“I remembered some words of St. Francis de Sales to the effect that to get up after a fall, over and over again, was more pleasing to God than if we did not fall. I grasped this; that trust which would go on, in spite of continual failure, must please God.”
-Ruth Burrows
Before the Living God

The following was penned during my 1997 pilgrimage to Assisi. My prayer life has improved since then, but what I wrote was still pretty close to an accurate portrayal of my prayer life until very recently.

There is one area of my life where poverty is very real: my prayer life is impoverished. If I had to choose one word to describe my prayer life, it would be: empty. A big, fat nada. Perhaps the reason my experience of prayer is empty is because Jesus is still outside of me – not within me in an existentialist way which I can feel. And so, my prayer seems “outward” and lacks the true intimacy of being “inward,” a sweet communion within me, as I imagine it was for St. Francis and all the other saints. I often experience prayer as a blank inertia. Once in a great while, the blankness or void gives way – ever so fleetingly – to something more substantive, as if God, though still hidden, is really present. When I experience prayer as a void, I lack the trust in God to continue anyway. I flee the darkness, the emptiness.

I’ve tried setting more time aside for quiet prayer – just sitting still before the Lord – but the noise of my own thinking, my own consciousness, makes it virtually impossible for me to sit still for more than a few minutes. St. Teresa of Avila may have had an interior castle, but I have an interior prison – blank, cold, barren. Even though I love God and sincerely long for a deeper relationship, I consider myself a spiritual failure because of my inability to pray more effectively, to feel more connected to God on a daily basis. Sin seems nearer than God does.

Oh dear God, please give me the courage to trust fully in you when my prayer leaves me feeling alone; give me, sweet Lord, the grace of perseverance to sit still in my inner prison until you unlock the door. St. Augustine writes: “Go back inside yourself, for truth dwells in the inner man.” Come Lord Jesus, enter my heart with your Presence and Fullness.

I’ve given some new thought to this old essay. The prayer at the end of it has slowly been answered over the last fifteen years, increasingly so in the last three years. While formal prayer still is a struggle, I nonetheless am now more aware of God’s presence is my daily life. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I am more aware of God’s presence as I go about my day. While I do set a considerable amount of time aside each day for prayer and reflection (usually the first one to two hours of each day), I most often feel God’s presence when I have a camera in my hands and I am in the middle of a slum. In a slum, I am far removed from the normal concerns of my life and I am truly able to see the other. A slum is where God “speaks” to me, usually about my own personal weaknesses and my need to be more merciful, more compassionate and less judgmental. During my prayer time, external words from my devotional reading occasionally come alive and seem to enter into my very being, and their truth becomes my truth. But it is different with a camera in my hands. It is then that something within me speaks to me. Oh…how words fail when trying to articulate things of the Spirit. I once made a very simple statement, which actually catches the essence of what I am struggling to say: I pray with my camera. The camera helps me see…and hopefully what I film helps others see also.


3 Responses to “Nada”

  1. 1 Rev. Paul McKay June 16, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Two things come to mind . . . I still feel a little like a spiritual failure sometimes (that’s some of my “baggage,” so to speak) because of a weak prayer life. As you say so eloquently, there are those fleeting times when “the blankness of the void” gives way to something deeper. But it’s still hard after all this time to stay in what feels like what I think (subjectively so) “real prayer” ought to fee likel. A fun spiritual director is always reminding me to just KISS (keep it simple, stupid!). She suggests that I just pray, “Lord, you’ll just have to accept the poverty of my prayer today–that’s all there is to it.” There’s a lot of relief of prayer anxiety in those kinds of simple, little confessional prayers that can, in fact, unlock the prison and open me to what feels like greater communion with God. She’s helped me to see that ok to be a little playful with God–who says prayer always has to be so intense and serious? Also, there are other ways to pray, in the broader sense–as with a camera, with a pen even just in personal journaling and making notes from the bible or spiritual book reading, in just being in solidarity with the poor in a slum. It helps in the prayer life to think and do “out of the box” I think.

  2. 2 aliceny June 16, 2013 at 9:41 am

    “The noise of my own thinking” describes perfectly what I feel when I try to pray. Recently, however, I have been allowing more quiet time to pray. It is then that I begin to feel quietness, emptiness, waiting. I think that I am making progress. Then there are times when I cannot do this and I say to God, “I am trying, please help me.” I do believe that my just ‘trying’ is in itself a prayer.

    You say that “…with a camera in my hands…something within me speaks to me… I pray with my camera…hopefully what I film helps others see….”

    You have been given a most powerful gift to use your talent with a camera — to use the ‘eye’ of that instrument to portray in sometimes brutal reality the lives of those among us who are forced to live lives of desperation and hopelessness because society refuses to see them, or to even acknowledge their existence. To my way of thinking, Mr. Straub, that is one beautiful prayer. (I am recalling the story of the juggler and the Blessed Mother — do you recall that story?)

    Alice LaChapelle

    that they exist. What your camera ‘sees’ is the naked truth that most of society (that’s us) does not or cannot see.

  3. 3 Joan Krebs June 16, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Gerry, because the earlier thoughts began to upset me – for the umteenth time in my life – I was overjoyed to see how, for you, prayer has become what you do, whom you see, how you see, where you go, etc.. Daily my one and usually only “word-y” prayer is said early on in the day: “Everywhere I go, I walk in the heart of God.” It’s usually enough for me, because I feel as if I’m following the advice of that very practical man of prayer, St. Paul; I’ve put on the mind and heart of Christ in the only small way i can. This kind of prayer, it seems to me is an attitude, a worldview, something to live with and by. Thank God that even the way we pray evolves!

    By way of postscript: A few years ago the spirituality center with which I relate publicized programs on helping people learn or deepen themselves in various kinds of prayer. It upset me so much that I volunteered to host an additional program titled, “Prayer For Those Who Can’t”. Interest was great. Those of us who shared and grew together that day came away with a greater acceptance that prayer can/should be walking life’s journey with God rather than (or in addition to) “praying”). I’m strongly convinced we desperately need to dissolve all barriers between the sacred and secular – prayer is one example.

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