By Sr. Helena of Mary
Many times we heard it said that in order to make it through life, we should learn how to pray. Prayer is the bridge which stays us connected with what truly matters in life. It makes us see things in their true light. It forces us to enter into ourselves and find answers to questions which may have been there but never really paid attention to. Prayer makes us realize that we can only do so much, go a certain distance, and carry enough load, before we come to the realization that we are limited and we have had enough. Prayer brings us to the presence of God.
Just as people are different, prayer life is different in people. We can certainly talk of similarities. We may use the same words as in vocal prayers using formula of prayers or devotional prayers. We may share the same technique of praying because we follow certain schools of spirituality. Spiritual writers also speak about certain stages in prayer which are common to all who engage in certain prayers. So what do I mean when I say prayer life is different in people? It’s different because temperaments and personalities are different. When we pray, we bring our very person, with the influences and baggage we carry in life. We respond differently to the touches of grace. One reason the lives of the Saints are instructive and beneficial to us is because we learn how differently each of them responded to the circumstances of life. The life of virtues is manifested in so many different ways in their lives and yet how similar in what motivates them-love of God.
In St. John of the Cross’ book called The Dark Night, there is a chapter on what he calls “a treatise on the passive night of the senses.” This chapter of Book One of the Dark Night talks about how God draws a person who is already practicing prayer into a deeper life of union with Him by means of a totally new road. One can only understand this part of the book if one thinks of what a person is like before this experience. In the beginning of one’s prayer life, most usually after one’s spiritual conversion, there is an intensity and fervor in one’s prayer life. “It should be known that God nurtures and caresses the soul, after it has been resolutely converted to His service, like a mother who warms her child with the heat of her bosom, nurses it with good milk and tender food, and carries and caresses it in her arms… the soul finds its joy, therefore in spending lengthy periods at prayer, perhaps even entire nights; its penances are pleasures; its fasts, happiness; and the sacraments and spiritual conversations are its consolations….their motivation in their spiritual works and exercises is the consolation and satisfaction they experience in them.” (Collected Works: The Dark Night, p 298).
It is this weak and imperfect motivation which God purifies in order that a person grows in depth and matures in his or her relationship with God. God then allows the well to run dry. “He does this by introducing them into the dark night..through pure dryness and interior darkness, He weans them from the breasts of these gratifications and delights, takes away all these trivialities and childish ways, and makes them acquire the virtues by very different means.” (Ibid, p.311) This is where often times prayer can be a bore and requires much effort. Meditation is almost impossible and the feelings of dryness and aridity in our spiritual exercises can occur. Sometimes one would feel no interest at all in things spiritual. Depending on the person’s openness to this work of God, the experience could last a while and continuously, or it could be intermittent as God comes to one’s rescue and relieves a person of dryness to lift up its spirit and not make the person totally lose heart. Why would a person desire to open oneself to this experience? Because the experience of the Night brings with it spiritual freedom. We are set free from the confines of our earthly understanding of God, of His ways, and broadens our spiritual horizon for the task of union. The experience also makes us truly virtuous in that we learn patience, true humility, and poverty of spirit, which are necessary foundation for the works of the Spirit. We learn to sympathize with those who are tested in the same way and makes us less judgmental of people who fall under the weight of what the dark night experience entails.
St. John counsels us that during these moments of trials in our spiritual life, we should remain constant in our practice of prayer. We should ignore our feelings and try to be detached as to whether we get consolations, insights or not in our prayer. We should pray because we know we should and not because we feel we should. Loving God is not in the feelings, it’s in the believing and the effort to be faithful in lowering the bucket even when it comes back empty. It’s tough, but God knows what we are made of, and He stands ready to help when we call upon Him.