Praying When It’s Hard: Praying When in Desolation

March 30, 2021

Our 1-year-old has obtained the height and just enough dexterity to reach above his head and swipe at things on the kitchen counter.  Surprises come raining down: a sleeve of crackers, a banana, a full cup of water. Most of the time he squeals with delight at his new-found ability. A few weeks ago, he knocked a glass measuring cup to its death. It shattered on the tile around him. Terrified, he cried out and tried to run to me; I desperately coaxed him into standing still and waiting for my help. For several seconds he sobbed amidst the broken pieces of glass. Alone, scared, trapped. I was so close, and yet to him I may as well have been on Mars. 

My prayer has felt this way: alone, scared, trapped. 

Sometimes I can pinpoint a moment of “shatter,” when my faith was recklessly flung off the counter: a betrayal by a close friend, an unexpected loss, senseless death. Although I may have a vague awareness that God is “out there” in the world, my immediate circumstances have isolated me, leaving me raw and broken. Other times, tiny fissures have been forming over time. The integrity of the glass has been slowly compromised.  When something seemingly small happens (a comment from a busybody neighbor, a lost cable for the laptop, a cold that makes its way home from preschool), it can feel insurmountable. It was not one shatter, but thousands of little shards breaking off every day. 

This image of shattered glass captures what living and praying in a state of desolation feels like for me. St. Ignatius depicts desolation as movement away from God, goodness, community and faith. In consolation we sense God walking with us and accompanying us in our sadness and struggles. Even the most stalwart and faithful pray-ers find themselves in moments or states of desolation at some point in life. No matter where you find yourself today- in desolation, in consolation, or somewhere in between- God wants to meet you there.

Like my baby standing amid the sharp pieces of glass, when in desolation I find myself fearful of taking any steps. Any movement- to pray, to make any small change in my life, to seek help from friends or loved ones- risks further injury. If I allow this pain to emerge in prayer, will it become more pronounced, its edges more jagged and damaging? If I name this resentment I feel, will I be unable to ignore it as I go about my day-to-day life? In desolation I am paralyzed with helplessness, not knowing which way to turn. I am still gripping tightly to the very parts of myself in need of healing. 

So what do I do first?

Triage the Situation

When we recognize that we are in such a state, whether we arrived there gradually or abruptly, the first step in prayer is often a recognition that Christ alone will heal us. From my vantage point, all I see is shattered glass. In desolation, I remind myself that God has never led me to a dead end before. God has always offered a way forward. Instead of rushing ahead, I may just need to sit with that reassurance for a while. It can be helpful to spend time praying with my own memories of how God has intervened in the past, paying attention to any patterns of how God has worked in my life. Reconnection with my own experiences of God’s love provide the solid ground I need to begin moving forward out of desolation. 

Stop the Clock

I also need to be patient with myself, and with God. Often cracks in my faith life have been forming over time. Any repair is also going to take time. Any pressure to return to “perfection” is coming from me, not from God. Recognizing the source of that desire helps me reorient my gaze on the One calling the shots. Jesus knows my deep desire, however imperfect, and also knows that I may only be capable of receiving a small piece of His response at once. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals the blind man gradually. At first, the images the man sees are hazy and indistinct. Only after Jesus heals him a second time can he see clearly. Oftentimes, as old pains resurface, God brings about deeper, lasting healing.

Bring in Reinforcements

God has created us for community. Each time I have faced significant struggles in my prayer, good friends have supported me. I have been consoled by their faith in God’s promise to me. I have been encouraged by their perseverance in prayer.  Reinforcements have come as Spiritual Directors, faith sharing groups, and mentors. Sometimes the best sounding boards are the friends and family who know me the best, and are not afraid to challenge my way of thinking. Each of these people have reminded me that I am not alone. I have been reassured that the God who loved me yesterday, loves me today and will love me again tomorrow. 



Go Deeper:

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on

Jen Coito was Jesuit-educated in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. She has a Masters in Pastoral Theology with a specialization in Spiritual Direction. After working for the California Province of Jesuits and Christian Life Community, Jen and Fr. Tri Dinh, S.J co-founded Christus Ministries, an outreach that bridges young adults and the Church through service, retreats, and leadership formation experiences. Jen also serves the Sisters of Notre Dame in California as the Associate Director of Mission Advancement. Daily life involves juggling her work with awesome nuns and the constant stream of activities with her husband Jason and three children.

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