How To Pray When I Can’t Pray

August 26, 2019 | Fr. Patrick Wainwright, MC

It’s not always that easy

It always amazed me to read how some saints had a very hard time praying. Sometimes, like in the cases of St. Teresa of Avila or St. Teresa of Calcutta, they endured long periods of dryness and desolation in prayer. It is said that St. Teresa of Avila spent many years with a certain inability to pray, and she writes that during her meditation she would count the tiles in the floor in front of her.

If you want to grow in holiness, and deepen your relationship with God, it is important that you to try to dedicate some time every day to mental prayer (also called meditation). There are different ways to go about meditating, but in essence, it is a kind of conversation with our Lord, while reflecting on different truths of our faith or mysteries of the life of Christ.

You will notice that spending time thinking about the things of God and speaking with Him from your heart brings great peace to your soul, and a sense of meaning to your life and daily events.

However, you might experience times that this way of prayer seems almost impossible to do. You might feel restless, distracted, and with no time to dedicate to prayer. So what can you do when you feel you can’t pray?

Say “no” to discouragement

The first thing you should do is not get discouraged. Prayer—and indeed all Christian life—is a battle, a spiritual battle. Both your own fallen nature and our common enemy, the devil, constantly try to keep you away from prayer. You should not be surprised about that—and for the same reason, you should not get discouraged when you feel you fail at prayer. Discouragement is one of the main obstacles you will find. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that prayer is a battle[1]—so you can expect it to be challenging at times.

Keep going in spite of those difficulties

As a result of this, continue praying daily, and try your best to dedicate a certain time each day to prayer even if you feel like you don’t know what to do during that time. Try to have a certain amount of time—15 minutes or a half hour, whatever you think is best for you—and be faithful to that time. Even if you feel distracted, uneasy, restless, and like running away, try to stay there, before the Lord, and do your best to calm yourself down. Remember that you are before Jesus, and that He knows everything you’re going through. You’re not alone. You are not the only one who has these struggles in prayer—the saints had them, I have them, most people have these disappointments in prayer.

Why is this happening?

One good thing for you to consider is what could be the cause of this desolation. We know for certain that God is allowing it. You may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause, but maybe some of the reasons I will outline below apply to you, and that can be of some help to find a solution.

“I’m too busy to pray”

One very common reason why prayer may become difficult is a certain spiritual anxiety. We tend to be too busy, and worried about the many obligations we have. Sometimes trying to do too much, or at least more than what we can handle, leads to anxiety and stress—and that carries on to our prayer. As soon as we become quiet and try to meditate on some truth of our faith, a thousand thoughts and concerns from our daily life come to our mind and seem to require our immediate attention. This may sometimes be inevitable. But in some cases we could try to avoid having so many responsibilities and obligations. Being an overachiever may be praiseworthy trait to many people in the world, but it may be at the root of our inability to pray.

The branches of a tree grow at a similar pace

Just as the branches of a tree grow organically, so, too, does our spiritual life. You can’t expect to have mystical experiences in prayer, when at the same time you do not try to avoid sin in other areas of your life. Your prayer life, your virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in you will grow all at a similar pace. So check how you are doing in other areas in your life, and maybe you see that there are cracks and potholes in your spiritual life that thwart your efforts to pray better.

Sometimes our Lord allows some dryness in prayer, so that we may wake up from our lukewarmness, and make a better effort at overcoming our attachments and vices. Maybe God is asking of us some self-denial in other areas, like limiting the amount of drinking, or playing video games, or time spent on social media, or hanging out with the wrong crowd. Do any of these things seem to keep you away from God?

Seek the God of all gifts, not the gifts of God

Perhaps our Lord is asking of you a more pure love. When He wants to make you grow in His love, He may sometimes take away certain sense-perceptible feelings or consolations in prayer, to see to how much we are willing to do out of love for Him—or whether we are praying out of love of self. When you pray only if it makes you feel good, then your intentions when praying need purification. When you are willing to pray even when you are suffering desolation, then there are greater chances that you are doing it purely for God. You’re on the right path!

What should you do?

First of all, continue praying. And when you feel you are not feeling anything, offer that sacrifice to God. Ask Him for help, for grace to persevere and grow in prayer.

Don’t reduce the amount of time you were planning to pray. And during that time, when you feel you’re wasting your time, try to simply “be” before God. Look at Him, and let Him look at you. Think about God in His goodness, how He provides all things for you—even this time of desolation.

Turn to the saints, especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ask repeatedly for help. Knock, and the door will be opened to you.

Use some book to read—maybe the Gospels, or The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, or any other sound spiritual book that you may find.

Above all, remember that our Lord will reward you abundantly if you continue faithfully in prayer, even if you feel you don’t get anything out of it. I can assure you with certainty, sooner or later, the sun will rise in your soul, and you will be filled with God’s love.

[1] CCC 2725