Wilderness in Prayer

You may feel that Lent has come early this year - the clergy were in Lent at the beginning of Advent - discussing in a staff meeting what we might take as a sermon theme for Lent. As we floated some ideas, the words 'desert' and 'wilderness' came to the fore - and thoughts developed about looking at the different sorts of wilderness experiences we go through in our lives. Leslie was looking out of the office window at the time and he suddenly exclaimed, eureka-like, "we'll call it Wilderness Ways!". This was not just a flash of inspiration - he was gazing at the name of the outdoor shop at the top of the street, and we couldn't resist the connection.

That may sound terribly corny, but actually the way of wilderness is part of life. The theme very much addresses reality. When Jesus went into the desert he confronted his own inner wilderness of fears and doubts and temptations; he faced feelings of panic and inadequacy. The wilderness is a place where Jesus' human path very obviously crosses ours. We face situations where we feel at odds with the world's values. We struggle within personal relationships, and can even feel as though we are being torn apart by wild beasts. We feel emptiness and want something more exciting than the boring bread of everyday life. We hurt deep inside from mental and physical pains which can tempt us to give up on everything.

During the next five weeks we shall be thinking about various "wilderness ways" and looking for where we may find the reality of God within them. Today we begin with the situation when our prayer life seems to be a wilderness, a mess, bleak as a desert landscape. We are starting with prayer because it is basic to living the Christian life, when we feel spiritually dry and life loses its heart. And yet this is the area we least talk about. We may share with others our worries about the world we live in, our relationships, our jobs (or lack of them), our health fears. These we see to be common concerns.

Hard times

But I guess that going through hard times in our life of faith is one of the loneliest wildernesses of all - because part of us suspects that we are the only ones who inhabit that particular desert. After all, if you are a Christian you are supposed to have faith in a personal God, be aware of his presence and have some sort of communication with him, that is, to pray. If God seems absent, if prayers feel repetitious or unanswered or meaningless, then we can feel a failure as Christians. We can't possibly talk to anyone about it because we assume everyone else here is a successful "pray-er". So we grow more lonely in our spirtual life; there doesn't seem to be an oasis in sight.

Well, first can I offer some reassurance that those sensations of absence, boredom and non-response in prayer are common to every single Christian. There isn't a person sitting here now, ordained or lay, old or young, who has a consistently rewarding life of prayer, who always prays in the right frame of mind (whatever that is), never gets distracted, and always knows for certain that God has answered them.

This is not surprising. Jesus in his human suffering called out that great question of abandonment from the cross "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Following in the way of his humanity, the greatest of saints have often struggled with a sense of separation from God. When he was on retreat, Cardinal Newman once wrote "I have little enthusiasm for the things of God. As the years go on, I have less and less sensible devotion and inward life. I am like a man who is trying to walk with his legs tied together, as though I were bound with chains." This from the man who wrote the wonderful words of the hymn "Praise to the holiest in the height", certain that God was present in the depths and the heights, "in all his words most wonderful most sure in all his ways". All Christians at some time in their lives have little to offer God, other than the desire to offer. Don't think you are odd if this is your experience.

Think of a desert or wilderness and one imagines a great emptiness, with perhaps a few tangled, dry, stunted bushes. Empty, confused, dry and stunted are words which may well describe our prayer life sometimes. God no longer seems to be there and there is a great emptiness; am I speaking to anyone, is anyone speaking to me? Or the problem appears to lie in ourselves, we feel confused and entangled because we are uncertain about what we believe, we are hurt by life events and feel angry or bitter, we feel just not good enough; any or all of these make prayer difficult, and we feel stunted like spiritual pygmies.

Absence of God

Let us look at these two notions of God's absence and our own confusion in prayer. In times of physical or emotional stress God may seem to vanish for a while; we may even feel we are losing our faith. But Jesus' cry of desolation didn't mean that his faith had gone. On the contrary, you can't yell at someone you don't believe to exist. God is never absent. Perhaps we come to the conclusion he is, because we always associate his presence with the good things of life. We see a sunset, a snowdrop, a baby, someone healed; and we say "who could not believe in God?" So conversely, when life is disappointing or tragic or seems worthless, there is a tendency to say "where has God gone?" But this logic isn't God's logic. God is present in the darkness quite as much as in the light: "darkness and light are alike to him".

More common than to think God is absent, is to know that God is there but not know how to reach him. We are genuinely be-wildered as to what to say and how to listen. Or nothing seems to "happen"; no good feelings appear. Or we may feel cast out in a wilderness of doubt; we are unsure of our beliefs or guilty at our shortcomings, and feel we have no right to pray. Or we are disappointed that prayer has not been answered as we wish, and despair of ever understanding God's purposes. All of these are common experiences, but I think are the result of coming to prayer with some odd expectations and ideas of God.

God is not a strict teacher. We don't have to "get it right". There are no "correct" ways to pray, we don't make a mistake when we are distracted. We can each pray only as we can, not as someone else. This is God who knows and loves each of us. He can cope with our fumbling for words, our repetition. It's OK to use familiar prayers over and over again. It isn't boring to repeat something which is true; the words become ours as we put ourselves into them, and acquire different meanings each time. He can cope with our doubts. No-one can define or explain God. But prayer isn't about understanding God, it's about being with him.

Confusion in prayer

If we can pray only when we are virtuous and confident, we shall never pray at all. It is just when we are confused, hurt or afraid, that we need to pray. In prayer, explanations go by the board, because all we do as we pray is to place ourselves within the sheer overflowing mystery of God's love and let it wash over us. He is "the well of life", always ready to water the dry and parched places of our lives.

Having said all this, there are for some people periods when the wilderness seems to overwhelm them, and praying alone feels impossible. If that ever happens it is even more important to go on praying with the worshipping church, and sharing in communion. What is lacking in ourselves will be there in the fullness of the Body of Christ. At these times it is also important to seek God wherever he is to be found - in the worlds of art, nature, recreation and among people. If we practise liking human beings, trying to be more loving, and trying to understand ourselves, then the presence of God may be known again, real and approachable.


Changing my imagery somewhat - deserts are not just threatening places. They are also quiet and open. The wilderness is not just the place of losing God - it is also the place where we can find him. Quietness and openness are necessary elements if we are to really encounter God. Quietness - in order that we may be totally attentive to him, and listen to what he is saying. It is in our own deepest thoughts and feelings and longings that we will hear him, but we need stillness to be attuned. And openness. We cannot pray "thy will be done" if we have already set the agenda. In prayer we open ourselves to God to be changed, and offer ourselves to be used to bring about his purposes.

The way of prayer is no easy way. It does bring joy, comfort, strength and hope - but challenge and disturbance are also part of the package. I said at the beginning that one of the hardest things about our prayer-life is that we often feel alone in it. We want to offer some help with this. Sometime in the next couple of weeks we will have available for everyone to take home what we are calling a spiritual review. It is a quite simple set of questions which we hope will help you reflect on where God is at the moment in various areas of your life. It may raise thoughts or questions which you would like to talk over with one of the clergy or readers, especially if the experience of wilderness is real at the moment. When it appears do consider seriously if you want to talk it through with anyone.

I'll end with some reassuring words of the philosopher Pascal. "Console thyself, thou woulds't not seek Me if thou hads't not found me." Hang on to that when prayer seems difficult - the longing is itself an overture to God, and is evidence that your faith is living and real.

Eileen McLean, Assistant Rector

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997