was pushing my grocery cart down an aisle of the neighborhood supermarket when I met another shopper I’ll call Ruth coming the opposite way. I knew Ruth, a widow in her mid-60s, had recently lost her husband to cancer. I asked her how she was getting along. She told me how kind and supportive her adult children and a couple of close friends were, and that, all things considered, she thought she was doing pretty well. Then she paused like she was about to bring something else up but then decided not to. I gently asked her if there was something else she wanted to say. She replied that she was embarrassed to bring up her current prayer practice or, rather, the lack of it. She said that prayer, for her, had basically ended when her husband died. Ruth told how they had both prayed long and hard for his recovery from cancer. They were both life-long Catholics whose personal and couple prayer was part of the foundation of their marriage of 35 years. They had raised three children in the faith. Sunday Mass, prayer before meals, blessings of the children each night before bed, and periodic couples’ retreats at an area Catholic retreat center were a natural part of their lives. With moist eyes, Ruth told me her inability to pray anymore greatly disturbed her but the old familiar words and rituals now seemed completely empty.
I reassured Ruth that many, perhaps most, people who are grieving the loss of a spouse discover that they cannot pray as they once did. Why is this?
Some people may even suspect that their inability to pray as they once did is somehow a punishment of an angry God who now removes their ability,to pray in reaction to sins and faults they were guilty of during their marriage. But the broader human reality is that most people who undergo a devastating personal crisis like (but not limited to) the death of a spouse find that they can no longer pray as they once did. The core truth of the matter is that usually not that one cannot pray at all but that one cannot pray as one used to with the “results” that one was used to getting, perhaps from childhood. In the face of a painful personal crisis, one’s long-time way of imaging God as one who “answers” earnest prayer proves to be grossly inadequate. In spite of one’s intense prayer that a loved one would be healed, the loved one died anyway! What now? Why pray to a God who does not answer heartfelt personal prayer? But Jesus assured his disciples that prayer is always answered. What prayer is always answered? The prayer that Jesus taught (which we call the Our Father) which has at its core “Your will be done”. The universal “answer” to prayer like this can only be one’s gradually growing acceptance of what rather than what one would wish would happen. Of course, there is no quick step to acceptance without passing through what Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her Five Stages of Grief described as the previous stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression! Her extensive research showed that it was quite “normal” in striving to come to terms with a personal crisis to have to struggle with denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before coming eventually to acceptance. One’s fear may be that one of these preliminary stages become permanent, but most often that is not the case. The human heart has an inborn natural tendency to move (however slowly) toward healing. If one becomes profoundly stuck for a long time in one of the stages, that may be a signal that one could use professional help in moving through that particular stage as all inner-wounded people are meant, and indeed drawn by an innate unconscious human urge, to eventually do.
Finally, it may be hard to believe but a personal crisis can often be, at some level, an invitation from life to move to a simpler, deeper level of prayer. What is prayer, after all? It is an intentional opening oneself to God. Over the course of one’s life, one often discovers a natural progression in prayer, whether in spoken word or in the silence of one’s heart. One usually begins one’s prayer practice with set formulas of prayer (like the Our Father or Hail Mary). At certain points in one’s life, one may sense a call to pray spontaneously in one’s own words. Then, at other points, often connected to a personal crisis or “conversion” experience, one may sense a call to pray without words at all in order to just be there in
God’s presence. A trusted counselor in spiritual matters may be of help to one in discerning the level of prayer to which one is being called at a particular point in one’s life-journey.
Ruth responded that this was all a lot to take in, but that she would think it over and get back to me in the near future to discuss these ideas further. So, with a parting hug, we went our separate ways in the supermarket.