Three Approaches to Prayer When the Dry Times Come

Spiritual Aridity Requires Patience and Perseverance — and More

St. Catherine's, one of the oldest Christian monasteries, is in the Sinai desert where monks have prayed for over 1500 years.

St. Catherine’s, one of the oldest Christian monasteries, is in the Sinai desert where monks have prayed for some 1500 years.

A friend of mine posed the following question recently on Facebook:

You may have written about this before but how about dry times in prayer? What to do? Does it really mean anything? Can we have an impact on it or do we patiently wait it out?

The fancy term here is “aridity.” I suspect anyone who has attempted a sustained, daily (or at least regular) practice of prayer encounters this sooner or later. A sense of dryness, as if our prayers are parched. If we pray with words (whether our own or someone else’s), it seems as if the prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. If we choose instead to settle into the silence of a more contemplative form of praying, all we encounter is fidgetiness and restless, random thoughts. “Distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot put it.

So it’s a universal aspect of prayer, or at least it seems to be. The only way to dodge aridity is, well, to stop (or never start) praying. But I’m assuming anyone who is reading this blog is at least somewhat committed to prayer, so quitting is not an option.

To repeat my friend’s questions: what does this mean, and how can we respond to it?

I think the first important point is to acknowledge just how common, perhaps even  universal, aridity is. What this means is that if you are experiencing dryness in your prayer, that’s a good sign — a sign you are making progress in your spiritual journey.

Think of it this way: for Moses and the Hebrew people, the path to liberation from slavery in Egypt took them through the desert. Elijah’s vocation as a prophet began with a sojourn in the wilderness. Likewise, Jesus’s earthly ministry began with his 40 days in the desert. And the very headwaters of the post-Biblical tradition of Christian contemplative and mystical spirituality began… in the desert — the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

If you want to be physically fit, you got to work out. If you want to master a musical instrument, it takes hours of dedicated practice. And even though spirituality is always shaped and surprised by grace, there is still a “practice” element to it — in other words, if we want to grow in our response to the love of God, our path will take us through the desert.

The Burren in Ireland (photo by "Fish Cop" — public domain)

The Burren in Ireland (photo by “Fish Cop” — public domain)

My second thought is to recall that even the desert has its own austere beauty.

I remember the first time I travelled around Ireland, and came to a region called the Burren — the closest thing Ireland has to a desert. It’s a windswept wasteland covered by limestone which looks like what I imagine the surface of the moon to be. It’s a stark contrast to the lush, verdant landscape that we normally associate with the Emerald Isle — and yet, in its  own stark way, the Burren is lovely.

I was stunned at how beautiful it was. I expected, after seeing so many picture-postcard scenes of the Irish countryside, that the Burren would just feel empty and sad. But that was not the case at all. Yes, it was empty, and I suppose it even had a sadness about it. But it was a lovely sadness, a gorgeous emptiness.

The lesson here for us as we encounter aridity in our prayer is that such times of dryness may actually be invitations to find beauty and meaning even in the emptiness, the austerity, the sense of aloneness or the sense of fidgetiness and distractedness. Most important of all, is to discover that God loves us just as we are: desert-like warts and all.

God is not just interested in a never-ending succession of happy times, where we put on a brave face or our party hats and approach prayer as just another way to greet life with a smile, no matter what’s going on inside. God wants our hearts, not our masks! God wants us precisely when we are bored, or fidgety, or restless, or distracted, or unhappy.

God wants to pour God’s love into us in whatever state we may find ourselves in. Aridity in prayer is a gentle invitation to bring our lives in their messy imperfections to the God who so dearly loves us.

Of course, part of the challenge of dryness in prayer is that we don’t feel anything — so if God is loving us through the aridity, it seems like we are the last ones to get the memo. But what we lack in awareness, we more than make up through growing in faith. Faith, by its very nature, requires times of darkness, or unknowing, or dryness, in which we get to “work out the faith muscles” — and just like a physical workout at the gym, we experience it as painful, or difficult, or fraught with resistance.

But at a level deeper than our awareness, our muscles are growing. And so it is with faith: the “resistance training” that aridity or other times of darkness or unknowing bring to us, allow our faith to grow, even at a level deeper than our conscious awareness.

So what, then, to do? When I am waist-deep in the sands of the desert, what should be my response, my “prayer game plan”?

My friend is right: the key here is patience, perseverance, and I would add, trust. Part of what makes the dry times so unpleasant is the fact that we can’t fix or manage it. So we’re invited to respond not with our American “can-do” mentality, but with something much more primal: the opportunity to simply trust in God, God’s presence, God’s work in our hearts below the threshold of our awareness.

Such trust works best when we approach it mindfully. In other words, when our prayer takes us into the desert, pay attention to the fact that you have hit a dry spell. Don’t try to fix it, or wish it away, or pray it away (as if you could). But don’t ignore it, either.

You might find yourself in a place where lamentation emerges from your heart and your lips. Alleluia! Lamentation is such a beautiful way to pray and something that our culture often forgets (because we are so busy reassuring God that we’ve got everything under control, even when all hell is actively breaking loose).

So I would recommend to anyone struggling along the path of aridity to keep these three key elements in mind:

  • Trust that God is in control, that aridity is a normal aspect of a mature and serious prayer practice, and that beneath our conscious awareness, the Spirit is using such dryness to help us grow in faith and love;
  • Attentiveness to the fact that what arises, arises; by being present to the darkness or dryness or distraction or unknowing, our prayer is authentic even if it doesn’t necessarily “feel” good;
  • Lamentation — or whatever else arises — recognizing that God desires us to be authentic and honest in our prayer, so praying into the dryness and unknowing is perhaps the most direct path through it.

I hope this is helpful!

Do you have any suggestions for how Christians can deal with dryness or aridity in prayer? If so, please leave your thoughts as a comment to this blog post (or share with me on Facebook or Twitter). Thank you!

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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5 thoughts on “Three Approaches to Prayer When the Dry Times Come

  1. Hi Carl – very nice column, and I particularly like the analogy to practicing an instrument. I’ve found, both in teaching music and teaching various forms of meditation, that one of the most stark differences in people I teach is between those who grew up with some kind of regular “practice” and those who didn’t (not to judge those who didn’t – if that’s you, it’s never too late to start!).

    I would say the most common things children practice are music, some kind of sport, and one of the martial arts – though probably, with martial arts, the practice depends on doing it with other people.

    I just saw a 12 year-old who was acting out in all kinds of ways and didn’t seem to have any sense of discipline or even to be capable of imagining being able to control himself – and he really wanted to learn. I told him the story of Michael Jordan and it really inspired him.

    We all tend to think of Jordan as somehow being born as a master athlete. I thought that too, so was particularly amazed to hear about his practice regimen as a teen. He would shoot hoops, on his own, cultivating his foul shot. He was determined to be able to successfully land 1000 (that’s one thousand!) shots in a row.

    If he got to 101, and failed, he’d start again from 1.

    If he got to 586 and failed, he’d start again from 1.

    If he got to 999 (seriously) and failed, he’d start again from 1.

    And talk about aridity – can you imagine what it would be like if you tried this 20 times, and each time you failed before getting to 1000. But aridity, boredom, frustration, whatever – he just kept going, and the rest, as they say, is history.

    I know a lieutenant who teaches mindfulness meditation to police officers. Every time they got lost in thought and return to the breath, he says, consider that 1 “rep” (they’re mostly weight lifters).

    And he calls this “warrior training.” They love it.

    My own experience is that once you really get the sense that “practice” is just something you do, no matter what, it makes those dry periods hardly noticeable. “Hey, I’m just doing this, doesn’t matter what the effects are.”

    How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

    How do you get to mystical union?

    • just occurred to me – someone may write and say, “but it’s not through your efforts you get to mystical union?”

      So to rephrase the conclusion:

      How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

      How do you prepare the ground of your soul to be a fertile receptacle for Grace?

      • Your amended comment addresses what I alluded to in the post as the fact that spirituality is always shaped and surprised by grace. So yeah, how do you prepare yourself, how do you dispose yourself to receive that over which you have no control? Brings to mind the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” — including the fact that I cannot in any way engineer mystical union — “the courage to change the things I can” — including the capacity to practice a disciplined path of making myself humble and supple to receive grace in whatever form God chooses to bestow it — “and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen!

  2. thanks for the great questions and thoughts. love the idea that the dryness may be an invitation to tweak that lens through which we view beauty. maybe it’s an opportunity (though maybe not the one we were hoping for) to be out of God’s way as his important work is done in and through us. perhaps it has something deeper to teach us regarding longing.

  3. Thank you for writing this during this season of Lent when we are to be preparing ourselves for Easter. I recently went through my own dark night and found that eventually I came out but the crisis scared me. It is not my first crisis of Faith nor will it be my last but it was a concern since my calling is to Pastor churches. Explaining darkness to my congregation would be futile to me and a worry to them. Trusting God having patience and persistence may seem too little but the crisis did pass. And I feel my sense of calling again. Good enough to preach The Passion and Easter. And then take a vacation! Thanks for this timely blog.