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Prayer as Friendship with God: Case Study

LukeNotes, Fall 2021

Father Ed is a theological scholar, a thinker. He has written extensively about the Christian spiritual tradition, and the world of ideas is his comfort zone. He came to Saint Luke Institute because depression left him without his usual energy to teach and write.

Depression can affect a person’s spiritual life by diminishing, or even taking away, not only their affective experience of prayer, but their desire to pray. Father Ed said that he still desired a spiritual life, but he was experiencing very little of the affective response to prayer that had previously sustained him. He said that he could recall a time in his life when he felt God’s presence and response to him in prayer, but that was several years in the past.

While Father Ed’s prayer life was disciplined and varied—faithfully reciting the Liturgy of the Hours, meditation on Scripture for homily preparation, a daily rosary—his prayer life seemed to his spiritual director rather mechanical, arising more out of a sense of obligation than an intimate relationship with God. Rather than a deep desire for an encounter with God, his motivation for praying seemed to be simply the belief that he should be praying.

Going through the motions of prayer is sometimes a lifeline, a reminder that prayer is important and a reminder of times when it was deeply nourishing. In Father Ed’s case this was not to be discouraged, but respected as a sign of his commitment. Still, he needed to get back in touch with the experience of God in prayer. However, moving “from the head to the heart,” is not simple. It is opening the thinking mind to the penetrating awareness of spiritual experience, illuminating what is known with the light of something more intuitive than knowing.

Since Father Ed was aware of the spiritual tradition in a cerebral way, his journey of spiritual healing needed to begin there, with the rich tradition of contemplative prayer. Saint John of the Cross and others—including contemporary scholars3—have written about the experience of spiritual darkness, moments of impasse that happen in everyone’s life from time to time, when the way forward is not clear. Impasse can lead to cynicism and despair, and depression only increases the temptation to give up. Father Ed needed encouragement to find the inner stillness and silence, to sit with God in the impasse, and to invite God into his experience of darkness and depression; but it was unfamiliar to him to pray without words and simply be.

Replacing words with images helped: placing his struggles into God’s hands or resting his head against Jesus’ heart as the Beloved Disciple does in John 13:23. Focus on breathing in and out also helped, imagining breathing in God’s love, breathing out any negativity. Most of all, Father Ed needed to invite God into the messy places in his life, to cry out from the depths of those places, then be still.

One evening as he prayed in the chapel, tears began to fall. Father Ed cried out to God, “This is where I need you, right here in this messy place, right here in this darkness.” The immediate feeling was relief, as if some of the burden, the heaviness, had been lifted and became lighter for sharing. Then, gradually, the darkness of impasse began to lift, and God’s light began to glimmer around the edges of the darkness.

It was a new experience for Father Ed to make space routinely and faithfully in his day for this quiet time with God. He found it most beneficial in the early morning, before the demands of the day pressed in. As he grew more accustomed to the routine, he found that if his day did not start that way, something was “off.” The stillness and silence also opened new insights into himself. He got in touch with a deep feeling of unworthiness before God and was reminded that he is God’s beloved and that his growing desire for an intimate friendship with God was already God’s work in him.

For confidentiality reasons, names, identifying data and other details of treatment have been altered.