Why prayer is hard

Delicate is not a word that people often associate with God. Strong, loving, nurturing perhaps, but not delicate. In addition to sounding precious and far more feminine than many people are comfortable with, it is also a word that suggests fragility and by implication weakness. Nonetheless, while it may be too much to say that God is Himself delicate—He is after all the Lion of Judah who roared all of creation into being—it is completely fair to say that the way that we relate to God in a fallen world is delicate.

Sometimes waiting on God will make you sweat. It is possible to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours and be completely unable to focus. That danger is even greater if you are trying to pray and reach out to God in your home, at work, or while driving a car. Distractions abound. And just at the moment when you finally sense God, just as quickly you may lose it, like a bubble that pops the second you touch it.

Knowing God takes work. This ought to be a fairly obvious thing to reason out. Knowing anyone or anything takes work. You can neither learn math by simply putting a textbook up close to your head nor build an intimate and close friendship without ever inviting someone into your life. Why would it not be the same with God? Yet we often assume that it should be. We expect knowing God to be easy and obvious. Many people who say they want to know God turn and walk away the first time they realize that it is going to be hard.

Distractions are not the only difficulty either. Even the most committed monks and ascetics find it challenging to stay in and with God throughout prayer. It can be overwhelming to be in His presence and aware of Him. Sometimes we reach for the distractions as a defense mechanism because the full weight of really knowing God is too much to carry.

Why all the difficulty? It is, at least in part, because when we pray we are essentially trying to hold lava in a paper cup. It is easy to forget the radical otherness of God, especially because as Christians we sometimes take  the Incarnation for granted. But really, if we understood the implications of the miracle of God taking on flesh, we would be in constant fear and awe. God is so much more powerfully real than we are that Moses could not be permitted to see anything but His hindquarters lest he die. Almost every encounter with an angel in the Scriptures begins with human beings falling down in fear because the glow of the angels is so overpowering simply because they have been in the presence of God. Yet today we expect there to be not the least bit of friction when, as sinners and weak creatures, we ask the God of the universe to speak directly into our hearts and minds.

Of course, God wants to be with us. The good news of Jesus is rooted in that truth. The Sacraments communicate the full reality of God to us by the most ordinary and unobtrusive means. The Eucharist particularly makes it possible for us to take the full reality of God in the person of Jesus into us, His Body given into our bodies, His soul and divinity touching us deeply, regardless of whether we feel it or not, or whether we are distracted, or whether we are in the mood for it. In that sense, knowing God is easy. All we need to do is show up.

But even if we are rooted in the grace of the Sacraments, there is still a longing in our hearts to know God further in prayer. We want to feel Him, to know He is present. It is a natural desire, but it is not something that can be forced. God is not a high we can induce or a tame pet we can invite onto our laps. He is sovereign and moves as He will. But His desire is to be with us. He delights in knowing us and He delights in us reaching out to know Him.

God does the heavy lifting when we pray. We stress over finding the time to pray, fighting back the distractions, and focusing our minds. We think that means we are working hard. But think about all that God must overcome in order to enter into a place of intimacy with us in prayer. His Holy Spirit has to traverse the great gap that exists between us and Him. He has to make it possible for the paper cups that are our hearts to be able to hold the lava. Everything we do seems like small potatoes in comparison with that.

We cannot be fully aware of the fact that God loves us all the time, at least not on this side of eternity. If we were so aware, we would never be able to do anything but be struck dumb in adoration. We would not be able to drive our cars or brush our teeth or pay our taxes. But the more room we make in our lives for quiet prayer, the more that the realization of God’s love begins to color and shade even those moments of profound boredom or sadness that mark our lives. The more we pray intentionally, the more the whole of our lives become offerings of prayer.

Creating the space for adoration is tough. There is no way of knowing before we begin how God will show up to us or if He will even show up at all (at least in a way that we recognize through our limited perception). Yet the need for such prayer is deep in our hearts. We need to learn the art of prayer, to adjust ourselves to receive that which God has for us. The most difficult things we do in life are often those which yield the greatest rewards. Prayer is the most difficult thing we will ever do, but it is only when we give ourselves to prayer that we really begin to live.

8 thoughts on “Why prayer is hard

  1. Rodney Ford

    Hi Jonathan,
    I hear your Catholic now. So welcome. Liked your article and I was remembering reading you when we were both Anglicans (I converted 3 years ago).

  2. Focus is a key word here, going through RCIA classes now (although they have stopped now but will resume soon) I have a hard time with this, work seems to creep in, thoughts of the day, arguments with the wife concerning Catholicism and what she feels is wrong (she’s protestant ) get in the way so my the focus is not always on God, but please pray for my wife and me to tell her about the faith because she said she would NEVER be Catholic, but I’m praying hard

  3. Reading this article was enlightening, stresses of the day creep in, work and arguments with the wife concerning the Catholic faith ( she’s protestant, and told me that she would never convert) ALWAYS creep in my mind. Not being able to go to adoration as much as I would like, being focused is a key word, I hope to be more focused, thanks for the article

    1. I’m glad you found the article helpful. It is hard to be with God when we have a lot of things coming at us at once. A wise nun once told me, “If you can’t get your day’s activities out of your head when you’re doing Morning Prayer, then pray your calendar.” I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Whatever is happening while you are praying–whatever you’re thinking about or going through–rather than trying to ignore it or shove it away to get to God, maybe try using all of it as a means back to God.

  4. Neil

    Hi Jonathan,

    Several years ago, after many years in the secular wilderness, your earlier blogs helped me to regain some of the faith of my youth (Church of Ireland).

    I discovered your writings while searching the web in an effort to make some sense of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. At that time, I still had quite a few of the usual Protestant hang-ups about much of Catholic doctrine and practice (being from Ireland these hang-ups were emotional and deeply in-grained).

    Over the years I’ve continued to enjoy your postings, and because of your recommendation I read Bishop Barron’s book “Exploring Catholic Theology”. I’d never heard of Bishop Barron before but while reading that book it was as if light and colour flooded my faith.

    Since then I’ve also entered upon the path to full communion with the Catholic Church (which in my case is a lengthy RCIA course!). So, thank you for the role you played in my conversion and I’ll continue to pray for you and your family!

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