Praying When It’s Hard: When Prayer Becomes Dry

February 24, 2021

Everything was fine with my four orchids, daily reminders of good friends.  I have a window they like and every Monday I carefully measure ¼ cup of water for each.  I’m delighted when every so often a spontaneous stalk begins to snake toward the light.  I wait with anticipation as buds begin to form, wondering what exotic colors will emerge.  Brilliant blooms come in succession for a month or so, then satisfied, the plant settles back down to glossy green leaves.  

I was concerned when the leaves of one and then another orchid started to shrivel.  Of course they need more water, I thought, so for the next few weeks I gave them a little extra.  No improvement.  A bit of internet research revealed that orchids can appear the same whether under- or over-watered.  Solution?  Lift the pot liner, gently loosening from the soil if needed, inspect the roots to see if they are desiccated or rotting, and adjust accordingly.  

Tending to prayer can be a bit like tending to orchids.  A regular rhythm of place, time, and input supports heart-to-heart conversations with our Master Gardener, leading to growth and occasional blooms of inspiration.  But every once in a while, for no obvious reason, my prayer begins to wither.  Just like providing more water to my orchids was not what they needed, maybe adding more life-giving water is not always the answer.  Maybe I need to take a peek underneath, to let go ways of praying that served me well in the past, and try something different or new.

Without completely uprooting my practice, I consider:

  • Am I really being consistent with prayer?  Or am I taking shortcuts, or allowing myself to be distracted by newsfeeds?  If so, I need to put down the devices and recommit to what was bearing spiritual blooms in the past.
  • Do I feel spiritually thirsty?  Maybe it’s time for a retreat or a day of prayer.  Can I free up a block of time to visit a local retreat center (as health and circumstances allow) or nearby nature area?  Sacred quiet and change of scenery, or re-evaluating my space at home could help to refresh my soul. 
  • Is the dryness more like brittle autumn leaves?  I find this an invitation to patience, taking time to review movements in the past season’s prayer with gratitude, allow it to crumble to compost, and trust it will feed next season’s growth.
  • Have I been experiencing extremes in relationships or at work, feeling exposed to cold winter winds or summer heat? Now is a time for soothing conditions.  Sometimes I turn to art or music, or find myself drawn to the solace of an adoration chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.  Or sometimes soaking in the quiet repetition of a rosary or litany in the company of others feels like balm.

Even experienced DIY’ers can benefit from professional help 

While tending orchids has inspired questions to help my prayer in ordinary circumstances, sometimes those adjustments aren’t enough. The biblical image of a well gone dry may be hard to relate to in the 21st Century, but I have experienced turning on a faucet and nothing but burbles and gasps of air came out.  Usually there is notice that service will be suspended, allowing time to prepare, however one memorable moment was a complete surprise – a water heater was flooding the cellar! 

When a sudden dramatic absence occurs in prayer, or you find yourself in a prolonged period that doesn’t rebound, it’s time to call a spiritual plumber.  I am grateful for trusted spiritual directors and companions who help me troubleshoot issues, suggest remedies, and accompany my return to good spiritual balance. 

And those four orchids, am I only happy when they are blooming?  

While orchids respond to consistent care, they also need time to regenerate after blooming.  Likewise I may benefit from an extended season without tangible consolations or positive reassurances in prayer so I might grow in the kind of faith St. Paul describes in his letter to the Hebrews, that is, a “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” or feel (Heb 11:1, NIV).  Regular meetings with my spiritual director and her encouragement to stay consistent in prayer is sustaining.  We celebrate when blooms eventually arrive.

I am hopeful that, while that first orchid may be headed the way of compost, the second is on the road to recovery.  The third orchid is content, producing sturdy green leaves.  And the fourth? It will be blooming any day now.

Going Deeper:

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash.com

Jenéne Francis is an aspiring contemplative in action who finds writing creative non-fiction and short fiction a fruitful spiritual practice. She also enjoys adapting and offering the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for days of reflection and retreats. In her professional life, Jenéne serves as the Provincial’s Associate Pastoral Assistant for the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus supporting retreat houses, spirituality programs, parishes, hospital chaplains, and other Jesuits engaged in pastoral work. Having spent 17 years at the Procter and Gamble Company, followed by 20 years in ministry, Jenéne gets great satisfaction by offering her engineer’s head and poet’s heart for “the greater glory of God.”

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2 Comments

  1. Carrie Lambert

    Wow! Jenene, you are such a gifted writer. I can see why you like Visio Divina – your words paint a picture that tells the story. Thank you for this beautiful reflection and song.

    Reply
    • Jenene M Francis

      Thanks so much, Carrie, praying with images continues to be a fruitful way for me to have rich conversations with God. I’m grateful to be part of this community of writers and pray-ers.

      Reply

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