How are we supposed to pray when our souls have been pummeled by tragedy?
How do I pray when I am too tired to support the weight of all that is not right with the world?
The past few weeks have been exceptionally difficult for this borrowed country of mine. Maybe you, like me, are at the point of prayer exhaustion. Perhaps you are also teetering on the edge of numbness against everything we are facing. As a Christian, I often feel guilty when I feel I cannot pray. I imagine myself as the kind of person who understands the need for prayer, especially in dark times. But the truth is, when things come apart, prayer often seems inaccessible.
Thomas Merton, an American Catholic monk, empathized with this feeling of prayerful inadequacy. He wrote in his book New Seeds of Contemplation:
“If you have never had any distractions, you don’t know how to pray. For the secret of prayer is a hunger for God and for the vision of God, a hunger that lies far deeper than the level of language or affection. And a man whose memory and imagination are persecuting him with a crowd of useless or even evil thoughts and images may sometimes be forced to pray far better, in the depths of his murdered heart, than one whose mind is swimming with clear concepts and brilliant purposes and easy acts of love.”
If I ever meet someone whose mind is swimming with clear concepts and brilliant purposes, I will promptly ask them to run for Supreme Ruler of the World. And I will probably also ask them to do my taxes.
This is just not how most of us work, I think. Our minds are filled with soupy pools of potato gravy and oatmeal, not clear concepts and easy acts of love. So what are we to do?
When I am at the end of my strength, I go back to the beginning.
The Jesus Prayer is an old prayer dating all the way back to the early church. It is short, accessible, and draws us into the community of unceasing prayer. The classic form of the Jesus Prayer is: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Many times, it is shortened: “Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.” Or, when language itself is hard to access in grief – a plaintive cry: “Lord.”
My decision to pray anyway is an intense theological reaction to my helplessness. It is hope in the midst of despair. I know – somewhere in my soupy self – that suffering will not be allowed to have the final word.
Hope is the ability to pray, even when we can’t.
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