Why can’t I pray anymore?

Priests are used to being approached even at social events like picnics and ball games to answer religious questions. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lawyers, and tax accountants say that they are also asked “professional” questions even when they are having “personal” time away from the job. During half-time at a parish school football game, a middleaged divorced man I’ll call Paul struck up a conversation with me. He said that he had been divorced about a year, and one effect of his divorce he found very worrisome was that his desire and ability to pray had almost evaporated. He said that he still went to Sunday Mass but that even that “community’ prayer had become more and more of a struggle because he felt so disconnected from the celebration. Paul was quite concerned that this effect of his divorce might be lasting. He noted that he had been raised in a prayerful family himself, and that he and his former wife had prayed together and tried to raise their own (now adult) children to follow their example. Paul found this deterioration of his ability to pray since his divorce quite puzzling and distressing. He seriously wondered if he was losing his faith.

Many, perhaps most, people who are struggling to get through the painful aftermath of the end of their marriage through divorce discover that they can no longer pray as they once did. Why is this?

Some people, judging that they may be guilty of not doing enough to save their crumbling marriage, suspect that their inability to pray is somehow a punishment of an angry God who now refuses to “speak” to them through prayer. But the human reality is that most people who undergo a devastating personal crisis like (but not limited to) the painful end of their marriage find that they can no longer pray as they did before the crisis. While one may naturally fear that this new condition is permanent, it usually is not. The core truth of the matter is usually not that one cannot pray at al! 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 imagining God as one who “answer<' earnest prayer proves to be grossly inadequate! In spite of one's intense prayer that one's marriage would not come apart, it did come apart! What now? Why pray to a God who does not answer heartfelt personal prayer? But Jesus assured his disciples that prayer is answered. What prayer is always answered? The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (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 gradual growing acceptance of what is rather than what one would wish would happen. Of course, there is no quick simple step to acceptance without passing through what Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book described as the previous stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression! Dr. Kubler-Ross' extensive research showed that it was quite "normal" in the face of a personal crisis to struggle with denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before coming eventually to acceptance. One's fear may be that any one of these stages turns out to be permanent rather than transitional, but most often this is not the case. The human heart has an inner tendency to move (however slowly) toward healing. If one finds oneself profoundly "stuck' for a long time in any one of these initial four 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 discovering the level of prayer to which one is being called at a particular point in one's life-journey. I assured Paul that his current inability to pray as he had before the trauma of his divorce (both in what led up to it, and in its aftermath) was quite "normal". Of course, his realizing and striving to accept this would not magically erase his difficulties with prayer. Paul responded by telling me that, although what I had said was a lot to take in and that he would have to take some time to reflect on it, he was happy to have been introduced to a wider perspective on his personal struggle with prayer. And we still had time to get some hot cocoa before the game's second half began.