What should I do when prayer is difficult?

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Advent is a great time to focus on prayer as we wait patiently for the coming of our Lord on Christmas. However, sometimes we try and try and try to pray and nothing seems to work. Or, we plan on making a holy hour each day and a week goes by and we barely set aside 10 minutes. 

Prayer is not always easy and I still have days when I fail miserably. What prevents me from giving-up is knowing that prayer is not about me, but about God. It is about responding to His invitation of love and doing all that we can to battle any obstacles that come between us.

Prayer is a “battle” and the battlefield is in our hearts. Will we give-up and run away or fight until the last breath leaves our body?

Just like any relationship, prayer does not “happen” overnight. Relationships develop over time and take a lot of effort to maintain. I did not meet my wife and then propose to her on the same day. I needed to develop our friendship first. Even after the wedding I could not hang up my hat and suddenly stop talking to my wife and never go out on another date. If I did our marriage would cease to exist.

It is the same with prayer.

We can not expect prayer to be perfect and never experience any difficulties. Even the saints struggled with prayer throughout their entire lives. Prayer requires great effort and is meant to grow over time.

The Catechism uses even stronger words and instructs us to engage in a “battle” in the midst of our difficulties,

“[O]ur battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have “great possessions,” we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will….The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance” (CCC 2728, emphasis added).

Often this battle occurs against our own human nature, as the Catechism explains,

“In positive terms, the battle against the possessive and dominating self requires vigilance, sobriety of heart.” (CCC 2730).

The most common enemy during prayer is our own sinful tendencies and our own lack of virtue.

Another way to explain the complexity of prayer is by comparing it to physical exercise. Lifting weights and running long distances takes time and effort to master. I can not simply go outside and sprint a full mile and expect to be a world-class runner. I must start slow and then gradually increase my speed over several months and years before I can master it.

It is the same with prayer.

As Jim Beckman explains,

“Neither does the interior life come naturally. Why is it that so many people can push through seemingly endless obstacles to work out, but when one hurdle presents itself to prayer or spiritual disciplines, most seem to falter? I believe that if we are going to succeed in the spiritual journey, we need to approach our spirituality a bit more like our workout schedule” (God, Help Me: How to Grow in Prayer112). 

We should not stop praying when an obstacle or distraction comes our way. Prayer is not going to be easy and we shouldn’t expect to be perfect or receive divine revelations from an archangel.  Saint Teresa of Avila explained the different levels of prayer in the terms of an “Interior Castle.” We do not immediately start out in the “Seventh Mansion,” but work our way closer to God from the outside, beginning in the “First.”  This is very important to remember as it will put our prayer life in perspective.

Above all things, we should struggle and keep struggling. The worst thing that we can do is give-up. When we do that the Enemy of our soul is victorious.

As we enter into this season of Advent, let us not lose heart if we struggle in prayer, but offer that too as a sacrifice to God. We must surrender all that we are to him, even our weaknesses. Jesus alone has the ability to perfect what is imperfect and will transform our struggles and sufferings into something new.