What is prayer and
how do I start?
How do I pray when
prayer seems impossible?
'Throughout Christian history,
when people sought to deepen their
relationship with God
they went into the desert.
They pursued isolation.
This way of living the Christian
vocation was called
the solitary life.'
one of the Desert Fathers,
used to say to his novices,
"Go to your cell,
and your cell will teach you everything."
Those early monks who fled into the desert
were imitating Jesus in his isolation.
There are many times in the gospels
where Jesus deliberately removes
himself from people.
He disappears off to a deserted
place to pray
He dismisses the crowds and
goes up a mountain on his own
He sits by a well in the desert
He prays on his own on the night
before his death
In particular, the monks remembered
the days Jesus spent in the wilderness
and the temptations he faced there
Encountering the darkness
The spiritual life always involves
an encounter with darkness.
The people of Israel are led through
the desert into the Promised Land.
Jesus began his ministry being driven
into the wilderness.
The garden of the resurrection is
entered through his suffering on Calvary.
Similarly, our faith must pass through
periods of barren difficulty,
doubt and despair.
But doubt is not the opposite of faith.
The opposite of doubt is certainty.
Doubting is part of believing.
It is the shadow that is
created by the light.
This is why when people become Christians,
we do not ask them to say that they know
beyond doubt that Jesus is the one
they must follow.
We ask them if they believe and trust.
When we follow Christ
we are not giving our assent
to a set of abstract propositions,
but to a person.
To the living God who is made known
to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We are saying that God is community,
and that we are called to live our lives
in community with God and with each other.
It is often in prayer that we become most
aware of the dark and difficult times
of the Christian journey.
Sometimes this is because we are facing
a crisis or a tragedy in our life
or in the life of the world.
Sometimes it can be what feels like
a loss of faith.
We feel angry and resentful towards God.
It feels as if God has let us down,
or even abandoned us.
Prayer suddenly feels impossible
or useless. God seems absent.
When this happens prayer becomes empty,
familiar words and rituals lose their comfort.
Church becomes boring.
Other Christians become irritating,
and faith can suddenly feel a
The energy of our faith is sapped.
Although these experiences are dark and terrible,
they are also normal and inevitable.
All the great spiritual writers speak of
the desert experience as part of
the Christian journey.
Many Christians are ill-prepared for the
dark times that will inevitably come.
Often people not only give up on prayer,
but give up on God when they
find themselves in the desert.
You might be feeling great despair
and darkness right now.
Prayer might have become very difficult.
But if all you do is hold on to
your desire to pray,
then you are already on
the road to recovery.
Finding refreshment in the desert
When you journey through the desert,
what you look for is an oasis:
a place where you can quench your thirst.
The oasis will be different for each of us:
it might be a familiar prayer;
a verse from scripture;
a piece of music;
or even some symbolic action.
Discern what it is -
no matter how small and
seemingly insignificant -
that still connects you to God,
and hold onto it tightly
through the desert.
Discern what it is that still connects
you to God, and hold onto it tightly.
Some of the things
you have read about here
can be your oasis in this desert.
Even if it is just clutching
the holding cross in your pocket.
Or crying out the name of Jesus
from the depths of sadness and fear,
then you are a person of prayer,
in community with God
and held by Jesus.
As you hold onto him
and cry out to him,
he is holding you.
In the Bible,
the desert is always a place of discovery.
The prophet Isaiah says,
"The wilderness and the dry land
shall be glad, the desert
shall rejoice and blossom."
May this be true for you, too
"If I say,
'Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night',
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you."
Do you know Psalm 23,
"The Lord is my shepherd",
which is itself a beautiful prayer?
Find a copy of the text,
and next time you are feeling sad,
read from it.
Could you commit to memory a prayer
that will stay with you even
when you feel far from God?
support us all the day long
of this troublous life,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in thy mercy
grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(John Henry Newman)
The material by Stephen Cottrell is taken from
the illustrated Church House Publishing book
and eBook Prayer:
Where to Start and How to Keep Going.
The text is © Stephen Cottrell 2020
and includes material adapted from How to Pray,
which is © Stephen Cottrell 1998, 2003, 2010
and is used here with permission of
the author and publishers.
Prayers from Common Worship volumes
and New Patterns for Worship are
copyright ©The Archbishops' Council
2000-2008 and 2002 respectively and are
published by Church House Publishing.
Used here with permission.
All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations are from the
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995
by the Division of Christian Education
of the National Council of
the Churches of Christ in the USA.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Illustrations are by www.penguinboy.net
Copyright ©2021. The Church of England. All rights reserved.