This past semester, some of my students have asked me the following: “When I pray or talk to God, how do I know God is listening? I mean, I could just be talking to a wall, right? That’s often what it feels like.”
I get asked a lot of questions as a professor and surprisingly, it’s not the questions about difficult theological concepts that stump me. Rather, its questions like the one above that stop me in my tracks, that keep me up at night, that no PhD can fully prepare you to answer.
Even though I responded to this question the best that I could months ago (with resources of different ways to pray, with explanations of faith and what it means to have an open heart, with reassurances that doubt is OK), it comes to mind now because I find myself repeating these same words during prayer. Right now, I feel like I am going through what I am calling a “spiritual dry period.” I cannot seem to pray like I used to pray. It is hard to describe, but I somehow feel less connected, like I am sometimes just “going through the motions,” like I am not sure it even matters. This feels especially troubling since regular prayer has been a part of my life since childhood. I feel this is important to share this because I think a lot of people go through these periods of intense doubt, even to Catholic theologians who dedicate their lives to studying religion. Sometimes people joke that having a doctorate in theology means I have a “direct pathway to God” or “rock solid faith that can withstand anything.” I have neither, and like everyone, still have more questions than answers.
John Haught in his book “What is God?” names God as depth, or the ultimate horizon of our existence. There are two faces to the experience of depth. There is the abyss, which feels like a “void with no support.” It can also be described as when you feel like you have hit “rock bottom,” and things just feel hopeless and you are so frightened. On the other hand, there is ground, which is the courage to accept the abyss. It’s the companion to our aloneness, the “thing” that keeps us going in spite of fear and anxiety, the little voice that tells us that doing whatever we are doing (even if it’s just getting up out of bed in the morning) is worth it, that there is “a point” to our existence. Atheists experience this as well (they may just call it something else, but even fervent non-believers experience the courage to face the abyss) but for persons of faith, the experience of depth can help us indicate what we mean by “God.”
The abyss that Haught describes helps us tackle the question of “if a loving God exists, why do I so often feel like I am talking to a wall?” Since God is not a tangible being like we are, God is not limited by time and space. We cannot touch God the way we reach out and embrace a friend, we cannot take a selfie with God to capture for our Facebook friends, we cannot get a reply from God the way we do from the person on the other end of a phone conversation. This means that God’s presence is often experienced as an absence- God is there, but we just cannot “feel it,” we are stuck in the abyss- we are “talking to a wall.”
We are creatures, which, first and foremost, means we are not God, although we are in relationship with God. So, it’s understandable that as creatures, we get frustrated “talking to a wall,” sometimes so much so that we just want to stop talking.
With prayer, just like any other activity, sometimes you have to just “do what you can.” Prayer does not always have to be the Rosary, or the Examen, or a list of petitions, or whatever traditional forms of prayer you have been taught. Prayer can also be what I made up last night as I lie in bed unable to focus.
“God, grant me an open heart to notice and feel your presence. On days that I feel doubt, help me to know that you are present even in the absence; that you remain, even if I am checked out. Help me to keep talking, even if I feel like it is to a wall, because in that wall, you are there. As I struggle right now with my faith, let me not waver in still striving to take care of Your creatures, human and non-human, and to emulate as much as possible Your love and mercy.”
So, a New Year’s goal: try to speak to God in some way from the heart each day. Sometimes, that could be going to a mass or service, participating in communal prayer, or reciting traditional words. Other times, it might be just a minute of your time. It might even be “God, I’m frustrated with you right now, I feel like I am talking to a wall!” As Jesus taught us, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, small and barely noticeable, yet it “grew and became a tree and the birds of the air made nests in its branches (Luke 13:18-19).” So too, our small prayer, our one minute “conversation with a wall” can produce great fruit.
For 2019, each day I am going to try post something learned, some place that I saw God in my day, some insight I discovered that can help me become a better person. These will be on my Facebook daily and I will try to upload them each week to the blog.