When It Hurts to Pray

palmsDuring the season of Lent, many times we start out with the best of intentions. We want to sense the presence of God in our lives. We long to encounter Christ at Mass or at Adoration. We teach our children, and rightly so, that God loves it when we pray.

And yet, this longing often goes unsatisfied. Depending on what is going on in our lives, God can seem very distant. It happens to all of us at times. It even happened to Mother Teresa, as her friend Father Brian Kolodiejchuk revealed in the book of her private letters and other writings that was published after her death in 1997, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta.’  He wrote of Mother Teresa:

“The smile that covered a ‘multitude of pains’ was no hypocritical mask. She was trying to hide her sufferings – even from God! – so as not to make others, especially the poor, suffer because of them. When she promised to do “a little extra praying & smiling” for one of her friends, she was alluding to an acutely painful and costly sacrifice: to pray when prayer was so difficult and to smile when her interior pain was agonizing.”

For Mother Teresa, joy was an act of obedience. Prayer was her daily sustenance. Now, I am no Mother Teresa; there have been times when I found it difficult, if not impossible, to pray. And yet, even in those moments, God lavished amazing graces upon me, until I became thankful even for the darkness that pushed me relentlessly toward the light.

I remember a time in my life, on a short-term mission trip to Poland, when I found it difficult to pray because of anxiety. As the leader of my team of nearly 30 college students (half American, half Polish), I had been responsible to get the group to the rendezvous point in Frankfurt Germany at the end of the trip. But as the weeks went on, the trip fell apart. Our accommodations fell through at the height of the tourist season. Our Polish team members were unable to obtain visas. We lost our “chaplain,” the only member of the team who spoke fluent German (which we needed to communicate with our Hungarian bus driver). Our interpreter, whose wife was six months pregnant, had to return home prematurely. Somehow we made it to the meeting point – where the director of the sending organization chastised me for “allowing” team members to discuss the gifts of the Holy Spirit with each other. I couldn’t believe my ears . No apology. No acknowledgment for how difficult the trip had been. Just, “You should have handled this.”

The injustice of this man’s silly accusations ate at me, and I became depressed, a combination of exhaustion and outrage. Returning home, I went back to the non-denominational “mega-church” I had attended and felt my prayers bouncing off the ceiling. Had God had abandoned me, too?

Weeks went by, going to church with a plastered smile, and returning home feeling empty and utterly alone. One Sunday, walking toward my church I passed a little mission-style Catholic parish, and decided to sneak in. I didn’t know anyone — frankly, at that point it was a good thing, since I didn’t want anyone to know where I was. But as I sat at the back and breathed in the aroma of incense and beeswax, my shoulders relaxed … and I knelt down to pray knowing that — in the last place I expected it — I had God’s attention.

Long story short, about a year later, I stood with my sponsor at the front of that sanctuary and received the sacraments. That was 22 years ago, and I will always be grateful to the people of Holy Family Catholic Church, who welcomed this little Prodigal Daughter, and patiently led her back to God.

Are you in a place right now where praying is hard for you? Are you in difficult circumstances, unable to see a way out? Do you pray, and feel your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling? Do you feel like a fraud in your faith community? Take heart. Listen to the assurances of another great saint, Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you.

All things pass away, God never changes.

Patience obtains all things.

Whoever has God lacks for nothing. God alone suffices.


Heidi Hess Saxton is the author of Lent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Servant).



40-Day Challenge: Longing (Day 18)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Do you ever feel lonely in your marriage? I think most of us feel a bit isolated and disconnected from time to time. There have been times when I’ve wondered whether I should have stuck with my original plan (the one I was forming just before I met Craig) and joined a cloister – at least then there wouldn’t be so many socks to pick up.

What I only recently recognized was that even women religious feel this way about their Spouse – in the book Come Be My Light characterizes the life of Blessed Mother Teresa with two predominant themes: service and loneliness. This woman, who had poured out her entire life in service of the poor, even she felt a dark night of the soul that stretched on not just for days, but for years.

For married love, a memorable example may be found in the story of Abelard and Heloise. Heloise was a precocious teenager when she fell under the spell of the thirty-something troubadour-philosopher. When she became pregnant, Abelard proposed a secret marriage (secret to prevent ruining his academic career). Heloise’s uncle retaliated by announcing the union . . . then having Abelard castrated.  Heloise was sent away to have her baby, then consigned to the cloister by her beloved husband.

She went, but not happily.  The passion poured out of her (in Latin, no less) in her correspondence with her husband: “For I often come with parched throat longing to be refreshed by the nectar of your delightful mouth and to drink thirstily the riches scattered in your heart. What need is there for more words? With God as my witness I declare that there is no one in this world breathing life-giving air whom I desire to love more than you . . . “ (Heloise, Early Letters, 23, as quoted in James Burge’s Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography, 49).

To say that Abelard did not respond as she’d hoped is something of an understatement. The message was clear:  I don’t want to talk about it – that chapter is closed. In time, “the silence of Heloise” has become synonymous with strong emotions unrequited and unexpressed.

Today’s challenge:  That Heloise sure had a way with words. What would your husband do if you “borrowed” her sentiments and slipped a note in his lunch bag? (Or, if you have a pretty good memory and dramatic flair, and can pull it off without giggling, recite them one night after the kids are in bed!)

Today’s prayer: “You, O eternal Trinity, are a deep sea into which, the more I enter, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I seek. O abyss, O eternal Godhead, O sea profound, what more could you give me than yourself?”  (Catherine of Siena). 

Photo credit:  Abelard and Heloise (image by Edmund Blair Leighton)