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Dryness in Prayer? Study, Read, Pray

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

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.