Pattern for Priestly Prayer

Dryness in prayer, like a dry mouth in summer, seems like a problem to be resolved. When we’re physically thirsty, we drink water. When we’re spiritually dry, we often try to fix things too. First, we begin to analyze the problem: What am I doing wrong? What should I do differently? Sometimes we ask for advice, but frequently we just start trying to purge ourselves of some sin or seek some new prayer method.

But what would happen if we considered dryness not a calamity, but an opportunity? Recall that humans are the only prideful part of the ecological system that is not content with its niche in the world. Think about how we just have to start changing everything around us rather than adapting to our place on planet earth (often with disastrous consequences). We seem always to find our niche an itch that we that just have to scratch. But what if, instead of pride, we practiced patience and just allowed ourselves to itch for a while? What if we took a lesson from the scratchy cactus?

Consider the Cactus

Most cacti have short bursts of growth followed by long periods of rest, but they don’t force the growth or resent the rest. When it rains, they grow; when it’s dry, they rest. Like all of creation except us humans, they’ve learned to adapt rather than forcing everything else to adapt to them.

When we experience dryness in prayer and start to analyze and consult and rush to change: Could it be that we really think prayer depends upon us? When I think that dryness in prayer is due to something I’ve done or haven’t done, doesn’t that presume that the spiritual universe revolves around me? What if I just let myself feel dry until God decides to send rain?

If prayer like rain is a gift, we can dispose ourselves for it but we cannot command the clouds to send it. The cactus spreads its roots and opens itself to prepare for the rain, but rests until the appointed season. Can we remain faithful to our prayer period and contemplative attitude while patiently awaiting the appointed time?

Like all of creation, we could choose to accept kind weather and periods of dryness, knowing that both are God’s good gifts to us although we prefer the former to the latter. If like the cactus we accept everything God sends to us as a gift given for our good, then dryness is not a calamity but an opportunity. The dryer the cactus becomes, the more water it can store once it rains. The more spiritual dryness teaches us that prayer is a gift that we cannot earn or lose but only accept, the more receptive we are when God sends grace like rain for our next burst of growth.

We pray with expectancy, but without expectation. What’s the difference? Expectation is the defined prospect of a forced march; it feels like anxiety since we’re always in a sweat to fulfill an anticipation. Expectancy is the confident anticipation of a meander through marvel; it feels like hope since it’s always sweet to distill a new sensation.

There is nothing wrong with preferring dew to dryness, and we may desire, beg, and beseech the floods of grace. Pray as you are. If you feel like groaning and moaning, do so long and loudly. But then will whatever God sends. A corollary to the advice to pray as you are is this: ask what you will, but will what you receive.

St. Thomas More

There is a story of St. Thomas More. Long before he was martyred by the axe he was martyred by his honesty. All the other royal favorites had made secret fortunes through shady dealings — all except Thomas. He was renowned for his honesty, and no good deed goes unpunished. Thomas’ beloved wife died, and his faith seemed to rot in the grave with her. The story goes that he had gone back to the now-deserted chapel, bitter that such a sentence had befallen a man innocent of graft, when a small voice said, “Pray.” And Thomas spat, “I don’t want to pray!” So the still voice replied, “Then pray for the grace to want to pray.” Thomas barely managed to pray for the grace to want to pray, but that fitful reply grew until it became an answer that almost overthrew a king and did throw open the kingdom of heaven.

Pray as You Are

Pray as you are. If that means you are tired of dryness in prayer, pray for the grace of spiritual rain. Ask what you will, but will what you receive. And if you cannot will to accept what God is sending when He sends scorching winds instead of wet breezes, pray for the grace to make that act of will to accept what He sends. And if you cannot even pray for that grace, then pray for the desire to pray for the grace to make such an act of the will. Whatever tiny mustard seed you muster is sufficient, since any kernel of faith in God is worth bushels of fertilizing through our own efforts.

Remember, our very dryness when brought to prayer is an act of faith because our fidelity in prayer is a creed stating that we follow God whether in prayer He sends sweet dew or dry dust. Thus even our complaining or beseeching fulfills His will when we finally pray in the faith that both dry and dew are God’s gifts to us. We do not cause dew or dryness; we only dispose ourselves to receive whatever God sends, knowing that it is always for our good. This is an act of faith that the Spirit always fruitfully — although often furtively — operates within us when we pray. Just because we do not feel God’s grace does not mean it is not operative in us. Pray as you are. Ask for what you will, but will what you receive, even if you cannot feel what faith knows.

Our new pope’s patron, St. Francis, spent years haunting caves in search of the sweet spring of God’s will. He never found it. He founded a religious order, but he died thinking God’s will was for him to evangelize the Saracens. After years of trying to reach the Holy Land and preach, not with the sword but the cross, and many failed attempts, he finally made it all the way to the Sultan. The floodgates of grace had broken, and this man of peace could fulfill his mission to stop the rivers of blood by reconciling all in Christ. When his dream finally dawned, Francis was like a child dancing in the rain and playing in mud puddles. And then word came that the Order was collapsing and he had to return to Italy. Thus began his last spiritual desert, mostly alone, often rejected, always dry as tinder. But only in his dryness could Christ brand him with the wounds of the stigmata, and then Francis could pen his poem of praise:

Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,

In heaven thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair.

Praised be my Lord for brother wind

And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather

By the which thou givest to thy creatures nourishment.

Like the psalmist, Francis learned to praise God in every kind of weather — drought or deluge, hot or cold — and at all times, whether with the sweetness of a piñata or the searing of the stigmata. That is why we pray despite our dryness; we pray not for what we desire, but for what God deigns. We pray in every kind of spiritual weather. This is the prayer that begets in us goodwill rather than just “feeling good.”

Spiritual sweetness begets thanks, but dryness begets humble dependence and longing precisely to help us recall that everything and anything lacking in us can be found only in Him. Whatever our feelings or God’s response, prayer is always us longing and groaning for fulfillment because we were formed by God’s hand, and His handprint left a hallowed hollow in us that nothing can fill except the One Who made it. Thus, whatever our honest feelings are and however they are expressed, we are united to God any time we will for His Will to be done in us.

Sometimes we are stirred to contemplation through sweetness, and sometimes we are motivated to humility through dryness, but always we are inspired by Him who is not the unmoved mover but who, in Christ, is most moved by our least prayer. When we persevere in prayer through all kinds of spiritual weather, when we will whatever God sends, whether rain or dryness, we become a creed through our statement in faith made flesh that although we may be desiccated we are dedicated because we believe that any dryness will end, but fulfillment in the God of all spiritual weather will have no end.

Pray as you are. Ask what you will, but will what you receive. And if you receive dryness, could it not be because you are growing in your desire to be filled? Is that not a movement toward Him Who is fulfillment? Pray as you are: Grieve over the loss of spiritual sweetness. But if you can, will dryness when that is what God sends; if you remain faithful and just get thirstier and thirstier for God, you may finally find God in whom nothing is lacking and through whom floodgates of grace open when the time of fulfillment comes.

We may find God then in the rest that follows our wrath; in the peace released after perturbation: we find Him in the tiniest act of the will we can muster that believes in God who loves us and always wishes us well, not woe. In that faith we can pray as we are, we can ask what we will, but will what we receive.

Thus, it is not a contradiction to say that we pray as we are, we pray with feeling and fervor, but then we will what God wills. Moses kept praying when he was angry or frustrated because he believed in a personal God who cared about his feelings, but who was beyond his feelings. We don’t express our feelings in prayer because God needs to hear them, but because we do. To give full vent to the full range of our feelings does not mean we become preoccupied with our emotions, rather we accept the fact that we have them.

Just as our reason can be clouded, our emotions can be confused, but our will continues to pray to do God’s will. We groan and moan not because we want to change God, but because those growing pains of this conversion change us. We know we are puny, and in this life always limited and longing; that is the human condition. And if Jesus had to groan and weep, so do we. We remain with Jesus in His full humanity because He remains with us in all His Divinity. Jesus will not leave us for being fully human. He pursued Adam into hell and He endured the pain of hell to save us. Jesus only wants us to follow the Divine will the same way He did — fully human.

Therefore, we persevere in prayer despite our feelings, our reasoning, our health, our circumstances, the opinion of others, our own energy level or our state of sin because that’s what persevere means: “through severity” to serenity. We persevere because we believe in faith that there is an end to dryness as there is to death. The last word in creation will be the same as the first, “it is very good.”

Any suffering we endure in prayer is really just a purgation or preparation for the good gifts God wills for us in this life and fulfills for us in the next. But God gives us any gift, including spiritual sweetness, only according to our ability to benefit from it. And He withholds it only to strengthen that very ability. Hence, both sweetness and dryness work for our good when we will what God wills, when we see all He sends as gift. Each moment is momentous when we will to encounter the Real Presence in the really present.

Hence, can even dryness be a gift? Perhaps our patient assent helps us to desire only God and not just God’s spiritual goods. Maybe we need to fall into dust and dryness in order to be completely convinced of our weakness, our dependence, our need to will only what He wills. If such humility is inspired by dryness, then like the cactus we have only to grow in our capacity to hold the rain once heaven opens.

Once the cactus has soaked up the wet and stored up the rain it had longed for, it grows and produces fruit. What fruit do we see when our roots receive rain? Well, if we have been longing to will what God wills and if that longing has become such a dryness and a drought that we thirst like Jesus on the Cross, then when that thirst is slaked we bear fruit like the One who sends the rain. We know we will God’s will when we love what He loves and hate what He hates, that is, when we love virtue and hate vice.

We hate vice, not the vicious. We love virtue because we love the author of virtue. But we do not get frustrated if the harvest is not immediately abundant. Recall that the Spirit acts fruitfully, though furtively. Likewise we can ripen slowly and silently in our love of virtue and hatred of vice. Hence, when we look for fruit we are not convinced only by great actions but also by generous intention. Moreover, the fruit is congruent with the vine. Just as we do not expect a blueberry bush to bear fruit the size of cantaloupe, we don’t expect every priest to build basilicas or lead crusades. As so many saints have said, the sweetness of spiritual fruit is measured less by great deeds and more by great love. Thousands of priests have led lives of quiet contemplation and faithful pastoral service, yet never see their names on bronze plaques.

Such was Father Kevin. He lived past his prime, but even in his best days he was never elected to the priest senate or given important roles in the chancery. Even in the days before computer accounting, Father Kevin’s bookkeeping procedures (a shoebox under his bed) were eccentric. He was known more as a preacher with a booming voice than a penetrating mind, and although jovial, he was not the popular fellow always ready with a song or a story. But Father Kevin was a man of prayer, and he prayed like a man. Sometimes he would shake his fist at heaven if God seemed unjust, but always he would kneel before the crucifix and surrender to God’s judgment. Few had reason to think Father Kevin a particularly holy man until after his death. Suddenly people came forward, sent letters, and made phone calls to tell their chapter in the long story of this apparently unremarkable priest who had been marked by persevering prayer.

Father Kevin had been ordained in 1929, and in those days people laughed at alcoholics. An elderly man wrote to the diocesan newspaper to relate how as a parishioner of the young Father Kevin, he had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, although he was really an alcoholic self-medicating to control depression. Anyway, laughing officers locked him up and were amused at his attempts at suicide. It was Father Kevin who spent all night in the cell with him during his last drunken jag when he rushed the walls till dawn trying to smash his skull on the grey cinder blocks. Father Kevin, armed only with a pillow, stepped between him and each rush to catch the blow in his own stomach. In those days neither one of them understood depression or alcoholism, but one understood the sacrificial nature of the priesthood and the other was converted by priestly compassion.

Still another, a younger man, made the newspapers for quitting his job to raise money for charity by riding his bike around the circumference of North America as a way to honor Father Kevin who had saved him from an abusive father and got him into college.

Innumerable stories could be recounted of untold priests who quietly but courageously bore great spiritual fruit measured not by great deeds but by great love. Priests whose persevering prayer through all kinds of spiritual weather purged them of affections that were disordered and pruned them of desires that were imperfect, whose very sins served to make them compassionate to the sinner, and whose humility made them empathize with the humble.

Perhaps that is the conversion of the cactus: we wait humbly when prayer is dry and grow gratefully when prayer is luscious with the same faith in the same God who has always used both gardens and deserts as scenes of salvation. Priests, like Moses, lead their people through dry deserts and deep seas by praying as they are, asking what they will, but willing what they receive.

FATHER DAVIS, O.F.M. Conv., has been a spiritual director for 25 years and is currently a spiritual director at St. Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana. Previously, he was an associate professor of pastoral studies and the director of formation for Hispanic ministry at St. Meinrad School of Theology, an assistant professor at Mundelein Seminary, and founder of the doctoral program at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He is author of 12 books and 50 articles, and his pastoral work includes training and producing materials for the International Office of RENEW.