnt about the atom and its electrons, and employed valency theory to talk about how atoms combine to form molecules. When we advanced to ‘A’-level, I introduced them to molecular orbital theory. One of the students asked, “Does this mean what you taught us last year was a lie?” It is a great question. I talked for a bit about models: no one really knows what is going on; each theory is a way of explaining experimental data; valency theory is not wrong or a lie, but molecular orbital theory embraces and explains more of the data.
Science proceeds by experiment. Hypotheses are proposed and a theory is developed. As more experiments are performed, some data are gathered that do not accord with the theory. In the end, the discord undermines the status quo and a new theory is developed that includes the new data. The old theory may still be good enough for some situations. For example, Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are thoroughly fit for purpose when describing the motion of a car, an aeroplane, or spaceship, but they are expanded by Einstein’s theory of relativity for objects travelling at velocities closer to the speed of light.
Between the old theory and the new, there is a period of chaos, confusion, deconstruction, disputation, uncertainty, and shifting sands. What seemed clear and complete has been revealed as limited and transitory. Things fall apart.
Everyone is a theologian – the most ardent believer, the most vociferous atheist, and all of us in between who wonder and question. All have working models, ideas, images, and theories about God, all of which are inadequate, none of which will ever be The Truth.
To pray is to open ourselves to surprise, to new data, to new thoughts and sensations, to new experiences. This sounds attractive. But to pray is also to open ourselves to the undermining of images and ideas to which we have become attached. Our grip upon what we cling to is gradually loosened. This can be confusing and lead to uncertainty. We can feel lonely, scared, and adrift. We worry that we are at fault, inadequate, or doing something wrong.
- relish using a daily office but it has grown into a deadly dull recitation
- speak to God in words but they grow trite
- connect with God whilst walking in the park but now it is just grass and flowers
- are used to a back-and-forth conversation but God has gone silent
- practise self-enquiry but now we are bored with ourselves
- make a lot of intercessions but now this is a mere list
- adhere to certain church doctrines but which now seem narrow or pat
- journal but now we have run out of words
- love relating to God as Father but now He seems remote
- pray with the gospels but Jesus has left us to pray alone
- look at an icon but this has grown static and stale
(This is far from a comprehensive list! What are your experiences?)
We have a choice: do we continue to hold on to our certainties or do we let go into the unknown? Do we stick with what we know or do we try something new? The difficulty is that there is a gap. If we let go of what we know, then what? What to put in its place?
Perhaps this is what John of the Cross means by a dark night of the soul. The phrase is often taken, incorrectly, to mean bad things are happening in life. But really, ‘dark’ just means obscure. Something is going on, God is at work in us, and we don’t know what is happening. We are ‘in the dark’.
The dark night is a profoundly good thing. It is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely. Sometimes this letting go of old ways is painful, occasionally even devastating. But this is not why the night is called “dark”. The darkness of the night implies nothing sinister, only that the liberation takes place in hidden ways, beneath our knowledge and understanding. It happens mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control. For that reason it can be disturbing or even scary, but in the end it always works to our benefit.Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 4-5)
So what can help? Put nothing in its place, yet. Guard the betwixt and between space. One possibility is that a new and better way of relating to God is being offered. To keep doing what you have always done, or to cast about looking for a replacement, is to try to control a process that is not in your gift and to miss a possibility you cannot come up with on your own.
In the meantime,
- Go back to your foundational experiences of God [like this and that]. What can you hold to that remains true even now? What can you continue to trust?
- There is a story that St Francis of Assisi would pray in the night when he thought others were asleep. His repeated prayer was, “Who are You, Lord my God, and who am I?” God, closer than we are to ourselves, is unknowable. We are a mystery to ourselves. Come to God with this paucity of knowledge and, in your own way, ask for light.
- St John of the Cross asserted that, in the end, we cannot know God. What we can do is to trust and love God. Trust and love are the means by which we know God. This reverses the usual way of things. Usually, it is when we come to know something or someone that we grow to love them (or not). Here, it is only through love and trust that we can come to know God.
Something is going on. We do not know what. There is nothing we can do to push the process along. We can, however, remain alert, attentive and receptive, and keep the door open, ready to welcome.
4 thoughts on “When prayer stops working”
Thank you Julian, wise words. The bit I’ve kept is about all of us being a theologian. Helpful to me when I come up against incomprehensible books. May I quote you in my next essay? Sarah
Thank you, Sarah. Yes, please do. Julian
Avoiding my usual prayer practice this morning, your blog opened my dialogue again. Thank you! Yes – I’ve run out of words to journal [new insightful ones at least] and yes – I am very bored with myself though I plod on with the Examen
What if Love is the end – ie God – and Trust is the means – ongoing infinite but ultimately unrequited in this life?
Thank you, Julia. “Love is the end … and Trust is the means.” Beautifully put. Julian