Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
It is a terrible experience not to be able to settle to prayer. To pick up the Bible or a Prayer Book and have no inclination to open it and on opening it find the words meaningless chewing gum for the mind; going round and round and extracting nothing from them. It is awful, to experience something more than the usual distraction, to feel a knot of despair, a huge weight of darkness or a burning sense of frustration.
I am not writing here about an experience of emotional or spiritual dryness in prayer. I am not even talking about prayer being boring, dutiful and routine – that is altogether something different. I am talking about the experience of organizing oneself to pray – sitting or kneeling down in a preferred place and simply not being able to stay. It is more like experiencing submission in a wrestling match. It is a sense of resignation. God has become a threat.
You are fortunate if you have had nothing like the experience I am trying to describe. If you have, take some comfort from the fact that it is not at all unusual. There are several reasons that ‘prayer block’ can occur, but I offer you one scenario that might be helpful to a few readers now or in the future. One cause is spiritual and mental fatigue; this is not the kind of fatigue that would produce sleep. The fatigue I mean is the sense of being thin and stretched; when one’s whole being is in tension and stress. To come to prayer is impossible because there is too much tension, too many interior drivers to keep going.
If this is the cause, then take ‘prayer block’ as a serious warning. It means there is a real need to stop, to rest, to eat, and to be re-creative. My experience is that when one becomes over-reliant on self and on one’s own capacity to work a way through tasks, the first thing that breaks down is a pattern of prayer. This is because prayer, even in its simplest and most curtailed form, is recognition of dependence on God. It is the recognition of relationship. If one is in a situation where, little by little, all responsibilities and decisions are made without reference to God, prayer becomes impossible -the self has become all-consuming and begins to consume the true self which can only be liberated and sustained by the grace of God.
Having recognized and heeded the warning signs, there are several simple strategies to follow. The first is to use the body to pray – re-direct the tension into repeated bowing or prostration in the Lord’s presence or focus on describing slowly and deliberately the sign of the cross from the floor by your feet to the crown of your head and across the whole width of your body. The second is simply to call out a name of God, or to use the Jesus prayer – this can be done with particular attention to the breathing. The third is to use the imagination to make real the invitation of Jesus: ‘Come to me, learn from me – my load is easy’, and let oneself be held in the arms of the Lord. Seek rest in his embrace. Remember the Lord is always watching and waiting for us to seek or knock.