I went through an extended period last year during which I had difficulty praying. The stretch lasted many weeks in which I couldn’t find the words to speak to God as I usually did, couldn’t sit silently in His presence as I usually did because I wasn’t certain He was there and struggled simply to say the words even of routine prayers because of an overwhelming sadness that gripped my soul.
I am happy to report that I found a sure-fire way to pray again when that dark cloud engulfs you:
Jump out of an airplane.
Now, it’s a good idea to be attached to a parachute, mind you! In my case, I was all hooked up to an experienced sky diver — the young man from New Zealand had made more than 2,300 jumps in his life — and the parachute was attached to him.
Believe me, you find yourself almost forced to pray at least a little when you commit to sky diving. It happened somewhat unexpectedly for me in August 2013. I had told my daughter Erin that I had wanted to take such a leap for my 50th birthday. Alas, I turned 51 two months earlier, I said, so the opportunity had passed. Darn the luck!
As we were planning a quick late-summer vacation to Napa Valley — my wife Donna, Erin and me — Erin did an online search for sky-diving opportunities in that area. Of course, she found one, in Lodi, Calif. She made reservations for all three of us, and that’s about the time my praying began.
In Oswald Chambers’ amazing book, “My Utmost For His Highest,” published almost a century ago, he wrote: “When a man is at his wits’ end, it is not a cowardly thing to pray, it is the only way he can get into touch with Reality. Be yourself before God and present your problems, the things you know you have come to your wits’ end over.”
When you are standing at the open door of an airplane flying 14,000 feet above the earth, when you are waiting for the man behind you to yell, “Jump now!” — you feel as if you are at your wits’ end. So I said a quick prayer in that moment. Nothing fancy or involved. It was a simple, “Oh, my God, stay with me.”
Yes, I’m able to pray again. (Thank you to everyone who had been praying for me. Your encouragement and support have meant a great deal.) My return to conversation with God was slow at first — when I truly felt “at wits’ end.”
How did it happen? How can you start praying when it just doesn’t seem right or comfortable or easy? I found three ways or situations:
* Pray for someone else. Don’t think about yourself. Rather, ask God’s blessing for someone you love. There was a time when a particularly dear friend was dealing with several crises all at once. I felt helpless yet wanted to be of some service and comfort for her. With no other options, I began to ask God to help ease her pain, to bring her peace, to be there for her in ways that I couldn’t. Suddenly, I felt a little more connected — to her and to God.
* Focus on gratitude. A friend who is a relatively new Catholic told me, “I am still learning how to pray. That has been one of the hardest things for me. I feel selfish when I ask for His help, and I mostly end up just being thankful for what I have.” Little did she know that she already was saying some of the most intimate, beautiful prayers possible: being thankful. Check out the Gospels and see how many times Jesus began special moments by thanking the Father. In my lowest times, when I felt like I couldn’t go on and thought that God perhaps had abandoned me, I finally thought of one or two good things in my life and said, “God, I don’t know if You can hear me, but if it was You who blessed me with these things, thank you.”
* Jump out of the airplane. When life seems dangerous from the moment you wake up in the morning, when you feel alone and don’t sense the Lord’s presence or any real intimacy with the people around you, when you feel like you are standing right at the edge and are afraid of what might happen, that’s when you truly are at wits’ end. Simply cry out to God from the deepest part of your heart and soul. “Stay with me, God!”
* Take the leap. You might scream or you might be quiet. You might find words for that moment’s experience or simply cry. You might feel able to trust that He hears you or you might not really know for certain. Take the leap anyway. Just go.
As for my moment 14,000 feet above ground, I jumped and spent 55 seconds in freefall as I was plummeting about 120 mph. The cloudless sky was a beautiful blue and the earth below was mostly filled with fields of grapes. It felt wonderful.
And the parachute opened.
God heard my prayers.