There are times when it can be agonizingly difficult to turn to prayer. You’re tired, or you’re busy, or, dragged down by guilt from previous failures, you’re simply immobilized by reluctance. And there are other times when you’ve made the effort, put aside the time – but wind up just staring blankly into nothing, unable to form any kind of prayer. Why can prayer be so hard? Weren’t we promised that turning to God would be rest for “all who labor and are heavy-laden”(Mt 11:28)?
Well – yes. And it is. But as with all the great mysteries of the faith, it is so with a paradoxical twist. Prayer is both a source of rest, strength, and peace – and, at the same time, the hardest thing in the world.
On the one hand: if your prayer is hard work, you’re doing it wrong. If you agonize and struggle because you’re distracted, because you can’t think of any profound insight, because you can’t feel God’s presence, then you’ve bought into a subtle but dangerous mistake. The essence of this mistake, as explained by James Huntington in his book, The Work of Prayer, is the belief “that we must be saints in order to pray”! (40) On the contrary: “prayer is the way to become saints.” (40) As fallen creatures, we could never even begin to pray on our own. So instead, God does us for us. Each time we pray, it’s actually the Holy Spirit who is at work in us, praying within us and giving us the desire to pray. In the words of St Paul: “[F]or we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Prayer comes to us as a gift. And God grants it to us “not because we deserve it, but because we need it” (39-40).
In other words, prayer is not our work. It’s God’s work. So set aside any feelings of frustration or inadequacy when it comes to “not being able to pray”. None of us can; only God can. That’s the point. Have confidence in that – and instead of worrying about the quality of your prayer, simply allow yourself to rest in God’s presence.
That said, at the same time, “We could not pray at all unless we had the will to pray. It is just the offering of our wills that opens the way for the Holy Spirit to plead within us.” (48) This little thing, our act of will, is the one thing we can offer God. While God’s grace does all the work of prayer, it is ours to make ourselves open to God speaking to us, through us, and in us. The difficulty lies in getting past our own self-centeredness first. Essential to authentic prayer is self-denial, for “the heart of all prayer is ‘Thy will be done’” (105). That self-denial exists anywhere from simply setting aside the time and making ourselves available to God, to persevering through dryness in prayer, and allowing that prayer to radically transform our lives. As Huntington writes: “Prayer is the hardest work in the world … Anyone can pray, if he will pay the price. … For true and acceptable prayer requires the sacrifice of one’s self, and that is the most expensive of all surrender.” (91)
It’s this willful humility that’s difficult: permitting God to take first priority in your life, and allowing Him to transform you. But the good news is – prayer itself is taken care of for you by the One who does it best. Cling to the strength of that hope. And perhaps your eyes will be opened a little more to how this yoke can be easy, this burden, light. (Mt 11:28)
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James Huntington, The Work of Prayer, (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press 2005)