When Prayer Feels Empty

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Photo by Carlos 90, via Flickr

I seem to be collecting a lot of prayer intentions lately. Not that there’s anything strange about that–it’s just that for some reason, recently they seem to be hitting a lot closer to home. In times past, I used to promise to pray and then forget all about it. (Yes, I was one of those people, I’m sorry to admit.) Eventually I learned when someone requested prayers, I had to stop whatever I was doing and pray then and there.

But these days, it seems I can’t get these people out of my mind. At odd times during the day I surface from the depths of my own affairs with a heaviness in my chest, a heaviness surrounding a name or two.

We are urged to be specific and forward in our prayers–in other words, to expect miracles. But I’ve grown suspicious of this kind of prayer. The longer I live, the more I see the value of the process. I believe God can work massive, instantaneous change, but most often He doesn’t…because there is value to the process, to the change wrought in us that would not happen if we were miraculously and instantly rescued from suffering.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve prayed for healing from my lingering ear infection, from the leftover fluid and hearing loss…but with no expectation that it will vanish overnight, despite a friend’s prayer for exactly that. Maybe that shows lack of faith. But on the other hand, through this process I’ve learned empathy for the elderly as they are slowly robbed of their hearing–a lesson I would not have gained otherwise. This experience reaffirms a different approach to prayer–one that focuses on grace to endure, on strength and understanding instead of relief from pain. Change my heart, this time. That, after all, is the purpose of prayer: not to force God to do our will, but to open our minds and hearts to accept God’s. I’ve learned to stop asking God to “fix it,” and to ask instead for the grace to accept what is. To say, “What do you want me to learn from this, Lord?”

But it’s one thing to embrace the search for wisdom and insight through suffering in myself. It’s altogether different to try to philosophize away someone else’s pain. I pray grace and strength and insight for them, too…but mostly I beg God to identify a quick exit from their suffering. And the words seem empty. Isn’t a pithy “Lord, please (fill in the blank)” just a pious platitude unless I put action behind it? Shouldn’t I seek some way to ease a friend’s suffering?

I’ve never wished I had Godlike powers so much as when I hear pain and confusion in the voices of those I care about. Yet the reality is that I have no control at all. I can’t heal broken bodies or broken relationships. I can’t remove the circumstances of another’s suffering.

So I pray, recognizing that only God has the answers. And maybe that’s the point, after all: that hurting with those who hurt binds me not only to them, but to God.

(Sharing with Michelle’s community on week one of focusing on the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.)

10 thoughts on “When Prayer Feels Empty

  1. Wow. Very well said. Your words of wisdom encouraged me, Kathleen. It’s interesting I have seen God move on prayers that I have forgotten. I prayed them up, wrote them in my journal, and left it up to Him. Honestly, it seems as though God is doing a major house cleaning in my life once again.

  2. One of my Lenten offerings in prayer is to pray for conversion of our public officials. I do wonder at times, does my praying for his or her conversion really do any good? I mean, it’s not very likely the people I am praying the most for in that regard are going to soften their hearts. But then I remember that the process of praying for them is probably what Jesus was going for, when he commanded that we love and pray for our “enemies” It’s not that my prayers would be answered in the affirmative (although they may certainly be at some point) but that I love them enough to pray for them to attain holiness, to turn toward the Lord, too.

    Your post speaks to me because I worry that my prayers may ring awful hollow sometimes…but I’m sure if I continue to pray and really put my heart and soul into praying for God’s will in this instance, regardless of whether the prayers are answered in the affirmative, I will probably grow in a holier direction.

    • I hesitate on those prayers, too, for exactly the same reason. But then I also believe in the God helps those who help themselves, and sometimes we have to try to impact the things that trouble us from their root cause instead of banging our heads against a brick wall of politics and wailing to God about it. Which is why I think we have to try so hard to engage the general, non-Catholic population on the issues that you and I hold so dear on a rational level instead of making it all about religion. I think we’ll be more effective in making a difference that way. But I’m getting off on a whole other topic now!

  3. dottie

    My friend suggested that I pray for peace in a situation. Not only for me but for the person/people who are driving me crazy. I also like the author, Lamott, who says her prayers often consist of “whatever” in the morning and “oh, well” at night.

  4. You hit the nail on the head here. The most powerful prayer is, “Thy will be done”. I truly feel for friends in pain and suffering and suffer with them all the more because I can’t take their pain away. But I’m confident that when I pray for them God does give them the grace to endure. Like you, I have to stop immediately and pray for someone who asks for prayer because if I don’t, I am likely to forget. It doesn’t take long to pray an Our Father or Hail Mary. Whenever I think of the person I ask God to bless them. It won’t be until the next life that we will see how powerful our prayers have been. Another thing I think of is that God doesn’t give us what we want but rather what we need, even when we ask for others.

    I hope your ear gets completely well. Mine ring loudly almost all the time to the point of distraction, yet when other sounds occur around me, they seem more immediate and louder than the ringing, which I believe is the sound of blood circulating in and around the ear. It’s annoying but I’d rather have this than no hearing at all.

    • I have that persistent ringing, too–tinnitis. During the worst of this infection it was that bad, absolutely overpowering. That is about back to normal now…thank Heavens!

  5. Jenny Keely

    I’m glad you addressed this, Kate. Ever since a friend of mind died at age 40 from a monstrous, aggressive cancer that soaked her up like a sponge in a matter of months, I’ve struggled with prayers of petition. Or would it be supplication? Anyway, people were praying all over the country (and other parts of the world) for this woman, who was good and served others. My oldest, who was 6, was praying with me every night. I still remember telling my daughter about how our friend’s family had decided to stop fighting the cancer. She said in an incredulous little voice that squeaked at the end, “You mean they’re giving up???” When my friend died and left behind a husband and two young children, my conversations with God stopped for several months. It seemed so ridiculous to me to ask God to do anything when it seemed He allowed my friend to die. I found myself inwardly rolling my eyes when someone asked me to pray for healing or this or that. I wanted to say, “Do you really think God is going to answer that prayer when He allows (insert tragedy here) to occur every day??” One night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I made up with God. This sounds like a cheesy take-off on the “Footprints” poem, but I felt like I returned to Him on the beach. Since then, I usually just pray for peace, patience and understanding whenever possible. I’ve wondered if this means I’m underestimating God by not asking for more.

    • Some people would say so, but I don’t know. I think there is growth in the way we pray, and learning that God is not some “wish genie” who does our will is a big step. God has the answers and we don’t. Situations like the one you describe make that very clear, but it doesn’t make them any less painful, that’s for sure.

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