Failures & remedies in prayer

Summary of an essay by Archbishop Alban Goodier S.J.

Prayer is a gift from God—one He readily bestows on those who dispose themselves to its reception. Prayer is not easy, it is like a delicate flower that requires nurturing. Many books have been written on how to pray but the lessons of our own experiences are probably the best.

Our failures

Our failures in prayer most often fall into three categories: 

  1. We begin well enough—or we did not, which is more common than people allow— but immediately we are lost. People we know wander through our brain, above all two classes: those we like best and those we like least.

  2. We make ourselves comfortable—mindful of St. Teresa’s warning than no one can pray whose body is in torture. After the first half minute, the restful attitude has led to a complete blank; it has either soothed us into slumber or else has let our minds wander to the moon. Of how many meditations is this the history?

  3. The desire and relish of spiritual things deserts us as soon as we try to pray. There remains nothing but weariness and languor; mean and shameful thoughts then come careering through our minds which are totally absent at other times. We have scarcely begun our prayer but we long with an almost irresistible longing for the end.

These are more likely than not our own experiences of prayer, but fortunately they have their remedy written right across them: we have but to acknowledge them, to discover the right relation that exists between prayer and mortification, and realise that, to some extent at least, one is the price of the other.

The remedies


In the first place, if excessive preoccupation is a hindrance to prayer [as it most often is in our busy world], then we must train ourselves to resist this preoccupation. This does not necessarily mean doing less work in order to pray more, but it does mean that, no matter how much, or how engrossing, or how urgent our work may be, it must never be allowed to master us. We must learn to shut the door to interference; this is the active side of the virtue known as peace of mind.


Secondly, if bodily ease is found to be a hindrance to prayer, then not only during times of prayer but at other times too, we must train the body to give up its comfort for the sake of energy of mind and heart.


Thirdly, if nature resists the supernatural effort to be made in prayer, if prayer is a time of weariness and agony, then it is likely that the hindrance to prayer comes from without rather than from within. It is much more likely to be a real trial than the consequence of our own faithlessness and self-indulgence. There are three things to be done:

  1.  First of all, at times which are not strictly times of prayer, seize the opportunities for prayers of aspiration [e.g. “Jesus, I love Thee,” or “Jesus, my Lord and my God” etc.], or a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or to pray the Angelus. Pray when nature is not in conflict; gradually nature itself will learn to “taste and see how sweet is the Lord.”

  2. If prayer is not a matter of duty, if it is irksome (when body and soul are weary) it is of little use driving the soul against its own inclination. To pray long at such times, simply because one has made up one’s mind to do so, does but make a prayer a matter of greater horror.

  3. On the other hand, when prayer is of duty (due to one’s state in life or according to one’s religious rule), our practice must be the complete opposite. We must not clip the time but train ourselves to prolong it; and the reason is that prayer is then something more than a matter of inclination. It is the fulfilment of a duty and no yielding in duty can possibly make for growth in prayer.

Other failures & remedies in prayer

The above failures represent the most common hindrances to prayer, but sometimes the fervent, with all the best will and effort and preparation in the world, still seem to make little progress. In such cases it is likely that the trial comes from the hand of God Himself. He sometimes makes prayer difficult [how many saints have had to pass through the “dark night of the soul?”] to confirm a soul in the virtue of disinterested love. To such souls that persevere, He rewards them richly.

Finally, there is another hindrance, one which a soul is often loathe to admit, something clothed in the garments of goodness but which leads us away from God. This is a disordered affection for a person or a thing. A disordered affection is not just a distraction to be dealt with by mortification of the senses, it is something to be rooted out. By a disordered affection, we place a creature in competition with its Creator for our love.


Hence to sum up the remedies to our failures in prayer: we need to cultivate discipline of thought, discipline of body, discipline of nature and discipline of heart. May Jesus grant us this grace.

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