Why Praying Matters Even When You Can’t Feel God

My favorite thing about prayer is how ordinary it is. My prayer life mostly consists of things like sitting in silence and going to Mass, and most of the time I don’t feel anything especially significant or exciting. Most of the time, the silence is just silence and the Mass is predictable. But that’s why I love it. I love its simplicity, because it is always valuable, even when it doesn’t feel like it is.

Not that long ago I probably wouldn’t have said that. I would have associated prayer with wanting something spectacular to happen—an overwhelming peace, an all-consuming joy, a sense of purpose or a message from the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen people become overtaken with the Spirit and speak in tongues, and for so long I wanted to be that person. I wanted the special gift or intimate experience that would prove that God loved me and that He was paying attention to me. When it didn’t happen, all I could think was, “What about me? Why don’t I deserve your attention, God?”

Thrill-Seeking or God-Seeking?

What I didn’t realize then was that my desire for the right feeling or a special experience was really the result of my doubt. I had been told that God loved me, but I wanted evidence. I had been told that God had great plans for me, but I wanted a sign. I am supposed to believe that God is with me always, but I didn’t feel Him so I didn’t believe it.

Sometimes I did feel peace or joy, and I was reassured, but as soon as the good feelings went away, the old questions came back– “God, do you still love me? Are you really there?”—and I became discouraged. If I’m being honest, I was more of a “Catholic thrill-seeker” than a Catholic disciple. I wasn’t interested in being a faithful follower so much as I was looking for the next “spiritual high.” I doubted that God loved me because I didn’t feel anything in prayer, so my prayer became little more than seeking out the right emotions.

But getting the right feelings wasn’t what I needed. Instead of asking for the Holy Spirit to give me a certain experience, I should have asked for healing. What I really needed was the grace to face my doubts that God could love me, that He really wouldn’t leave me when I didn’t feel His presence.

Missing the Gift

One of the tragedies of always looking to achieve the right feeling or experience in prayer is that we miss the gift that God is trying to give us in that moment. And the easiest way to miss it is by comparison.

“God knows what you need.” That’s what my youth minister would always tell us before adoration on retreat. He would remind us all to trust God and to be open to whatever God wanted to tell us that night. But I would still find myself wanting to pay attention to everyone else—to be worrying about how they were praying, why they were so emotional, and, of course, why I wasn’t having such an intense encounter, too.

On my first retreat in my freshman year, I remember everyone leaving adoration so exhilarated and excited to talk about their experiences. I tried to seem interested as I was listening, but I hadn’t felt anything. In fact, I was quite exhausted and had almost dozed off more than once. The thoughts began spinning in my head that I had done something wrong, that God had forgotten about me, that He just didn’t care that much. In only a few minutes, all the beautiful things I had learned on that retreat were wiped from my mind because I hadn’t felt something.

I didn’t understand that God gives to us in all kinds of ways: sometimes the gift is a special experience or feeling His presence in peace or consolation, but sometimes the gift is not feeling anything. Between all my expectations and all my worrying, I was missing the gift of not feeling something. I was missing the gift of the silence.

Praying from Poverty

The gift of feeling nothing in prayer — of spiritual dryness — is that I’m forced to reckon with myself exactly as I am. I would much prefer for the Holy Spirit to swoop in with some extraordinary experience so that I wouldn’t have to confront my doubts and wounds and questions, but in the silence I have to do just that. I have to be able to sit with God and let Him love me as I am.

When I sit in silence, and the silence is just silence, I can’t run from the thoughts that distract me, from the worry that I’ll never be good enough for God, or from the truth that, apart from Him, I am nothing. I have nothing of my own to offer Him, because even the smallest of my prayers are only made possible by His grace. Even as I sit in the silence, He sustains me in being; my heart beats by His power. Then, all I can do is let Him love me, receiving fully whatever He chooses to give.

Pope Francis said, “He prefers to let Himself be contained in little things… dwelling in littleness and living the reality of one’s everyday life: this is exquisitely divine.”

The times when we feel nothing in prayer or when it appears that God has left us are often the times of great spiritual growth and healing. These times help us to realize our littleness and to see God’s presence in our everyday lives. They are an opportunity and an invitation to worship God for His own sake, not for what we want from Him; and they are an invitation to be loved by Him in unexpected ways.

I love it when prayer is ordinary because it reminds me that the Holy Spirit is present not only in spectacular moments but in every moment, and it gives me the opportunity to sit with my God, allowing Him to love me as I am, with all my restlessness and doubts. It’s only when I face those doubts and ask God to face them with me that I can have an authentic relationship with Him. Then I learn to trust that God doesn’t need me to be anyone other than who I am right now in order for Him to love me.