I don’t hear God when I pray. Very often, it’s like speaking into a void. I know He is there—that He is listening—but I can’t feel Him. I can’t hear Him. I know that I ought to continue praying, and to pray more often (“Pray without ceasing” and all that jazz), for by our faith we know that God always hears our prayers. But even though I know the One to whom I pray always hears me, I hear no response. It’s discouraging. It’s not easy to continually speak into that emptiness, desperately reaching for communion with someone who feels so far removed, while knowing that He is the one thing I need.
Does that sound familiar? It’s a very common feeling, even though we may not talk about it with our friends and family. That much is clear when you look at some of the more popular things available in today’s Christian literature. Thousands of articles and books about how to improve our prayer lives are produced and sell like hot cakes. Pastors preach constantly on how we can develop good prayer habits. We keep turning to those same passages from Scripture for guidance on how to pray. And yet, it’s something we continue to struggle with. Why is prayer so difficult? Prayer is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, and yet it seems that none of us are very good at it, or even know where to begin. “Perseverance” is a word which is thrown around often with regard to prayer. We just need to “persevere” in our prayer when it seems too difficult. But why? What is it that makes prayer such a chore?
Let me start by saying that this is a broad question. No single answer can really be given. But perhaps we can approach some kind of answer, and in so doing come to a better understanding of our own struggles with prayer.
All Creation is drawn to God, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Prayer is an expression of that desire to approach the source of all being, of all goodness. We want to commune with the source of all goodness, and once we have been drawn into proximity of that source, it elicits a response. There are two primary responses to this realization of God’s holiness which provoke us to pray.
The first comes when we begin to realize one simple fact: we are not good or holy. This is the proclamation of Peter: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). The closer we get to God the more we realize how unworthy we are. We are sinful, and our poverty is made most clear in contrast to the plenitude of God. This begins a prayer of repentance, in which we acknowledge our own sinfulness and pray for forgiveness. We begin to see the sharp contrast between what we are and what God is. Despite being made in His image, compared to Him we are nothing. This realization alone can be difficult. Peter himself shies away, and begs Jesus to depart. Our difficulty here lies in overcoming our own fear. “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10), as Jesus replied to Peter. It is our fear which causes us to retreat from the presence of God, as it is in His presence that our deficiencies are laid bare. We are afraid of admitting our own sinfulness, our own shortcomings, our own poverty. And thus we find it difficult to persevere in our prayer, and rather say “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
The second springs from intense desire. We know God is the one thing we need. The man who prays knows “that it is literally a matter of life or death to him, for he knows that he can live only through Him and that in the final analysis he can be nowhere else but with Him.” Despite recognizing our unworthiness, we feel utterly incomplete without God. We are drawn toward God, but yet perceive the “otherness” of God. The difficulty here thus lies in overcoming the great chasm that lies between us and God. God is with us, in a much more real sense than we are with one another. But God is also invisible, and thus this thing that we so desire often seems distant and far removed from us. We cannot see God, yet all we desire is to look upon His face, as St. Paul says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is easy to get discouraged in pursuing our innate desire for God due to this perception, and knowing that this chasm cannot be crossed by our own power, and so we are left only with the prayer of the Psalmist: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).
We might think of the first and second response as a kind of progression. We first see our poverty exposed in the light of God, and we are afraid. But as we continue to pray, we begin to understand that only God himself can heal that poverty. Only the plenitude of God can fill that void in our souls. So “perseverance” seems apt here, as we can see that perseverance can move one from fear of accepting God’s loving embrace to desiring it more than anything. Perseverance becomes even more important at that stage, as it is only then which we become cognizant of the remoteness of God. Despite his nearness, he remains distant, and thus persevering in prayer becomes even more difficult as we are painfully aware of how we can never overcome that distance.
But there is still a third response. While the first causes us to shirk from God out of fear, the third springs from a rebellious spirit which refuses to admit its own sinfulness. “I see that you are holy, God, but look not on me with judgment, for I am not sinful.” Our inadequacies are laid bare before God, but our pride causes us to reject this truth. We find no reason to pray, no reason to seek God, because we are already the picture of goodness. While God would cast a light on the darkness of our souls, we instead embrace that darkness, for the light would upend that state of existence in which we have become so comfortable. We like our lives the way they are, and we do not see any room for God in them. Or, perhaps, we have a false sense of what it means to allow God into our lives—our pride has so blinded us that we do not even recognize that we dwell in darkness, as 1 John says: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8,10)
Too often, in my own spiritual life, I find myself exhibiting the third response. And, unfortunately, it seems that the source from which it springs is much more difficult to correct, as it lies at the heart of our fallen nature. Pride is the root of all vice, and it is pride itself which is keeping me from a proper relationship with God. While “perseverance” can often seem like a useless piece of advice for a struggling prayer life, we can see how it can help here. If it is my immense pride which refuses to accept my own sinfulness, and if the closer we get to God the more aware we become of that same sinfulness, it seems that persevering in prayer goes directly to the root of the problem. Prayer brings us closer to God, exposing our poverty. While the prideful soul resists this with all it can muster, perseverance can overcome that resistance, little by little, until the prideful soul can finally exclaim “O God, my soul thirst for you.”
 Guardini, Romano. The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1985. 40-42.