Q: I am a convert to Catholicism, and I have a question about prayer. Since becoming a Catholic, I cannot recall experiencing anything during my daily prayer time. I know God exists and prayer is a conversation with him, but shouldn’t I feel God’s presence in some way from time to time? Am I doing something wrong?
A: Thank you for your excellent and important question! First of all, I want to assure you that you are in good company. For the last 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa could not feel God’s presence. Still, she saw prayer as essential, telling an interviewer in 1989, “I don’t think that I could do this work for even one week if I didn’t have four hours of prayer every day.”
When we pray, we believe without a doubt that God hears us and that he responds to us in his wisdom, mercy and love. If God is out there somewhere and he hears us, why do many of us not feel his presence when we pray?
St. Teresa of Avila, in her spiritual classic The Way of Perfection, writes about experiencing God in the “prayer of the quiet”: “The soul understands he is there, though not so clearly. She does not know herself how she understands; she sees only that she is in the Kingdom.” Mystical experiences were not the point or the object of St. Teresa’s prayer. They were given to her, but she did not ask for them or expect them from God. Prayer for her was not a method used to gain experiences, but rather a way of maintaining a relationship with God, who she loved and who she knew loved her. St. Teresa’s example helps us to get to the heart of your question, which really is: Why do we pray at all?
One of my favorite books of all time on prayer is Father Jacques Philippe’s Time for God. Father Philippe says something crucially important about prayer: “The first basic truth, without which we will not get very far, is that the life of prayer … is not the result of a technique, but a gift we receive.”
So many things in our American culture are about results or achievements. We wear step-counter wristbands to log our daily steps to help us lose weight, attend leadership conferences to become more effective managers and executives, download the newest traffic apps to get to our destinations more efficiently, etc. If we’re not careful, we can enter into our personal prayer with this same mentality of wanting to achieve something, as if it were some sort of technique.
Many Eastern forms of prayer and meditation, such as yoga or certain schools of Buddhism, use techniques in order to achieve enlightenment or “cosmic harmony.” We can say the same for much of the New Age movement. If we enter into our time of prayer with this mindset then Father Philippe is absolutely correct — we will not get very far, we will never draw from it what we are supposed to, and we will feel disappointed and discouraged.
So, why do we pray? To answer this, we have to know what prayer is. One of the best definitions comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. John Damascene: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” (CCC 2559) Prayer is actually quite simple: It is a turning toward God and praising and loving him simply because he is God. In another book, Thirsting for Prayer, Father Philippe says, “We do not pray because we desire God or because we expect valuable gifts from our prayer life, but first and foremost because it is God who asks us to.”
God has created us and called us into a relationship with him through Jesus Christ. Our best response to this invitation is prayer, praising and thanking him for all that he has done for us. This is why we pray! If God wants to reward us with spiritual experiences, wonderful, praise God! But that shouldn’t be our expectation. In our prayer, there should be no expectation at all, only our own faithful desire to maintain God’s eternal covenant that he has made with us.
May God’s blessings be with you today and always!
Northwest Catholic - November 2016