When words don’t come: on prayer and writing

Erin Daly 2.0 images (2)

I’m currently involved in a program with my parish called Called and Gifted. It was developed by the Catherine of Siena Institute and it’s designed to help lay people discover their spiritual gifts (called “charisms”) so they can better put themselves at the service of God and the Catholic Church. The program runs for several weeks and starts by having participants take a spiritual gifts inventory, which helps them identify which charisms they might possess so they can start “testing” them. Completely unsurprising to me, my top gift is Writing. The program distinguishes natural talents from charisms, just being good at something from something that the Holy Spirit works through to help and move people. Just because you score high in a gift on the inventory doesn’t mean it’s a charism–hence the need to “test” the gifts later in the program. But I do think that Writing might be a genuine charism of mine. It energizes me more than just about anything else. Using it to share my faith and touch hearts is deeply fulfilling for me. Those are possible marks that a gift goes beyond just a natural talent and into the realm of a charism.

Funny, then, that lately I’ve been staring at my blog and feeling totally unsure of what to write next. I’ve been starting drafts in my OneNote notebook only to abandon them or scrap them. I’ve been adding to drafts in my blog dashboard, intending to publish them, but somehow feeling unsure that they’re complete, that they’re right. Even after settling down from leaving my job in Cincinnati, working in the kitchen at my old Camp home, summer vacation, moving to Wisconsin for a new job. I’ve been at a frustrating loss for words over the last few weeks. Writing doesn’t feel like a charism right now. It feels a bit more like trying to trudge through thick mud and getting nowhere.

Interestingly enough, writing hasn’t been the only place where I’ve been struggling to find words lately. I’ve also been encountering the feeling in prayer. I wouldn’t say I’m in dryness or desolation like I’ve known it in the past. The desire to pray and to go to Mass is there in a way that it wasn’t during my previous experiences of dryness. But I feel the same way when my knees hit the kneeler in church as I do when my fingers hit the keyboard of my laptop: grasping at some vague image or desire but struggling to put words to it. Longing to speak something into the void, but being unsure of what to say. It’s an unsettling feeling, in the writer’s life and the spiritual life. It makes me wonder if I’m doing something wrong.

A few weeks ago, though, I found a way of praying that seemed to help with those feelings of restlessness and emptiness–intercession. Praying for others. It got me out of my own head and gave me something to talk to the Lord about when I felt like words weren’t coming to me in prayer.

It’s been reminding me that I often get too hung up on my positive feelings in prayer. I’m not saying emotions are bad. The consolations that accompany the spiritual life and prayer are sweet gifts from God and we should definitely rejoice in them when they are given to us. But it’s easy for me to forget that they are not the object of my prayer and my pursuit–Jesus is. I don’t pray to feel nice things and neither should anyone else. Prayer isn’t about me. It’s not about how I feel. It’s about honoring God and maintaining a relationship with Him. True, He loves me and has so much to give me when I go to Him in prayer. He wants us to expect great things from Him! But if I approach it only with the question of “what can I get out of my prayer time today?” and not “what can I give to God?” as well, I’m doing it wrong. Like any relationship, it’s a give-and-take.

Those feelings of dryness have been reminding me of another dimension of prayer–it can be for others, in addition to being for God and for me. The consolations of prayer are a gift, but like I said, that doesn’t mean that prayer should become all about them. I believe I have an obligation to pray for others and their needs, both those that I know and those that I don’t. I’ve been feeling a deeper desire to intercede for others in prayer in the past few months, and sometimes it takes being without those feelings in prayer to remind me of that duty. Again, prayer isn’t just about me. It can be a powerful help for others.

In a similar way, I have to remember that my love of writing isn’t just for me. True, it gives me great joy and I find it personally fulfilling. But I think it goes beyond that for me. I can’t tell you the number of times people have told me that I have a gift for writing, or the number of times that people (friends and strangers) that have told me that my writing has touched them or moved them. I think that God wants to work through this humble gift of mine.

And if He wants to do that, that means I need to show up. It means that I need to at least try. It means that I can’t let fear stand in my way of putting my words out there. For writing, like prayer, isn’t for me. Or at least, not just for me. My prayers might benefit me, but they are also mighty on behalf of others. Writing might be enriching for me personally, but I don’t think I’m using it for its full potential if I keep such a gift to myself.

Remembering this made it easier for me to sit down and write this piece. I’ve been praying lately that God might help me realize with greater urgency that my life is for others. As a rather shy person who struggles with self-confidence and a tendency to compare myself to others, it’s easy for me to get way too comfortable keeping to myself, and to look only at my deficiencies, at the things I’m not so great at. But ever since I made that prayer I’ve been feeling a gnawing conviction about certain things and an ache to get the word out about those things. Perhaps that’s a cue that I need to write more, not so much for myself but for others.

In my periods of real deep-down spiritual darkness, I found that concrete acts of love for God and for others–a resolve to pray and go to Mass even when it’s difficult, a kind word or gesture for somebody else, whatever it might be–help me to take my mind, at least temporarily, off of my desolation. Those acts get me out of my head and remind me that my interior life means nothing if it doesn’t overflow into the way I live my life externally. That’s how I’m choosing to approach my current feelings of off-centered-ness in prayer and in trying to write. That’s what helped me sit down to write this. It’s what’s been driving my prayer life for the last few weeks. I can’t pray only when I *feel* like it. I can’t write only when it *feels* easy. Doing something when it’s easy is fine, but doing something when it’s hard is a true testimony to love and dedication. Those are the most valuable endeavors.

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