Praying in sadness

These are some thoughts I’ve been pulling together for myself as I try to pray through the sadness I’ve felt since covid put an end to the life I’d been planning to lead in 2020. I offer them in case they help, though every pray-er is an individual and the issues for each one of us might be quite different.

First of all, the sadness is real and legitimate. There’s plenty to be sad about, even if there are also still reasons for gladness. Own it. Bring the sadness to prayer. Many are the voices who remind us that we begin where we are in prayer, and sometimes that is in sadness. God will meet you there.

If not knowing how to pray means not knowing how to begin, just say, “Here I am, I’m sad.” If it means not knowing what to say or ask for, don’t worry about that. Put the question to God – how would you have me pray? – and then listen and wait for what words might come. Remember the line from Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Let that prayer that is already present in you be your own.

One of the most interesting things I’ve ready about prayer in recent years is Ann and Barry Ulanov’s “Primary Speech.” It’s long and sometimes dense and it’s not really a how to pray book (the subtitle, “A Psychology of Prayer,” provide a clue to that) but it’s fully of good insights. I’ve turned repeatedly to the part that begins on p. 20, which talks about how the act of prayer itself helps us to sort out what it is that we want to pray for:

“Prayer is the place where we sort our desires and where we are ourselves sorted out by the desires we choose to follow. …

“Desire leads to more desire. Prayer articulates our longing for a fullness of being, our reaching out of the mind for what is beyond it, and helps us find and love God and grow with our love … Prayer enlarges our desire until it receives God’s desire for us. …

“The greatest surprise of all is that the prayer that we thought to be our own activity, our own reaching out, reveals itself instead as God’s Spirit moving in us. Our very desire to pray, that we took as our own, turns out to have a much larger source. We now see that the desires that we constructed thorough repeated efforts to pray, showing ourselves to ourselves, reflects God’s desire moving us toward fuller being, toward the embrace of love. Our admission of desires into consciousness becomes an admission of divine presence. … What we thought was our prayer, our effort to pray, reveals itself as God’s praying through us, the Spirit showing the things of Christ to us.”

If clearness doesn’t come in stillness, journaling can help. I can’t say the number of times that I sat down to write out what felt like a failed prayer experience and watched words appear on my screen articulating my desires and the first steps toward accomplishing them them.

It might not happen right away, but through this kind of prayer we begin to sort things out.

This is some of what the poet Padraig O Tuama had to say about prayer in the remarkable introduction to his “Daily Prayers with the Corrymeela Community.” It comes right after the place where O Tuama admits that he still finds shelter and support in praying the Rosary in Irish, the nightly family practice of his youth:

“These are some of the things that prayer is. Prayer is rhythm. Prayer is comfort. Prayer is disappointment. Prayer is words and shape and art around desperation, and delight and disappointment and desire. Prayer can be the art that helps you name your desire. And even if the desire is only named, well, naming is a good thing, surely. Naming is what God did, the Jews tell us, and the world unfolded. Or perhaps naming is what the Jews did, and God unfolded. Either way, I’m thankful. Naming things is part of the creative impulse. Naming the deep desires of our heart is a good thing, even if those desires are never satisfied.”

There’s a wonderful prayer titled “A Liturgy for Those Who Weep Without Knowing Why” in the book “Every Moment Holy,” by Douglas Kaine McKelvey. It’s long and a bit difficult to reproduce here, but I put a pdf at

Here few words from McKelvey’s prayer:

“There is so much lost in this world, O Lord,
so much that aches and groans and shivers
for want of redemption, so much that
seems dislocated, upended, desecrated,
unhinged – even in our own hearts.

“Even in our own hearts
we bear the marks of all that is broken. …

“And ye, there is somewhere in our tears
a hope still kept.

“We feel it in this darkness,
like a tiny flame,
when we are told

“Jesus also wept. …

“For the grief of God is no small thing,
and the weeping of God is not without effect.
The tears of Jesus preceded a resurrection of the dead.

“O Spirit of God, is it then possible that
our tears might also be a kind of intercession? … “