What to do when nothing "happens" during prayer

We all know the scenario. After stepping into a church or kneeling beside our bed at home, we feel nothing. We may have the good intention of starting to pray every day for 30 minutes and then when the time comes to pray we feel discouraged because, well, nothing happens!

When presented with this silence we might ask ourselves, "Am I doing something wrong?" Or if we are feeling a bit down and at a loss we might question everything, saying, "Is God even there?"

One of the most common errors we all commit is in thinking that prayer is similar to a phone call where we pick-up the phone, dial a phone number and wait for God to pick-up on the other side. In this instance, we are the ones who initiate prayer and God is the one who needs to respond. So when we call "God's number," we get frustrated when all we hear on the other line is static.

What's wrong with God? Why isn't he responding?

The problem is not that God isn't speaking to us; the problem is that our image of prayer is wrong. We are not the ones who pick-up the phone and try to contact God. God is the one who has been trying to call us and we are the ones who are giving him static.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

“2567 God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer…God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.” (emphasis added)

What we often forget is that God is always trying to enter into our lives. He wants us to pray and is already there waiting for us. As Jesus said to his disciples,

You have not chosen me: but I have chosen you” (John 15:16).

In the book of Revelation we see God literally knocking at the door, waiting for us to open our hearts to Him,

“Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

Too often our problem with prayer is that we are not responding to God's invitation to love and are searching for God in the clouds, not realizing that he is already here, waiting for us. God reassures us that he is here and waiting for our response through the prophet Jeremiah,

“And you shall call upon me, and you shall go: and you shall pray to me, and I will hear you. You shall seek me, and shall find me: when you shall seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:12-13)

In reality, the phone analogy goes the other way. When we go to pray, it is like picking-up a phone that has been ringing all day long. God has been calling us, ready to start a friendship with us in prayer and is already there on the other side of the phone.

Unfortunately, this image of prayer is something we don’t often think about. Growing up we may have been taught that prayer is our own initiative and that God needs to respond to our needs. Typically we were introduced this type of petitionary prayer when we were young and it may have been the only experience of prayer we ever had. It leaves the impression that God is sitting there like some sort of candy dispenser and all we have to do is say the right words and whatever we want will come right out. Then, when we don't receive the gift we were praying for, we become discouraged and think that God isn't listening.

What we fail to realize is that God is already there and wants us to bring to him all of our petitions, but sometimes he had a different message he wants to communicate with us and we are unwilling to listen. What we need to do is instead of "doing all the talking," we need to begin our prayer by listening, seeking to first respond to God's invitation of love. 

Saint Ignatius of Loyola offers some profound advice on how to begin prayer. He says,

“A step or two before the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the space of an Our Father and, with my consciousness raised on high, consider how the Lord my God looks upon me. Then I will make an act of reverence or humility” (Spiritual Exercises, #75). 

Saint Ignatius instructs us to “consider how the Lord my God looks upon me.” This reminds us that we should always pause before we pray and remember mediate on that simple fact. God is already there waiting for us, and beholding us; he is already there in the room looking at us.

Let's pause for a second and try that exercise. Stop for a second. Close your eyes and let God gaze at you. What do you see?

Whether we realize it or not, God is always looking at us and waiting for us to return the gaze and open our hearts to Him. Saint Therese of Lisieux summarizes this aspect of prayer perfectly,

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (Story of a Soul)

So when "nothing" happens during prayer, let us remember that prayer is primarily a response to a God who is constantly seeking us out and is already there waiting for us. This can change our entire approach to prayer and may even remove some initial obstacles that prevent us from having an intimate encounter with the God who loves us.