Nobody likes to be bad at things. If we are bad at something, we stay as far away from it as possible so that people don’t realize just how bad at it we are. This, in short, is one of the major reasons why people don’t pray, and why those of us who are committed to prayer find it such a challenge. Jacques Philippe speaks to this in Time For God when he says:
True, we may often experience the sweetness and tenderness of God; but just as often we shall find our own wretchedness: our inability to pray, our distractions, the wounds of our memory and imagination, the recollection of our faults and failures, worries for the future, etc. (21)
If we were better at prayer—always gaining great insights, always enjoying profound consolations, always composing eloquent hymns of praise—almost nothing would be able to drag us away from it. We like success, but prayer doesn’t give it the way we want it to.
Thankfully we are told, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” While we may be obsessed with success, God is unimpressed. This was a profound insight given to St. Teresa of Calcutta, who, despite being amazingly successful in her ministry to the poorest of the poor, tells us, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.” The difficulty with prayer is not that it’s so hard to get good at it, but that it’s so hard to get over trying to be good at it. St. Paul includes himself in the statement “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” and if he couldn’t figure it out, then we shouldn’t expect to either.
Once success is tabled, the only options left are despair or faithfulness. Either we give up on prayer in a fit of frustration, or we remain faithful to our prayer life even if it looks like it isn’t going anywhere. Paradoxically, it is only once we’ve given up on trying to be good at prayer that our prayer life can move forward. St. Paul does not despair over his ignorance in prayer since he knows that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” If we persevere in prayer despite our weakness, indeed because of our weakness and our desperate need for God’s assistance, God will work wonders through our poor attempts. “Only in the kingdom of Heaven will we see many of prayer’s fruits” (Time for God, p. 51).
Image: David Teniers the Younger, The Temptation of St. Anthony