‘I can’t pray.’ Are you sure?

St Teresa of Avila is both encouraging and totally realistic about difficulties in prayer. She speaks honestly of her own reluctance to pray at one stage in her life, and says that she would rather have endured many penances than practise prayer. Such humility lends weight to the advice she gives. She observes also that most difficulties in prayer are caused by “praying as if God is not there”.

That’s one of those simple-sounding insights of great profundity. It makes me realise how little I know about prayer, for I recognise the tendency in myself to pray as if God were not there. It is my own experience of prayer which preoccupies me to a disproportionate extent. Humanly speaking, one cannot be indifferent to this experience, but it is it not the object of prayer. When it is my own experience of prayer which predominates, it is equally almost certain that I am applying the force in the wrong direction.

Statements like “I feel dryness, nothing’s happening” are actually best directed to God, and when done so can, in fact, become the grist for my prayer, rather than the commentary on it or the justification for stopping. They are statements about me, but they become the spiritual equivalent of psychological projection, and I imagine they reflect on God: that my prayer is so because he is not actually there.

St Teresa says that the beginner in prayer “must look on himself as one setting out to make a garden for his Lord’s pleasure, on most unfruitful soil which abounds in weeds. His Majesty roots up the weeds and will put in good plants instead. Let us reckon that this is already done when the soul decides to practise prayer and has begun to do so.” In other words, the dryness and weeds shouldn’t worry us. We are the garden, not the gardener, who is skilful and loving and never neglects us.

In fact, an immature and sin-damaged part of me imagines that prayer will be an experience of God being politely admitted to admire a garden of my own making so he can tell me how lovely it is. As long as I retain some mistaken idea that I am the one doing the gardening when I pray, doing God a favour and making everything there more beautiful for him to enjoy, the barren soil and weeds will remain.

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