Should I pray when I’m not feeling it? I don’t know about you, but that’s a question I’m asking right now.
In the past couple of years, I’ve committed myself to a daily prayer routine based on the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. There are days when I feel the presence of God and my prayers crackle with emotion and power. But I have to be honest, I go through long stretches when it all feels forced and mechanical and my prayers are as dry as dust. I journaled these lines when I was in one of those spiritual deserts.
sometimes the divine fades to routine
and the sublime slips to machine
and I find myself
communing with no one
with prayers echoing inside my head
but it is my own voice that answers
The God I reach for
is a god I made
I’m trapped inside
with a god that cannot save
Sometimes you reach a point in your life when God doesn’t speak. When you sit down to pray, there is no one on the other end of the phone. So what do you do when your attempts to pray become a lifeless going through the motions? Should you stop?
There was a time when my answer was ‘yes’. I think it is because I, along with a lot of Americans, have bought into the notion that anything that is truly ‘spiritual’ is spontaneous, natural and mind-blowing. If you would have asked me about a spiritual highlight in my life, I would have told you a story where God’s presence was felt suddenly, quickly, strongly and out of nowhere.
But my understanding of spirituality was challenged the other day when my friend, Mark Gelinas, brought an article to our elders meeting called “When God seems far away“. In this article by John Ortberg we are introduced to a young girl named Agnes.
From the time she was a young girl. Agnes believed. Not just believed: she was on fire. She wanted to do great things for God. She said things such as she wanted to “love as he has never been loved before.”
Agnes had an undeniable calling. She wrote in her journal that “my soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.” She experienced a union with God that was do deep and so continual that it was to her rapture. She left her home. She became a missionary. She gave him everything.
And then he left her. At least that’s how it felt to her.
Agnes went on to a life of service, but for 50 years God’s felt presence was absent. Save for one brief moment, it never returned. But Agnes kept going and dedicated her life to the God she missed and the poor she so dearly loved. She recently died and the darkness never lifted, in this life anyway. We all know Agnes, but by a different name. Agnes when she entered her life as a nun became Mother Theresa.
John Ortberg expresses my own journey better than I can. “I’m learning to distinguish spiritual vitality from simply being in a good mood.” A good prayer life or a powerful church service is not measured by the intensity of the experience. God will make his presence known when He chooses to. We can’t manipulate Him. The danger with set times of prayer is not that we will often pray without feeling, it is our belief that by regular reading the Bible and praying God owes us a “spiritual high.”
The great saints, the spiritual giants that we admire, were not those who went from one spiritual high to the next. It was those who kept plodding when all the lights went out who are the true heroes. That is what it means to pray with heart and with love. A husband learns what true love is about when he remains faithful when the fires of romance have cooled. A mother experiences true love when a child is in a coma and she serves him even when the child is unaware of her acts of love and does not respond. Love, which is the heart of true Christian spirituality is not about how I’m feeling. It is resolve to cling to the object of love no matter how dark and cold it gets.
John 6:67-68 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”