"Seeking Union with God" Online Spiritual Formation Program
Lesson #1: Discovering Our Ultimate Purpose
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Lesson #2: Our Ultimate Decision
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Lesson #3: An Introduction to Prayer
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Lesson #4: Meditation
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Lesson #5: Problems and Progress in Prayer
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Lesson #6: Growing in Holiness and Virtue
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Lesson #7: Renewing Our Mind
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Lesson #8: Your Own Spiritual Rule of Life
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Lesson #9: Stages of the Spiritual Life
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Lesson #10: The Mass and Sacraments
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Lesson #11: Loving God and Neighbor
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Lesson #12: Discernment
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End of Course

"Seeking Union with God"
Personal Spiritual Formation Program

Lesson #5:
Problems and Progress in Prayer

Why aren't some of my prayers answered?
Why can't I pray like I used to?
Why is my prayer dry?
How do I get over distractions?


"Eternal Trinity, You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find, the more I search for You. But I will never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more." St. Catherine of Siena

One purpose for meditation is to get to know God better so we can love God more. In meditative prayer we lift our hearts and minds to God. We spend some time thinking about God and His word, loving God, conversing with Him, and sharing the concerns of our heart, as well as making resolutions to act on what we learn.

Jesus said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” (Luke 8:21)

Other reasons for meditating on God’s word in Scripture are to learn more about how to live so that we can have the abundant life Jesus came to give us and to learn more about what is required to reach our ultimate purpose and happiness, which is God and Heaven.

In this lesson we will cover some problems that may come up in prayer at various stages of the spiritual life. If some of the sections of this lesson are not a concern or interest for you at this time, feel free to skim through them and focus on the subjects that interest you most. The reason for that is some of the problems deal with specific stages of the spiritual life, and you might not be facing these problems right now (for example, the transition between meditation and contemplation). Also if you have not had the experiences talked about they might be difficult to understand. On the other hand, if you are meditating regularly you might want to study them, as they will most likely come up at some point.

First let’s take a look at a common question regarding the prayer of petition.

Why aren't some of our prayers answered?

The Bible talks about many reasons why our prayers may not be answered. First, we know that Jesus encourages us all to pray for what we need and even what we’d like so that our “joy may be full”. He said, “Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7. And also, “Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full.” John 16:24.

God desires us to be happy because He loves us. And God is our Heavenly Father who can do all things. “Now to him who is able to do all things more abundantly than we desire or understand...” Eph. 3:20. So why at times do we ask and God sometimes doesn't seem to hear, or maybe He even says, "No"?

First of all, simple logic tells us that if there is a problem, the problem is not in God, since God is perfect. If there is a problem, it is either in what we are asking, how we are asking, or something in ourselves.

Some possibilities are that perhaps what we are asking is not the highest good for the situation. Or perhaps the time is not right. Or perhaps something is amiss in the way we are asking, our attitude or self. Or perhaps we are asking something that God has decided to allow people to decide for themselves according to their free will, such as when we pray for the conversion of others.

Even though our prayers for others are very important and we should pray for others, each person has free will and needs to cooperate with the graces and/or helps that God will send as a result of our prayers. (But even if we do not see immediate results, we should keep praying for the conversion of sinners and salvation of souls. Mary taught us to pray for these intentions at Fatima and the saints' lives testify to this fact also, that our prayers are important and do help others.)

In any event, God hears all of our prayers, knows everything and is all-powerful, so the problem is not on His end.

Some Biblical Reasons Why Some Prayers Aren’t Answered

First, let’s take a look at a list of problems from the Bible as to why our prayer might not be answered.

The reasons in the box below were taken from the Promise Keepers website at www.promisekeepers.org/prayer/problems:

The Problem with Wrong Relationships:
With God: "If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me." (Psalm 66:18)
With family: "Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them (wives) with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered." (1 Peter 3:7)

The Problem of Pride: "There they will cry out, but He does not answer, because of the pride of evil men. Surely God will not listen to empty talk, nor will the Almighty regard it." (Job 35:12,13)

The Problem of Hypocrisy: "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of streets, that they may be seen by men." (Matthew 6:5)

The Problem of Wrong Motives: "You ask and you do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures." (James 4:3)

The Problem of Lack of Forgiveness: "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, ten come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23,24)

The Problem of Lack of Compassion: "Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and will not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13) "...This is the fast that I have chosen...share your bread with the hungry, and bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked cover him...Then you shall call and the Lord will answer." (Isaiah 58:6,7,9)

The Problem of Failing to Forgive: "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, ten come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23,24)

(End of quote from the Promise Keepers website, a nondenominational Christian men's website at www.promisekeepers.org.)

Please note: In general, whenever I put a link to another website I am referring you only to a specific article at that specific link as something I feel has good information (and not necessarily to other information at other websites because I haven't reviewed all the material at the other websites).

More Reasons and Teachings on Prayer from Scripture

Praying with Faith: And in all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” (Matthew 21:22)

“Therefore I say unto you, all things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive; and they shall come unto you.” (Mark 11:24)

By the way God desires that we have faith, so if we lack faith we can pray for the gift of faith or for an increase in faith as the Bible says that faith is a gift from God. At the same time, faith is not forced on us and it is something we decide to accept.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17).

Praying with Thanksgiving and Expectancy: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7 NAB)

Praying with Others: Even though the Bible says to pray on our own at times, praying with others is also encouraged. “Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven. For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:19-20)

Praying with Perseverance: “And he spoke also a parable to them, that we ought always to pray, and not to faint, saying: There was a judge in a certain city, who feared not God, nor regarded man. And there was a certain widow in that city, and she came to him, saying: Avenge me of my adversary. And he would not for a long time. But afterwards he said within himself: Although I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow is troublesome to me, I will avenge her, lest continually coming she weary me. ["Avenge"... That is, do me justice. It is a Hebraism.] And the Lord said: Hear what the unjust judge saith. And will not God revenge his elect who cry to him day and night: and will he have patience in their regard? I say to you, that he will quickly revenge them. But yet the Son of man, when he cometh, shall he find, think you, faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

Praying and Keeping the Commandments: “And whatsoever we shall ask, we shall receive of him: because we keep his commandments, and do those things which are pleasing in his sight.” (1 John 3:22)

Praying in Jesus’ Name: “And in that day you shall not ask me any thing. Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you.” (John 16:23 ). “Because I go to the Father: and whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do: that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you shall ask me any thing in my name, that I will do.” (John 14:13-14).

Note: Some say that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray in the nature of the whole person, not just to add the phrase "in Jesus' name" onto the end of a prayer. Samuel Chadwick explained it like this: "To pray in the name of Christ is to pray as one who is at one with Christ, whose mind is the mind of Christ whose desires are the desires of Christ, and whose purpose is at one with that of Christ." Also to pray as Jesus would pray... Jesus came to do the Father’s will and if we want to be like Jesus, this should be our desire as well. Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.’ “ (John 4:34) So if we are praying in Jesus name and according to the Father’s will, we have every reason to believe that our prayer will be answered as we persevere in prayer. If it is not answered exactly how we asked, then we can be assured that if we desire God’s will, that whatever happens is for the greater good.

Pray According to God's Will:
“And this is the confidence which we have towards him: That, whatsoever we shall ask according to his will, he hears us. And we know that he hears us whatsoever we ask: we know that we have the petitions which we request of him.” (1John 5:14-15)

"And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38)

Jesus prayed: "Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done." (Luke 22:42)

God truly knows what is best for us and all concerned. When we put everything into His hands and pray, we can let God be in control to take care of everything in the His way (the best way) and His timing (the best timing).

The Problem of Suffering

Why does allow God suffering? When we know God answers some prayers and heals some people, why might not God answer all our prayers and heal us or a loved one that way we ask Him to? Why did God let someone we know and love die at a young age or get a serious disease? Why does He let innocent people suffer? All these questions get into the problem of suffering.

The short answer to the problem of suffering is that God allows evil so that a greater good can come from it. The greater good might be as remote as that fact that God gives humans free will so that we can be truly human and love (as free will is necessary for love). But in order to have free will we also have the free will to sin. It is through the free will of humans (and angels), that sin, suffering and death came into the world. Or the answer may be more specific to each situation.

Understanding why God does something is a matter of speculation as God is so infinitely above us that we can’t understand all about Him and His ways. However, as we try to understand God better, we can know that God has the best in mind for all of us. For example, we can speculate that God may allow someone to be sick or die early to prevent a greater evil, such as loss of one’s soul or a worsening of their condition if they were to live longer. “And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints.” (Romans 8:28)

Another possible reason might be that somehow the problem of disease or suffering is being used for a greater good, perhaps to bring someone closer to God. Some people when they are sick turn to God. Then when they became well, they have less devotion or even almost seem to forget about God. (Don't we often think about God and pray more when we are suffering. Like the saying goes, "There are no atheists in the foxholes.") So God can use suffering to bring us closer to Himself who is our greatest good.

Also perhaps God might be trying to remind us (or someone else) that this life is only temporary and perhaps very temporary. I was watching an interview on the World Over on EWTN television program yesterday with Laura Ingraham, a radio talk show host. She mentioned that her mother’s cancer and death was difficult for her, and it caused her to start asking questions and searching. Through people that came into her life, she found the Catholic faith. Then she got cancer herself, and yet she said about her own cancer: “It was a real gift, oddly.” Perhaps we have also noticed that some of the things that have caused suffering in our own lives, have also been catalysts for growth or blessings in disguise in various ways.

On reflection of my own life I’m beginning to feel that life is a lesson. As soon as I seem to learn one thing, it seems that a new lesson comes along. And yet I know from Hebrews 12:6-7, “For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct?” So if I want to become the person God made me to be, I think it would be wise if I accepted God’s "chastisements" in my own life.

Also we can choose to accept and even embrace the suffering in our life as our cross because we follow Jesus. "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him, but also suffer for His sake." (Phil. 1:29). Jesus's' cross caused Jesus great suffering, but it was the means for something good (our salvation). So also our own sufferings can be a means to bring something good into the world. One of the Saints, I think it was St. Camillus de Lellis, said something like, “When you do a bad thing with pleasure, the pleasure passes and the bad remains. When you do a good thing with pain, the pain passes and the good remains.”

Offering up sacrifices and our sufferings goes along with what the Blessed Mother asked us to do at Fatima (and other approved apparitions) when she asked us to offer sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. Later, Our Lord told Lucia (one of the Fatima seers), “The sacrifice required of everyone is the proper fulfillment of his duty and the observance of My Law; such is the penance that I now ask for and require.” If we do penances or mortifications and accept the sufferings that come our way and offer them up, we can make them into a prayer. We can also offer them up as a penance for our past sins. Some of the Saints even desired to suffer because they saw good coming from their suffering.

Despite all these possibilities, we do know that Jesus said to ask and we shall receive. Jesus came to save us from our sins. God wants us to ask, and he wants to answer our prayers. It is okay to ask God for relief from suffering especially if it is not something we can accept in peace. For the most part we know that God wants to give us "our daily bread" and necessities and to be at peace. God wants us to be happy. Jesus came to give us his peace. “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.” (Romans 12:21)

Catechism of the Catholic Church #1505, "Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: 'He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.' But he did not heal all the sick. His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover. On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the 'sin of the world,' of which illness is only a consequence. By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.”

One more thought on suffering and death, even Lazarus who was raised from the dead and all the other people Jesus healed, eventually died and probably got sick again. We know that this life has sufferings, and even Jesus and Mary were not exempt from suffering. This life is not our destiny but rather the life to come, so let’s do what we can to prepare for that while we have the time and opportunity to do so. Also this life (if we make it to Heaven) is our only opportunity to suffer for Jesus and others.

If interested in more on this subject, you might like to read Mother Angelica’s thoughts on the value of suffering from the EWTN website (www.ewtn.org) here and/or Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter from the Vatican website(www.vatican.va): Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian meaning of Human Suffering)

Prayers for Material Blessings

One thought about praying for more money or even to be rich is to ask ourselves if it would it really be good for us. “And again I say to you: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:24). God isn’t going to give us something that is not good for us. When we have a lot, sometimes we forget that it is God who has blessed us and start to trust in our wealth instead of in God. And this can apply to putting our ultimate faith and trust in people also. We need to put all our faith and trust in God first and foremost, and be good stewards of the gifts God has given us. It is the love and trust in money, and not money itself, that is the problem.

Jesus said that our Heavenly Father would provide for all our needs. “So do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?' or 'What are we to drink?' or 'What are we to wear?' All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matt 6:31-33)

Have you ever noticed that God sometimes seems to give us just what we need today as we need it? I think sometimes He likes to remind us that He will provide and that He is in control and not us. We might even tell ourselves that we aren’t strong enough to do something, and then when the time comes we find that we can do it with the help of God’s grace. Or we might worry about something as being too difficult and then we don’t have to do it after all. This applies to others as well. We don’t know the graces they are being given to get through the difficult things in their lives. We might be very upset that someone we love is suffering, and it is good to pray for others, but we do not know that this suffering God is allowing is really helping the person in some way.

“I speak not as it were for want. For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content therewith. I know both how to be brought low, and I know how to abound: (everywhere, and in all things I am instructed) both to be full, and to be hungry; both to abound, and to suffer need. I can do all these things in him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11-13)

Why do we have to ask?

Someone sent in these questions: "We know that God knows what we need, and what is best for us, so why would I pray for some gift for myself or for others? If it were something God wanted for me or for them, wouldn’t he give it without asking?”

One thought on this is that God does give us many things without asking every day, but He desires that we ask for some things in order to receive them. Why? Here is a homily on this question if interested.

Ever feel angry at God?

Sometimes people say they are angry at God. Perhaps something bad happened to them or their loved ones or their prayers have not been answered as they hoped for. For example, a single person might pray for a spouse and yet they are still single. A married couple might pray to have a child and yet one isn’t coming along. Someone might pray for more money, but they don’t get the job promotion or the new job they were hoping for.

One thing to ask ourselves if we are losing our peace about a situation in our life is whether we are seeking God's will or our own. We might want to consider that God might have something else even better in mind than we could even imagine. How do we know for sure what God's plans are or that tomorrow won't bring what we so long for?

If we are praying that our will may be done and isn't happening when we want it to, we may lose our peace or get angry at God. We might stop to consider that maybe what we are praying for may not be God’s will. In fact, we might even want to consider that God might say "yes" to our request if it is basically good even though it might not be the best just because we want it so much. Ever hear the saying, "Better watch out what you pray for as you just might get it?” Rather than pray for our will to be done, it seems much better to pray that God’s will be done as Jesus taught us to do in the Our Father, Reflect for a moment on this quote from St. Teresa of Avila, "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones."

Also maybe God does desire what we desire, but there is something He'd like to teach us, and if He gives us what we want right away, we won't learn it. God's ultimate desire for us is that we and others become holy and the best person we can be. God desires our ultimate happiness. But to get there we might have to face some suffering and contradictions just as Jesus and the Saints who have gone before us.

Also when other people are involved, perhaps what we are praying for is not somehow for their best. We might think it is, but we don't really know. We must be patient in prayer. If we pray for someone to come to God and be converted, we can know that is for their best. But like St. Monica, we have to keep praying and not give up. Also it is good to pray for the gift of perseverance for ourselves and others.

Praying for others is called "intercessory prayer”. Besides our loved ones, we can, as Jesus instructed, include those who persecute us and even our "enemies” (who might even just be someone who irritates us). St. Monica as you probably know was the mother of St. Augustine. She prayed for many years for his conversion while she watched him living in sin. Her prayers were answered, he was converted and eventually became a Saint and Doctor of the Church. We can imitate her perseverence in prayer for our own loved ones.

Even though our efforts cost us something, we can know this: "Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy. Those who go forth weeping, carrying sacks of seed, will return with cries of joy, carrying their bundled sheaves.” (Psalm 126:5-6)

Problems with Meditation and Growing in Prayer

Distractions in Prayer

Most people who pray regularly have some problems with distraction in prayer. Here is a definition from Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary: “DISTRACTION: A drawing of the mind away from a predetermined subject to another. Distractions in prayer may be voluntary or involuntary. They are voluntary when not enough effort is made to keep one's mind on the presence of God. Otherwise, no matter how frequent or prolonged, they are involuntary. Voluntary distractions are venially sinful. The essence of a sinful distraction, however, is not in the mind's attention being withdrawn from any particular thought in prayer, by in not paying attention to God.”

And here are some more thoughts on distraction from www.newadvent.org website which sponsors the
Catholic Encyclopedia (1918):
"Distraction (Latin distrahere, to draw away, hence to distract) is here considered in so far as it is wont to happen in time of prayer and in administering the sacraments. It hardly needs to be noted that the idea of mental prayer and mind-wandering are destructive of each other. So far as vocal prayer is concerned, the want of actual interior attention, if voluntary, will take from its perfection and be morally reprehensible. Distractions, however, according to the commonly accepted teaching, do not rob prayer of its essential character. To be sure one must have had the intention to pray and therefore in the beginning some formal advertence; otherwise a man would not know what he was doing, and his prayer could not be described even as a human act. So long, however, as nothing is done outwardly which would be incompatible with any degree whatever of attention to the function of prayer, the lack of explicit mental application does not, so to speak, invalidate prayer. In other words, it keeps its substantial value as prayer, although, of course, when the dissipation of thought is willful our addresses to the throne of mercy lose a great deal of efficacy and acceptability. This doctrine has an application, for example, in the case of those who are bound to recite the canonical Office and who are esteemed to have fulfilled their obligation substantially even though their distractions have been abundant and absorbing. Voluntary distractions, that is the conscious deliberate surrender of the mind to thoughts foreign to prayers, are sinful because of the obvious irreverence for God with Whom at such times are presuming to hold intercourse. The guilt, however, is judged to be venial. In the administration of the sacraments their validity cannot be assailed merely because the one who confers them fails to, here and now, think of what he is doing. Provided he has the required intention and posits the essentials of the external rite proper to each sacrament, no matter how taken over he may be by outside reflections, his act is distinctly a human one and as such its value cannot be impugned. Such as state of mind, however, when it is willful, is sinful, but the guilt is not mortal unless one has thereby laid himself open to the danger of making a mistake in what is regarded as essential for the validity of the sacrament in question."

St. Teresa of Avila said that vocal prayer without lifting our thoughts to God is not really prayer at all. "You must know, daughters, that whether or not you are practicing mental prayer has nothing to do with keeping the lips closed. If, while I am speaking with God, I have a clear realization and full consciousness that I am doing so, and if this is more real to me than the words I am uttering, then I am combining mental and vocal prayer. When people tell you that you are speaking with God by reciting the Pater Noster [Our Father] and thinking of worldly things, well, words fail me. When you speak, as it is right for you to do, with so great a Lord, it is well that you should think of Who it is that you are addressing, and what you yourself are, if only that you may speak to Him with proper respect. How can you address a king with the deference due to him, or how can you know what ceremonies have to be used when speaking to a grandee, unless you are clearly conscious of the nature of his position and of yours?" Way of Perfection, Chapter. 22

For some tips on dealing with distraction as well as other problems that come up in meditative prayer read the following:

Optional Reading Assignment: Problems, Promises, Perseverance

Problem with Wandering Minds

Optional Reading Assignment: St. Teresa of Avila describes how to recollect our thoughts in Way of Perfection, Chapter 26. She says, "O sisters, those of you whose minds cannot reason for long or whose thoughts cannot dwell upon God but are constantly wandering must at all costs form this habit. I know quite well that you are capable of it because for many years I endured this trial of being unable to concentrate on one subject, and a very sore trial it is. But I know the Lord does not leave us so devoid of help that if we approach Him humbly and ask Him to be with us He will not grant our request." Read the rest of her advice on this problem
here. She describes the prayer of recollection in Chapter 28 and 29 here.

St Teresa at times had difficulty concentrating on prayer as well. Something she found helpful was to use visual images such a religious statue or picture to remind her of Jesus. Also she used a book to help her meditate.

Changes in our Prayer Life might not be Problems

Sometimes people just can't pray like they used to, the rosary for example. Also some people tend to build up a lot of devotions, like saying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, various novenas and other prayers. While all this is good and part of the "active life" of what we voluntarily do on our end to seek union with God, there is also something higher. The higher thing is infused prayer such as when God gifts us with contemplative prayer. We need to recognize this if it is happening so that we can set lesser things aside to receive the greater thing. Anything that God grants us in our personal prayer time is greater than our own efforts can attain, and we should set aside our own prayers while God is gifting us with a higher form of prayer.

St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila (Doctors of the Church) would advise that we meditate when we are able to. They would also advise us to set aside our meditation and devotions, if while we are doing them, God is gifting us with the prayer of infused contemplation. Contemplation is a term that can have various meanings, but St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross have something specific in mind when they talk about contemplative prayer. Meditation can also have different meanings, but we are talking about Christian meditation as described in Lesson 4.

St. Teresa of Avila (From Chapter 30 of Way of Perfection):
"If it were not that you would tell me I am treating of contemplation, it would be appropriate, in writing of this petition, to say a little about the beginning of pure contemplation, which those who experience it call the Prayer of Quiet; but, as I have said, I am discussing vocal prayer here, and anyone ignorant of the subject might think that the two had nothing to do with one another, though I know this is certainly not true. Forgive my wanting to speak of it, for I know there are many people who practice vocal prayer in the manner already described and are raised by God to the higher kind of contemplation without having had any hand in this themselves or even knowing how it has happened. For this reason, daughters, I attach great importance to your saying your vocal prayers well. I know a nun who could never practice anything but vocal prayer but who kept to this and found she had everything else; yet if she omitted saying her prayers her mind wandered so much that she could not endure it. May we all practice such mental prayer as that. She would say a number of Pater Nosters [Our Fathers], corresponding to the number of times Our Lord shed His blood, and on nothing more than these and a few other prayers she would spend two or three hours. She came to me once in great distress, saying that she did not know how to practice mental prayer, and that she could not contemplate but could only say vocal prayers. She was quite an old woman and had lived an extremely good and religious life. I asked her what prayers she said, and from her reply I saw that, though keeping to the Pater Noster, she was experiencing pure contemplation, and the Lord was raising her to be with Him in union. She spent her life so well, too, that her actions made it clear she was receiving great favours. So I praised the Lord and envied her her vocal prayer. If this story is true, and it is, none of you who have had a bad opinion of contemplatives can suppose that you will be free from the risk of becoming like them if you say your vocal prayers as they should be said and keep a pure conscience. I shall have to say still more about this. Anyone not wishing to hear it may pass it over."

What is "infused contemplation” according St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross?

Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his book, Fire Within, tells us that infused contemplation is "a wordless awareness and love that we ourselves cannot initiate or prolong." He goes on to say that in the beginning of receiving this contemplation we might not recognize it but that it is common for those who are following the Gospel wholeheartedly and have an "earnest prayer life." He tells us that for St. Teresa of Avila, contemplation is an experience of God's presence and an "intimate sharing between friends", a being alone with God Who loves us.

St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila mention some of the following characteristics that can be part of infused contemplation: "unintelligible peace", "calm and repose of inner quietude", "refreshment", "loving, substantial quietude where nothing is understood particularly and which they like to rest", "serene, limpid light", "secret and peaceful inflow of God", "burning fire of love". Also, as one grows in contemplation it can become very strong until one is "dying with love of Him". St. John of the Cross says that a person in a spiritual sense "will be aware of the delight of love, without particular knowledge of what he loves." And this knowledge will be a new way of knowing, "a wisdom so simple, general and spiritual" and it will be a loving knowing, "a loving light and wisdom" received from God. It will also be transformative.

What comes to mind is St. Teresa of Avila's quote: "The important thing is not to think much but to love much." That is the reason for prayer, to love God much. In contemplation God is helping us to experience that love and also letting us experience a little of what it is like to be close to Him. There is an old definition of contemplation also, "I just look at Him and he looks at me." This Bible verse also comes to mind, "Be still and know that I am God."

In any event we are talking about problems in prayer. I brought up this short introduction to contemplation because sometimes what seems like a problem might not be a problem, but God starting to grant us infused contemplation/mystical prayer where we are unable to meditate as we were formerly..

Making Progress in Prayer

The following is from a book I wrote,
How to Pray the Rosary as a Pathway to Contemplation.

When we first pray as a meditation and/or conversation with God, it might seem that we are doing most of the talking. As we persevere in making the effort over time, our inner spiritual senses will become more attuned to God, who will interject his thoughts and inspirations into our minds and hearts as we pay attention to him. If we experience God’s action in our prayer, we can stop talking or meditating, and listen and experience what God is doing. As time goes on perhaps we will be almost unable to continue the vocal prayers or meditation because our attention is being drawn to just be silent in God’s presence and experience what God is doing. The Bible says, "Be still and know that I am God.” This inability to meditate, when we would usually be able to, is one of three signs that God may be beginning to give us the gift of contemplation according to St. John of the Cross.

Transition from Meditation to Contemplation Explained

St. John of the Cross, in Ascent of Mt. Carmel (Book 2, Chapter 13:1-4), gives us instructions on how to recognize the transition from meditation to contemplation. He says, "The first sign is his realization that he can no longer meditate or reason with his imagination, neither can take pleasure therein as he was able to do before; he rather finds aridity in that which before would captivate his senses and to bring him sweetness. But, for as long as he finds sweetness in meditation, and is able to reason, he should not abandon this, save when his soul is led into the peace and quietness which is described under the third head.” (See the third sign below.)

"The second sign is a realization that he has no desire to fix his mediation or his sense upon other particular objects, exterior or interior. I do not mean that the imagination neither comes nor goes (for even at times of deep recollection it is apt to move freely), but that the soul has no pleasure in fixing it of set purpose upon other objects."

"The third and surest sign is that the soul takes pleasure in being alone, and waits with loving attentiveness upon God, without making any particular meditation, in inward peace and quietness and rest, and without its own acts and exercises of the faculties of memory, understanding and will... The spiritual person must observe all of these three signs together in himself, before he can safely abandon meditation and sense, and enter that of contemplation and spirit.”

St. John of the Cross gives us an indication of when meditation is to be set aside for contemplation. (He mentions also that unless we have begun to experience this we may not understand. So until such a time as we do understand, we can keep meditating and leave it up to God.)

St. Teresa of Avila says a lot about this as well. Her instructions are that we are to remain receptive if God grants us this gift of infused contemplation. But she also says that if God does not grant this, then we are not to sit there for extended periods doing nothing, trying to force something to happen. Instead we are to pray or meditate actively as we can while being attentive to any communications from God. If the Lord takes the initiative, then we remain receptive to what he is giving while he gives it. If not, we pray as we can.

In her book, Interior Castle, Fourth Mansions, Chapter 3, St. Teresa’s explains, "What we have to do is to beg like poor and needy persons coming before a great and rich Emperor and then cast down our eyes in humble expectation. When from the secret signs he gives us we seem to realize that he is hearing us, it is well for us to keep silence, since he has permitted us to be near him and there will be no harm in our striving not to labour with the understanding – provided, I mean, that we are able to do so. But if we are not quite sure that the King has heard us, or sees us, we must not stay where we are like ninnies, for there still remains a great deal for the soul to do when it has stilled the understanding; if it did nothing more it would experience much greater aridity and the imagination would grow more restless because of the effort caused it by cessation from thought... The second reason is that all these interior activities are gentle and peaceful, and to do anything painful brings us harm rather than help. By 'anything painful’ I mean anything that we try to force ourselves to do; it would be painful, for example, to hold our breath. The soul must just leave itself in the hands of God, and do what he wills it to do, completely disregarding its own advantage and resigning itself as much as it possibly can to the will of God. The third reason is that the very effort which the soul makes in order to cease from thought will perhaps awaken thought and cause it to think a great deal. The fourth reason is that the most important and pleasing thing in God's eyes is our remembering His honour and glory and forgetting ourselves and our own profit and ease and pleasure. And how can a person be forgetful of himself when he is taking such great care about his actions that he dare not even stir, or allow his understanding and desires to stir, even for the purpose of desiring the greater glory of God or of rejoicing in the glory which is his? When his Majesty wishes the working of the understanding to cease, he employs it in another manner, and illumines the soul's knowledge to so much higher a degree than any we can ourselves attain that he leads it into a state of absorption, in which, without knowing how, it is much better instructed than it could ever be as a result of its own efforts, which would only spoil everything. God gave us our faculties to work with, and everything will have its due reward; there is no reason, then, for trying to cast a spell over them ... they must be allowed to perform their office until God gives them a better one.”

St. Teresa tells us that contemplation isn’t brought about by a certain technique. Rather it is a gift that God grants when and if he wills. If there is something we can do to dispose ourselves to receive this gift, it would be to be faithful to God in prayer, loving him above all things and doing his will. In this way, contemplation is more a result of focusing on God in a self-forgetful way than focusing on prayer techniques, such as trying to keep our minds empty (such as in nonrecommended nonChristian methods) or other such things.

Following God’s lead

So the advice is to keep praying in a way that we can and to follow God’s lead. While praying, God will enlighten us more and more. If we notice the Lord initiating something, we will want to pay attention. We don’t want to miss or dismiss God’s communications to us. If we have a set time for prayer and our time is used up praying contemplatively, and we didn’t finish our rosary or other prayers, we have prayed well. The goal of prayer is union with God, not to finish a set amount of prayers. When and if God decides to initiate, our job is to remain receptive rather than trying to force ourselves to meditate or finish vocal prayers. (An exception to this may be obligatory prayers like the Office for religious.)

When we give ourselves to God, God gives us what we need at each moment to become the person he wants us to be. The Bible says we are all sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But God calls us to be made perfect with the help of his grace.

Dry times in prayer

Besides the times in prayer when God seems so close, there are also times when God seems to be silent. Dry times at prayer are part of our growth as well. If God seems to remain silent or prayer seems dry, God is calling us all the more to make the effort to persevere in prayer, whether it be just sitting there in his presence or actively meditating.

We might also want to reexamine ourselves to see if we are putting God first in our lives. We can’t serve both God and mammon at the same time. (Matt 6:24)

Consolations in prayer are great joys, but we are to seek the God of joy and not the joys of God. It is a subtle distinction, but the dry times reveal our intent. If we seek only good feelings, we will give up prayer when we don’t feel something. If we seek God, we will discipline ourselves (with the help of grace) to do God’s will over our own comfort. It is a battle against our own will, but just as we often have to force ourselves to exercise our bodies to be in shape, so we need to discipline ourselves to be in spiritual shape. We want to have be reasonable in setting our prayer times, however, not doing too little or too much for our situation.

God desires that we grow in virtue and holiness. There is also spiritual warfare which means the devil struggles against us when we try to do good. God is in control and only allows what will ultimately be good for us and our sanctification.

A desert-like experience can also accompany contemplative prayer. We may experience purifying action to get us ready to be united with God in a more profound way. We need to be purified from our sins and inordinate attachments in this life or the next before we are ready for union with God.

"In times of aridity when I am incapable of praying, of practicing virtue, I seek little opportunities, mere trifles, to give pleasure to Jesus; for instance a smile, a pleasant word when inclined to be silent and to show weariness. If I find no opportunities, I at least tell Him again and again that I love Him; that is not difficult and it keeps alive the fire in my heart. Even though this fire of love might seem extinct I would still throw little straws upon the embers and I am certain it would rekindle."
St. Therese of Lisieux, "The Little Flower"

Articles on Dryness and Aridity in Prayer:

The following three articles are from the EWTN website at www.ewtn.org:

Optional Reading Assignment:
Dryness in Prayer by Mother Angelica

Optional Reading Assignment: Aridity by Fr. William Most

Optional Reading Assignment:
Prayer - Persevere in Dryness by Fr. Miguel Marie Soeherman, MFVA

Determination to persevere

The important thing is to persevere and seek God above all else. St. John of the Cross instructs us to live by faith alone. He tells us to focus on the honor and glory of God rather than on spiritual experiences. He says not to pay much attention to spiritual experiences: if these are from God, they will have their good effect, and if they are not from God, they can mislead us. If we do what faith demands, we will continue (with the help of grace) to get closer to God. We will form habits that make prayer and serving God easier and a delight over time. God has the capacity to be our greatest happiness, for who is like God? If we have God and remain in his grace, he will give us everything we need besides. If we don’t have God, nothing else will completely satisfy us, because we don’t have the ultimate good who is God.

Initially, and maybe for years, prayer may seem like an effort on our part. Be assured that even if we don’t feel anything, things are happening when we make the effort to pray and be in communion with God. St. Teresa of Avila mentions that God often works secretly within and reveals his work at some future date to show us what he has been doing all at once.

One last thought, the way we can tell if we are praying well is if we are growing in virtue over time. We might not be able to see our relationship with God, but the sign of growth, according to St. Teresa of Avila, is an increase in love of our neighbor. She says that love of neighbor, detachment and humility are what we need most to grow.

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