Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 2

An Interactive Review of When the Well Runs Dry by Thomas H. Green, S.J.

Joannah Sadler

01.  Review

Have you ever had a season when the ways you’ve connected to God just aren’t “working” anymore? Years ago, I met with a spiritual director with this complaint, naively thinking that my spiritual life was a problem to be solved. As if someone I had never met could swoop in with solutions-focused suggestions to help me “do better” so that I could have more meaningful times of prayer with the Lord. Instead, she offered this simple observation, “Perhaps God is attempting to relate to you in a new way?” I had never considered his participation in the conversation, at least not in the profound way my soul finally saw it that day.

This experience of spiritual dryness is not unique to my story. In this interactive review of When the Well Runs Dry by Thomas. H. Green, S.J, David Benner and Father Green discuss the stages of growth and stagnation in the life of the Believer. “Mature Christian prayer is less a sanctuary of peace and the enjoyment of blessing than a journey into “a vast desert of purifying dryness with, perhaps, occasional small oases to sustain the spirit.” (P13)

Mercifully, God allowed me to meet with a spiritual director who made one simple observation that has changed the way I view my relationship to God. Benner reminds us, “Meeting God in prayer is responding to the divine invitation to relationship (“You have to chosen me, but I have chosen you.” John 15:16). The awareness of God’s constant presence and working in our lives, even when we don’t sense it, is a place that mature Christians can get to after experiencing the distant, dry land.

Stages of Growth in Prayer

The first stage of prayer is courtship, or getting to know God. The Creator knew us before we were born, but in this stage we come to know about him and experience a deepening interest and love for him. We do this by “using our thinking and understanding to come to a knowledge of God and active contemplation— using our imagination to meet Jesus in the events of his life on earth and seeing ourselves, with our own concrete personal history connected to those events.  The Gospels are the primary source for both meditation and active contemplation since Jesus is the revelation of God to us.” (P14)

As the relationship progresses from head-knowing, to heart-knowing, the “honeymoon stage” ushers in a transition from knowledge to experience. Fr. Green describes the relationship in this season as one that takes place between good friends— finding joy in simply being together.  “Teresa of Avila calls this stage the prayer of quiet, because in it the faculties of the intellect and imagination become somewhat dormant. Here God is touching the heart directly, without the meditation of thought, understanding, or imagination.”

The third stage of growth in prayer is “the movement from loving to truly loving. This corresponds to the long years of daily married life.” This stage is characterized by the mundane ordinary, “deadening routine and even friction as the darker sides of our personalities come into conflict.” Father Green notes that this is the season when most Christians report the inevitable dryness in their relationship with the Lord, the desert. If you’ve not yet journeyed into the desert, you will. But don’t lose heart, it’s in this season that the potential for growth and renewal is greatest. Benner states, “Perhaps surprisingly I receive this teaching with buoyancy of spirit. It is liberating to be told the truth that the dryness in my relationship with God is not my fault—not the result of sin or spiritual sloth.” The article, and subsequent interview with Father Green, explores the idea that spiritual dryness is a gift, and learning to receive consolation from God is not something we have the ability to acquire on our own.

Benner and Green discuss how techniques or specific forms of prayer can be helpful for beginners. The exception to this, Green believes, is centering prayer.  This type of prayer is a way of dealing with the desert or “dry well.” “To suggest to beginners today that they center is, I believe, like a stranger who asks me when we first meet, “Tell me all about yourself,” and I really, “No. Let’s just be silent and enjoy one another’s presence.” How can we enjoy one another (center) if we know nothing about one another?”

The relational quality of prayer becomes less structured the longer one journeys with God. It is in that freedom of relationship, “the dance” as Fr.Green refers to it, both partners participate and receive from each other— with God being the lead; always pursuing, always responding in love, and full of grace and mercy during seasons of contentment and dryness alike.

02.  Exercises

  1. Review the varieties of prayer listed in bold on page 5. Are any of these new to you? Challenge yourself this week to practice a new way of being with God.
  2. Where do you sense aliveness in prayer?
  3. Describe a season when the well [of prayer/relationship with God] ran dry. What was that time like for you? What did you learn about yourself?
  4. Father Green describes the practice of listening prayer on page 17. “Spend the first 10-15 minutes just waiting on the Lord. If the waiting is peaceful and fruitful, continue to wait, letting the Lord take over. If though, you becomes restless and distracted, get to work reflecting on the Scriptures or expressing petitions.” Primarily, let God be the Lord of the encounter. Examine your soul this week as you sit in God’s presence— notice if the time is peaceful or restless.
  5. Liturgies serve to “train the hearts of [God’s] people to practice mindfulness of your presence in all moments.” Particularly of note is this liturgy for those who have come out of seasons of spiritual dryness: See Liturgy for Thanksgiving at the Return of Joy—  Read the following liturgy and spend some time sitting in God’s presence with any emotions that arise.