Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, Jen, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask Jen to describe her prayer, and she responds thus:

Case 3

I used to really enjoy meditation, but lately I can’t pray. I get up early to pray, but there is nothing there. The door is shut. It’s like God has abandoned me and I am left outside, pounding on the door. I don’t feel anything and I can’t concentrate. Eventually I give up and start work or browse the web or something. Though that really doesn’t help. And even my husband and my friends don’t understand me and look at me like I’m going crazy. Am I losing my faith? Am I lost?

Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?


What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that Jen is seeking?

It seems that Jen has come to expect some type of experience or feeling in prayer and that God has stopped giving her the consolations she expects. She is feeling the pain of the loss of the way she has experienced God to this point. It’s not that she has forgotten God, or has abandoned her prayer time, or is no longer seeking him—she continues to seek him but is unable to find him, as it seems to her. This is profoundly disorienting and disturbing. And to make her misery complete, her loved ones are no help—in fact they are adding to her suffering.

How is this prayer likely to form the soul?

Prayer? Is this “inability to pray” in fact prayer?

Yes. In fact, this is a purer prayer. The essence of prayer is in the will, not in the thoughts or feelings or emotions, and Jen continues to seek God, even without reward, even in suffering.

In fact, this is a purifying prayer. This aridity, this removal of spiritual sweetness and feelings of devotion is making obvious the role that reward played in her prayer to this point. To this point Jen had been a faithful servant, serving God for the pay she received. Now she has the opportunity to become a friend, to serve God for love alone.

In fact, this purification, this purging, is the presence of God. When God is close, our old attachments start to burn away—and not without pain—but that is more than compensated by God’s proximity. Some day Jen will look back and understand that God was closer to her at this time than ever before.

In fact, this purging is the start of dark contemplation. If it continues, if Jen continues to pray even in aridity, if she doesn’t turn back, God will work more directly in her spirit, rather than through sweet thoughts and feelings. She will find that God teaches her all things in secret, that God infuses into her his love.

The angels are singing for joy because Jen can’t pray.


Dear Jen, what is it that you are seeking in prayer? Is it a clear thought or a good feeling? Do you have particular desires and expectations? Can you relax, be at peace, and accept whatever God gives you—or doesn’t give you? Can you simply love God and be open to his will and quietly undergo whatever he would do with you?

In this time of aridity be careful not to turn to anesthetics like TV or browsing the web or spending time with friends or losing yourself in work. Continue to seek God. Persevere. If you turn back now, you will lose great blessings. This opportunity is not repeated.

You may wish to meditate on Psalm 88, or 22, or the book of Job, or even the passion story. But if you are unable to reason and meditate, allow yourself to remain in stillness, even though it may seem that you are doing nothing, wasting time. The important point here is to love God, not to think thoughts about God.

Be content with a peaceful, loving attention to God.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and