Several of my new directees have expressed a distress in having a ‘dryness’ in their prayer life. They wonder why their prayers leave them feeling dry, distant from God or God distant from them, or even a feeling of desolation.
This is a ‘technical’ term, I rarely use in my conversations but they have picked it up. I ask what do you mean by dryness? “Something is missing, but know not what”, they share, or "God is distant out there”. “I really do not know Jesus!” “ I must not be doing it right. I must not be praying enough, the more I read, the less I feel, can you give me more things to do." "Nothing is happening!”
Though they had moments, something had happened as if they were touched by Jesus or had an insight from the Holy Spirit, they end up doubting or dismissing those experiences.
I find that they read the scriptures faithfully, understand what is being said, and when they are finished, they then sit in silence in what they describe as the contemplation phase and wait to ‘hear’ something from God. They desire to sense something, anything. This dry experience tends to leave one with a sense of going nowhere.
I observed their praying methods had become all 'head work', which is exhausting though the heart’s motivation was there yet something was missing. Their solution was to add more hours of prayers using the same 'way' thus leaving them with even more heartfelt aloneness, even frustrated and some a bit angry (if they dare admit it) with God for He seemingly was not listening. This led them to question their relationship with God and God's relationship with them, particularly about not being loved, not even worthy (not experiencing being loved or worthy are two other topics to be addressed).
When we explore this ‘dryness’ I find there has been a misunderstanding on several levels.
First a brief clarification on how God ‘speaks’ through Scripture. How God speaks to us (how we ‘hear’ the God speaking to us) is: it is in a word, words, or phrases within the scriptural readings that God the Holy Spirit prompts in us that has some connection to and or a meaningfulness in our life that day or in general, when we are ‘reading in a prayerful way’ (prayer). That is God speaking directly to us (His words) through the scriptures.
3 Ways of Encountering Scripture
There are 3 different ways we can come to the scriptures – study, read or pray. We can:
· Study the scriptural text for historical or contextual understanding in a Bible study; or
· Read the daily Mass reading followed up by a commentary for understanding and new insights of the author; or
· Pray with the text to listen directly from God through the His word –Lectio Divina – holy reading.
Cause of Dryness: A Possibility
I came to realize retreatants (myself included before I learned from studying St. Ignatius) were using the ‘study’ or ‘reading’ methods as ‘prayer’ with scripture and expecting the results that accompany the grace of prayer. Study and Reading are the methods to feed our minds that will help us to understand and grow in virtue, they help form us in putting on the mind of Christ. Yet, they are not a prayer method, though are a prelude and support to the life of prayer.
We all know the importance of understanding what we are praying before we begin to pray, yet we find ourselves stuck in the study or read mode. Without realizing it, or we were never taught, there is another simpler way. God speaks across time through His words, and He will speak personally to us, if we engage our different faculties, that He created for us to use.
What can one do?
Though we cannot control the movements of God in our lives, we can take steps to make ourselves more open and receptive to how God speaks to us.
There is a time to study, to read, and to pray with Scriptures.
Reading, studying, listening, and praying using different parts of our brain. Thus, we have different experiences. That is God’s design.
We cannot expect to have a heartfelt experience when we are analyzing or investigating, such as when trying to put a particular scripture in a context such as its location: was it in Galilee or Jerusalem? Who is speaking? How does it connect to what may have happened before? Was it before or after the Resurrection? Those require different mental functions.
Once we have a grounding of such knowledge, we can settle into a spontaneous prayer moment or a formal prayer period.
We need all 3 – studying, reading, and praying, but we cannot expect one to substitute for the other.
Based upon my training and experiences with working with driectees, and in my own experience, I found it is not just the ‘what’ we are praying with which we need to know about, but the ‘how’ and having expectations (which is a whole other topic, to be put aside for the moment).
Moreover, beyond methods with scripture, there is so much more to learn about the ‘how and what to listen for’ in the different ways God speaks and acts in our life (more to come on this, too) when it comes to contemplative prayer ( other terms: interior prayer, mental prayer, the Colloquy).
The 'How' of Engaging the Text in Prayer
Ignatian Way of Praying with Scriptures
How we come to know God’s Self deeply, through God’s revealed Self in the person of Jesus, is by entering into the scriptures by praying with intention and attention using our faculties of intellect, memory, imagination, and will.
St. Ignatius was gifted in understanding how the mind and heart connect to be able to listen and experience the presence and action of God sharing God’s Self through the scriptures, in our daily encounters with others, and in nature, in addition to the sacraments.
He noticed through his own experience and by working with others, how we have been designed by our Creator within an interior affectivity or what I referred to as the physiology of the soul, and by using different methods one would come to a profound ‘felt knowledge’ of God.
St. Ignatius also understood the importance and process of reflecting upon our experiences so as to lead one into a deeper knowledge of Christ, beyond just our thoughts. It is as if our soul speaks this knowingness from listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit residing within us.(Allowing for reflection time, savoring brings the experience into our long-term memory, thereby transforming our minds.)
We have: 6 mental faculties - imagination, intuition, will, perception, memory, and reason; and 5 senses- see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. What human faculties will naturally come into play depends upon the text. Ignatian methods are all active and intentional.
What human faculties coming into play depends on up the text in prayer, reading or studying.
During our prayer time in encountering the word – images, thoughts, memories, and feelings spontaneously emerge.
Depending upon the scriptural text, we will be naturally inclined to use more of our imagination when there is Jesus in action. This if used formally is called Ignatian contemplation ( two methods- the ‘composition of place’ and ‘application of senses’) using our God-given imagination to construct the scene and engage our senses so as to experience being there with Christ.
The method of composition of place and application of senses is a practice that is deeply incarnational. “It prevents prayer from being merely an exercise in abstraction and it assures that the whole person's body-mind will senses imagination is involved in the communication with God. It constitutes I think one of the greatest gifts Ignatius has given to the spiritual tradition.” Bishop Barron: St. Ignatius Pivotal Player
In the praying with Gospel parables or some of the Letters of the Apostles, we come to reflect upon how God might be speaking to us (mental prayer) going through a discursive process stimulating memories, words, and/ or images –when formally used it is an Ignatian meditation method using our intellect and will in seeking what insights God had for us.
Note: The term Contemplation (Contemplative Prayer) is used in the Carmelite tradition as related to prayer to refer to mental (interior prayer) as active contemplation where one’s disposes themselves in silent prayer to be open to what graces may come and infused contemplation refers to the gift of union with God that only God can give.
A colloquy is a formal conversation, in prayer is it as if we have a conversation between friends, we speak but we also listen; speaking with God the Father, Jesus or Mary, and the saints (#54 Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius). Such is used throughout the Spiritual Exercises. Another term used to describe this is mental prayer or interior prayer.
In the Ignatian tradition contemplative term is used to describe a person of prayer in action “a contemplative an action.” It’s a way of being and proceeding.
For learning more:
How to Pray with Scriptures the Ignatian Way
1. Ignatian Meditation
2. Ignatian Contemplation
Note: Remember there is no right or wrong way to pray. These methods are what have been passed down to us helping one communicate with God. It’s not the method that counters but the content of our hearts. Methods are ways to dispose ourselves, our human activity yet prayer is always first God’s invitation to us and grace.