Finding God When Prayer Doesn't Work

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Finding God

when Prayer Doesn’t Work Nick Donnelly

All booklets are published thanks to the generosity of the supporters of the Catholic Truth Society

Dedicated to Fr Patrick Zammit, with grateful thanks for enriching my prayer life when I was a young man as a member of the Holy Cross Taizé prayer group, Carshalton.

The biblical references are taken from the Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible. Image Credits Page 4, © Rus Limon/ Page 16, © Love the wind/ Page 54, © wavebreakmedia/ All rights reserved. First published 2018 by The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society, 40-46 Harleyford Road, London SE11 5AY Tel: 020 7640 0042 Fax: 020 7640 0040. Copyright © 2018 The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society ISBN 978 1 78469 559 0


This World was Made for Prayer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 The Battle of Prayer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 Our Lord Knows We Find it Hard to Pray . . . . . . . 26 Famous Christians Who Had Problems Praying . . . 42 What to Do When Prayer Doesn’t Work . . . . . . . . 55


This World was Made for Prayer


S Lewis’s last book, written soon after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, expresses the vital necessity of prayer to our existence. After years of witnessing Joy suffer the predations of cancer he was still able to write that God has created this world so that “there might be prayer”, especially petitionary and intercessory prayer, prayers for our own needs and for the needs of others. For CS Lewis, prayer was fundamental to God’s purpose for the world: The world was made partly that there might be prayer; partly that our prayers…might be answered. But let’s have finished with “partly”. The great work of art was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to curve of every wave and the flight of every insect. (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p.59) Having said this, there may be unease about the title of this booklet, Finding God when Prayer Doesn’t Work;


unease born out of a concern to avoid causing any doubt about the value and use of prayer in our lives. There may also, rightly, be a concern to avoid undermining belief in the omnipotence and providence of Almighty God, who really does love each one of us. Friends suggested the book should be called, Finding God when Prayer Doesn’t Appear to Work. My approach throughout is that prayer is as important to our existence as breathing, eating, drinking and loving. The explanation for this essential role is that prayer works on many different levels in our lives and in the world, “prayer is a vital necessity” (CCC, 2744). However, we must also take absolutely seriously the pain and desperation of people whose prayers have not been answered – those who have seen their loved ones suffer and die despite their desperate prayers for help. How do we say that ‘prayer works’ to the parents of children who have suffered and died despite their bedside prayers? Or to the spouses of husbands or wives who have suffered and died despite their prayers during sleepless nights? How do we make sense of Our Lord’s teaching that the Father will always answer the prayers of his children, giving them what they need? Jesus’s parables about prayer can become a hard stumbling block to those in desperate situations whose prayers have not been answered.


I knew a parent whose child had died from cancer who would no longer pray to God for help, neither would he encourage his children to pray prayers of petition or intercession. He went to Mass, and even went on retreat, but he could no longer pray for help because he was so hurt by the death of his child. I also knew a convert newly received into the Church, an only child, who soon after left the Church in cold anger because her mother died despite her prayers. None of my words could get through the adamant barrier of her disappointment in God. Thankfully, most will not endure the experience of unanswered prayers at the bedside of a dying child, spouse or other loved one. However, everyone will have experienced prayer not working – due to our reluctance to pray, or through easily allowing other activities and distractions to take us away from prayer, or from doubting the use of praying to God. Some even give up on the whole idea of any type of prayer due to experiencing such common difficulties.

Why is prayer such a battle? If this world was made for prayer, why does each one of us find prayer such a battle? The image of battle is important to the Catechism’s presentation of Christian prayer. The fourth section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Christian Prayer”, is widely


recognised as the most beautiful and lyrical of its four sections. In his account of the composition of the Catechism, Pope Benedict XVI relates that the Catechism’s section on prayer was composed by Fr Jean Corbon (1924-2001) during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Christoph Schönborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.23). During this time Fr Corbon often had to take shelter in the basement to escape the bombardment of Beirut. It is evocative to read such a beautiful synthesis of the Christian tradition of prayer knowing it was composed to the sound of warfare. The external warfare mirrors the internal battle of prayer: Prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The “spiritual battle” of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer. (CCC, 2725) According to the Catechism we need to realise that we’re fighting a war on many fronts. In the battle of prayer we must face erroneous notions of prayer, such as the influence of Buddhist meditation that reduces prayer to


emptying the mind of thoughts. We must also struggle with the pervasive influence of scientific secularism that undermines trust in prayer. We must battle our own sense of failure in prayer, such as making excuses not to pray, discouragement, avoidance of prayer due to boredom, distractions, a sense that nothing happens.

The supernatural war Above all, in order to engage successfully in the battle of prayer, we need to realise that we find ourselves in the middle of a supernatural war not of our own making. We are combatants in a “world of angelic warfare” (Fr Aidan Nichols OP): This dramatic situation of the whole world which is in the power of the evil one makes man’s life a battle: The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity. (CCC, 409; cf. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 37 § 2) How do we know that this “angelic warfare” is real and not outdated mythology or a poetic metaphor to


describe interior psychological states? Sacred Scripture tells us about this primordial supernatural war, the truth of which has been verified by the testimony of countless saints and ordinary faithful over the past two thousand years. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the main source of our knowledge about this supernatural war, making more references to the devil than any other person in the Bible. Some wrongly argue that Jesus was conditioned by the times in which he lived, and that he used the terms ‘Satan’, ‘demons’ and ‘possession’ to talk about physical and mental illnesses. Even though Our Lord lived two thousand years ago in a pre-scientific culture, it’s important to remember that he is both true God and true man. Time and time again in his ministry, Jesus showed that he was above and beyond the culture in which he lived. The New Testament outlines the origins of this supernatural war and its consequences for our world: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk 10:18). Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the


deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Rv 12:8-9) The Son of God descended from heaven and truly assumed a human nature for the sole purpose of defeating Satan and saving fallen man: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8). And the decisive battle of this supernatural war has already been won by Our Lord’s defeat of Satan through his Passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension into glory. The Sacred Wounds and Sacred Blood of Our Lord’s glorified humanity are the instruments of our salvation from the dominion of Satan and slavery to sin and death, “By his Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us.” (CCC, 1708) But if Our Lord has won the decisive battle against Satan why does the war continue? Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher, suggests an explanation: “The cross is God’s part of the practical solution to evil. Our part, according to the same Gospel, is to repent, to believe, and to work with God in fighting evil by the power of love. The King has invaded; we are finishing the mopup operation.” (The Fundamentals of Faith, p.56)


We are our own worst enemy Each one of us lives with the history of this supernatural war as a consequence of our ancestors’ catastrophic decision to side with Satan and the fallen angels in their rebellion against God. Every day we have to bear the effects of our first parents’ original sin, experienced as a deep inclination to rebellion, disloyalty and betrayal against God. If we’re honest, the most committed Christian must admit to a persistent attraction to sin. There is a wound in our nature that it is vital to understand in order to live an authentic moral and spiritual life as disciples of Christ. The Church uses the word ‘concupiscence’ to identify this wound. She describes it as follows: “human nature, without being totally corrupted, is wounded in its natural powers. It is subject to ignorance, to suffering, and to the dominion of death and is inclined toward sin.” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 77) Concupiscence describes the damage original sin has done to our spiritual immune system, allowing Satan a point of entry into our lives, because we all have an acquired moral deficiency: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rm 7:15) Baptism, and all the sacraments, are God’s programme of spiritual therapy to help build up our spiritual and moral immune system to fight off Satan’s constant viral


temptations and deceptions: “Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.” (CCC, 405) In a way, the Sacrament of Baptism can be seen as a permanent transfusion of Jesus’s divine life into our beings that wipes out the infection of original sin, and helps build up our weakened systems to fight off serious re-infection through our contact with Satan and others’ sinful behaviour. However, due to concupiscence we remain vulnerable to the influence of Satan and the world’s history of sin, meaning that our life is a constant fight against evil. The Church warns us to be vigilant because we remain under the influence of Satan and his temptation to sin: “The doctrine of original sin, closely connected with that of redemption by Christ, provides lucid discernment of man’s situation and activity in the world. By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free. Original sin entails “captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the power of death, that is, the devil”. Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals.” (CCC, 407) “The worst-case scenario facing us is that Satan succeeds in breaching


the defences of grace – built up by our reception of the sacraments and by living the moral life of Christ – due to us succumbing to his barrage of temptations to sin. Every time we freely choose to commit a mortal sin, we re-join Satan’s self-destructive war against God. Mortal sin destroys God’s saving life in our spirit, cuts us off from God, and turns us away from our Creator.” (CCC, 1861)

This world was made for prayer: prayer reflections Lord, help me to realise that I am in a battle. Keep me constant in prayer even when my prayers are not answered by you in any way that I understand, when it appears that prayer is not working. Keep me constant, convinced of my need for prayer. Amen.