It would be unfair to write about prayer, especially contemplative, listening prayer, without giving attention to the barriers we face on this journey. Moving deeper into the practice of silence and solitude in our lives with God is our response to God’s invitation. We might have recognized the invitation from a sense of longing, thirst or desperation. Whatever the prompting may have been, our response will sooner or later be challenged.
There can be many outward messages, circumstances, and attitudes that discourage us from cultivating a praying life. However, in my experience the inward barriers are far greater and harder to face than the outward ones.
There are times when all of us struggle to engage and persevere in the practice of silence, stillness, and solitude, and I wonder if we really know what makes those practices so hard for us.
We might explain our lack of prayerfulness with our distractions, busyness, work and family obligations etc. And even though they are all real and valid reasons, they are not the root of our avoidance of silence. If we move beyond these exterior explanations, feelings of guilt, shame or self-condemnation might kick in. It whispers us, “If you truly loved God, and prioritized him in your life, you would pray more.” The Holy Spirit challenges us, convicts us of sin, and guides us into truth. He does not shame or heap guilt on us that leaves us feeling hopeless and clueless of how to move forward. I have seen very little life and fruit come out of such “confessions” of our lack of prayerfulness.
However, I do believe that it is very helpful to spend time examining our desire, fear, avoidance, and resistance for prayer. If we dare to ask God to reveal to us what it is that is holding us from responding to his invitation for intimacy, we will start to develop a more compassionate, and hopeful response to ourselves, and our relationship to God.
Naming the Barriers
We cannot change what we don’t know exists. Naming obstacles makes them shrink, and breaks the power the silence has given them. Unnamed hanging cloud of negativity keeps us back from moving toward God if we are unable to give words to what exactly we are feeling and if we can’t recognize those feelings origins (when did I start feeling this way? What triggered this?).
Prayerfully, consider the possible obstacles you face in responding to God’s invitation to be with him in silence.
Some of the possible barriers could be,
Fear of being confronted with the real self, own brokenness, sadness and pain (and avoidance to feel those feelings)
Desire and resistance for intimacy (being fully known and loved feels too risky)
Image of God who is angry, disinterested, lacks compassion, and who is ultimately not good, powerful and loving to me (false God-images)
False self images, “I am not that “spiritual”, “If I haven’t managed to get this right by now, I never will.” “Maybe I am just wired differently and cannot do it.” “If I just sit here, I am not being productive. And what good is that?”
Fear of entering a realm I cannot control (illusion of control)
Restlessness, boredom, inability to be still. Discomfort within, constantly shifting attention.
Fear of disappointment (what if nothing happens? What if I don’t feel or hear him? What if he is not able to satisfy my thirst?)
Lack of access to own interior life vs. easier access to exterior things
Not knowing how to be alone and pray (need instruction and accompaniment)
Feeling lonely (silence means rejection and loneliness vs. intimacy and companionship)
Past hurt and disappointments. A resentment that I hold against God and avoid to bring up in prayer.
Spiritual desolation, feeling out of touch with God, others and own true self
Impulse to flee from experiencing my limitations
Avoidance of exposing your true desires and wants in the fear of them not being met (God wouldn’t really care anyway about the things that matter to me. And even if he did, what could he do about them?)
Whatever the voice is that is blocking you from entering God’s presence freely and frequently, name it and stay with it for a while. Be curious about it. Bring it to God in prayer, and perhaps share it with a trusted friend or a spiritual director who can explore this with you. The more accustomed we become in recognizing and naming our barriers, the easier and faster it becomes for us to move beyond them.
When we start making our barriers for silence and prayer a topic of discussion with God, we might come to realize that these are the very places where God is at work in us.
Robert Mulholland writes,
“The process of being conformed to the image of Christ takes place primarily at the point of our unlikeness to Christ’s image. God is present to us in the most destructive aspects of our cultural captivity. God is involved with us in the most imprisoning bondage of our brokenness. God meets us in those places of our lives that are most alienated from God.”
Seeing ‘What Is’ Instead of ‘What Is Not’
When I feel overwhelmed by sadness and disappointment about my poor efforts to make time to listen to God, I try to turn to my attention to the “what is” rather than the “what is not”. What are my desires and longings? What am I missing and why am I sad? Having a chance to voice these emotions to God, myself, and sometimes a spiritual friend or director, opens up a window of hope in my soul. “I do desire God. I haven’t grown cold in my love for him. I am just struggling to find my way home to his love right now.” This allows me to take a step back, and draw close to God in honesty and openness.
If I stay focused on the “what is not”, all the ways I have disappointed myself (and God, I might think!), the lack of love, commitment, and faithfulness, and how much better I should be doing considering how far along the way I am by now, my heart only grows more hopeless, and I might end up heaping so much discouragement and judgement on myself that I end up feeling defeated, and lose faith for thing ever getting any different between God and I.
God asked Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:13). Jesus asked the blind man “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). I wonder if you imagined God addressing you with these questions, and gave him your honest answers, what your answers might reveal about your longings and fears about God, and your relationship to him.
Welcoming Jesus into Our Mess
One of the barriers for prayer can be our disappointment with the lack of its effects in ourselves. We might feel that despite our long history with God, we still struggle with poor character, and lack the evidence of God’s love in our lives on a daily basis. This can leave us disappointed and confused about what difference prayer really makes. As a result, we might withdraw from God, and decide to come back to him in prayer once we have “sorted ourselves out”.
The truth is however, that if we wait until our inner house is cleaned up and pretty before we invite God to come in we won’t ever end up praying. Welcoming Prayer teaches us to invite God in to our home, not even when, but precisely when the dishes are piling up, the fridge is empty, and the dog just peed on the floor. It is a powerful practice that helps us to invite God into the gap between the kingdom of heaven and our raw, messy life that seems to be hijacked by the impulses of our egos rather than led by the Spirit of God.
The purpose of the Welcoming Prayer is to help you to turn your heart to God’s loving presence so that you can response to life from a deep place of knowing that you are loved and secure in Christ instead of reacting to life from insecurity or fear.
“Welcoming prayer lands us — in the middle of of our hot mess — with Jesus so his kingdom can come and his will be done. The prayer releases and accepts. It is a small death expressed in four movements that give room to Jesus and not just our ego.”
— Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
The four movements which Calhoun talks about include, trusting Jesus with our three basic human needs and accepting the reality as it is. The three basic needs are: a need for affection and love, security and safety, and a sense of power and control.
When practicing Welcoming Prayer, we turn to our body for a source of wisdom and guidance about the triggers, frustrations, compulsions, and reactions that come from our ego. By paying attention to our body, we will notice how tense, tired, impatient, or unsafe we are. Allow this body awareness to lead you into the welcoming prayer where you name the sensation, thought and emotion, welcome Jesus in the midst of it, and release the impulse of the ego.
Welcoming Prayer Practice
Start paying attention to your feelings, thoughts and body. Do you notice any tension, pain or tightness in your body? Does anything worry you or make you feel afraid? Where can you feel it in your body? What is it that you carry with you that is heavy and causes discomfort in your body?
Name whatever it is that you are feeling in your body right in this moment and listen to what it wants to tell you.
Welcome God into all that you feel right now. Rest. Don’t cover it up, or try to fix or explain it. Instead, name all the emotions, thoughts and noticings about your body, and welcome God into your experience.
Imagine what it would be like, if you were held by God. Can you picture yourself being cupped into God’s hands? Imagine him picking you up, and brining you on the palm of his hand to his chest and holding you close. Enjoy the feeling of being held and carried. You can fully relax and trust that you will be taken care of. You can let go of the desire for control, security, and affection.
“I let go of my desire to be safe and secure (in this situation). Welcome Jesus.” “I let go of my desire to be accepted, liked and approved (by this person). Welcome Jesus.” “I let go of my desire to control (this person, circumstances, or event) . Welcome Jesus.” “I let go of my desire to change reality and receive it as it is. Welcome Jesus.”
Repeat the sentences and allow them to form into personal prayers of release and welcome.
E.g. “I let go of desire to change my friend.” “I let go of my desire to control the outcome of next week’s job interview.”
Don’t rush this. Keep welcoming God into your thoughts and sensations as long as they keep coming to your awareness.
What happens in your body when you feel the need for security, control or acceptance? When are you most likely to feel these needs?
What makes it hard for you to accept your current reality as it is?
Practice: 1. Start your day by scanning through it. Anticipate events and how they might make you feel: good, bad, bored etc. Notice the triggers they present you and welcome Jesus into those events before and in the midst of the day.
2. Do a body scan and welcome God into any points of pain or tension you hold in your body. Breathe deeply as you say, "Welcome Jesus, welcome."
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence by Ruth Haley Barton
The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy M. Gallagher
Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by Robert Mulholland
This blog post is part of the Adult Education Classes that I currently teach at my home church Denver Presbyterian Church. If you want to listen to the audio of this or any of the previous classes you can listen to them here.