When I take a book off my shelf, my first thought is often of the person who recommended it. Looking at my well-worn copy of When the Well Runs Dry, I think of my friend Dr. Lillian Koh—a physician and spiritual director in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Discovering that I had not read anything by one of her favorite authors, Lillian not only recommended, but gave me her much-loved personal copy of this book. On the flyleaf she wrote the following words: “This book led me to the discovery that prayer is more than what I do. Ultimately it is a way to truly love God. May it bless you as much as it has blessed me.”
Her prayer has been answered. And I now understood why Fr. Green is so well loved as a guide on the spiritual journey. His books on prayer (nine in all) have touched me deeply, taking over where others have left off. That point is highlighted by the subtitle of this present book: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings. This is not a book for those who seek an introduction to prayer. It is for those of us who have been pray-ers for some time and have begun to face the dryness that will inevitably accompany it.
It is ironic—even tragic—that books on prayer often keep us self-focused. By telling us what to do when we pray, they encourage us to think of prayer as our initiative, our activity. But, as noted by Fr. Green, the essence of prayer is not so much what we do as what God does in us. While the passivity of such a prayer posture may initially be quite uncomfortable, once accepted it makes all the difference in the world. It’s the difference between floating and swimming.
Drawing on the insights of those who have most influenced his own prayer life—particularly John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola—the author points out that 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.” This will be discouraging news to anyone who is still attempting to master prayer, but its obvious grounding in reality should make it welcome for all who are ready to open themselves to God’s mastery, God’s initiative, and God’s love.
Instinctively, I prefer oases to deserts. I am too much a product of my therapeutic, narcissistic culture—easily viewing prayer as a technique for achieving inner stillness and enjoying spiritual consolation, rather than as a means to a lived experience of God. I tend to approach dryness in prayer as something to be overcome, an opportunity to practice discipline and fine-tune faithfulness. How jolting to read that if I am to be genuinely open to God, I must come to love the desert, even to prefer it to the oases. How disturbing to be reminded of the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God!
But ultimately, how encouraging to be reminded that prayer is God’s work, God’s project. Meeting God in prayer is responding to the divine invitation to relationship (“You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” John 15:16). Meeting God on God’s terms is ultimately to experience what the author calls a “growing preference for the ordinary days of our life with God.” He goes on: “We gradually begin to realize that it is when nothing seems to be happening that the most important things are really taking place.”
In Opening to God, the previous book in this series on prayer, Fr. Green tells the story of Jimmy, a simple laborer with little formal education. Each day, when returning from work, Jimmy would stop in the church and sit quietly in the back for several minutes. The parish priest noticed Jimmy’s regular visits and wondered just what he did during them. One day the priest asked Jimmy, who replied, “Nothing much, Father. I just say ‘Jesus, it’s Jimmy,’ and he says, ‘Jimmy, it’s Jesus,’ and we’re happy to be together.”
This captures the essence of prayer. Prayer is not simply a presentation of petitions, although bringing my requests to God is certainly a legitimate part of prayer. Nor is it, at its core, a means to the end of spiritual good feelings. In essence, it is what Fr. Green calls “a personal encounter in love.” It is “being together.” It is relationship.
Stages of Growth in Prayer
This relational metaphor is the framework within which the author presents his understanding of the stages of interior growth as we follow God’s invitation to encounter him in prayer.
The first stage of prayer is the courtship—getting to know God. Since “we cannot really love what we do not know,” a love relationship must start with knowing the beloved. In the case of knowing God, this begins with meditation (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 for us.
The second stage of prayer is the honeymoon. Here we experience a transition from knowledge to experience, from head-knowing to heart-knowing. Meditation and active contemplation now slowly begin to require less effort. Our hope begins to be realized, and “the experience of God begins to flow freely with relatively little meditative labor.” We experience joy in just being with the Lord—just as good friends find joy simply in being together. They don’t plan their conversation or analyze their relationship. They don’t really think about each other much when they are together. They just are, and they are happy to be together, whatever may be happening. This is Jimmy and his Lord.
Teresa 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 mediation of thought, understanding, or imagination.
Following the honeymoon, the third stage—and focus of this book—is the movement from loving to truly loving. This corresponds to the long years of daily married life. It involves a move from apparent love (which always contains a good deal of self-love) to genuine love. This is associated with a growing friendship, but also with what Fr. Green describes as “much deadening routine and even friction as the darker sides of our personalities come into conflict.” This is the period of inevitable dryness. This is the desert in our relationship with God.
The Gift of Spiritual Dryness
Perhaps surprisingly, I receive this teaching with buoyancy of spirit. It is liberating to be told the truth. It is good news to know that the dryness in my relationship with God is not my fault—not the result of sin or spiritual sloth. Although it may be still puzzling why God chooses the desert as the place of divine encounter and human transformation, it is, nonetheless, good to know that my experience is within the divine plan.
But why does God permit the desolation of spiritual dryness? And why should we receive it as a gift of great value?
The answer is that it is in spiritual dryness that God can uniquely teach us that “it is not within our power to acquire genuine consolation.” Spiritual blessings are purely a gift and grace of the Lord. When the spiritual well runs dry, God is saying, “I am God. I must be the Lord of our encounter. You cannot turn me on and off like a water faucet whenever you wish.” According to John of the Cross, this frustrating independence of God is the best proof we have that God is God, not merely a figment of our imagination.
That brings us to the apex of the book. For, as Fr. Green reminds us, by making us wait in the dark and dry places of our spirit, “God increases our desire for him and thereby enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given by him.” Now we can begin to encounter God as God, not as the container of our projections and desires. Now we can begin to learn to waste time gracefully with this God beyond our imagining. Now we can begin to let go and float in the river of divine love—streams of living water gushing out of the aridity of these places of divinely engineered rendezvous.
The book ends with a prayer about this floating.
My Lord, my Love,
You have called me
To float blind down the dark river
which leads to the Kingdom of Light.
May my journey be for the healing
Of those to whom you send me
Who walk in the shadow of death.
What God invites us to in the dryness of the dark night is simple faith. God asks that we let go and float unseeing down the river that leads to Light. This is not as risky as it sounds. God’s assurance of love and presence allows us to learn to be at peace in the dark nights of our spiritual journey, even when those nights seem interminable. This is the testimony of Scripture, and it is the testimony of our Lord himself.
This book contains so much more I’d love to share with you. It bursts with insights that obviously come from lived experience. The author is not only a man of prayer but someone who has spent the majority of his life as a spiritual director—guiding others in the journey of prayer. I am deeply thankful for the gifts I have received from this and his other books. They have drawn me closer to God. They have helped me know that God is as much in the darkness and desolation as in the light and consolation. They have helped me know that the darkness is really light, the dryness really the living water that alone can slake our thirst.
Dialogue with the Author
DGB: First, my thanks for your books, and now for this opportunity to interact with you.
THG: Greetings of peace in the Lord, David! Allow me, first of all, to thank you for a very perceptive and very kind review of When the Well Runs Dry. It is the second of my nine books in the area of spirituality (an unusual surprise of God, considering that my Ph.D. is in the philosophy of science!) and has been the best-selling and most translated of all of them. That too surprised me. When I wrote it, I wondered if there would be an audience for it or if it would be too esoteric. But it is now clear that the Lord has many friends in the dry well, and that they often find it difficult to find either an understanding or a competent spiritual companion for their journey.
DGB: Let me start by asking for a definition of prayer. In Opening to God you suggested that prayer could be understood as an opening of the mind and heart to God. Would you change that definition in any way now? What exactly is this thing called prayer?
THG: Yes, I would still define prayer as the opening of the mind and heart to God. Drawing on an image from the book of Revelation, “opening” stresses our receptivity to God’s all-important initiative. Prayer is 95 percent God’s work. But God never forces himself on anyone. He stands at the door and knocks, but we must freely open to him if he is to enter our hearts.
But later in that same book I also add a second definition— prayer as personal encounter with God in love. This is, of course, more complete, since it brings into clearer focus the relational aspect of prayer which you stressed in your review. There is a time, however, when the first definition can be more reassuring: namely, when the well runs dry. Then we feel there is no personal encounter, that God is absent. But as long as we are truly open, our prayer is fine. And, as St. Teresa says, God is never really absent. He dwells at the very center of our hearts. It is we who are absent, who have never been to the core of our being!
DGB: Still drawing on a point you raised in that earlier book, you talk there about the role of techniques of prayer. Can you say a bit about how and when they are useful?
THG: There are no techniques in the sense of sure-fire ways to produce the experience of God. He is the absolute Lord of the encounter. As Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws him or her.” But from the earliest days of the Christian tradition, we find techniques for disposing ourselves, under grace, to receive the word of the Lord—quieting, purification, and meditation/contemplation of the Word of God being three important ones. Think of the analogy of listening to classical music. We can’t produce the broadcast, but if we are truly to hear whatever is being transmitted, we need to be quiet, to have a well-tuned and properly functioning radio, and since classical music is an acquired taste, some sort of course in music appreciation. Learning to appreciate classical music is a good analogy for learning to pray. Here, too, we need the same three prerequisites. But they do not produce God. He is always the Lord of the encounter!
DGB: We hear a lot today about specific forms of prayer—the Jesus prayer, centering prayer, the prayer of Christ’s memories, and many more. How do you view these sorts of prayer forms? Have any of them played an important role in your own prayer journey?
THG: With one important exception, David, these are all techniques that may be helpful for a beginning pray-er. As we mature, however, they will become less central. As in human love, our relationship with the Lord becomes more spontaneous, less structured. We become more and more the partner in the dance. God, as one of my favorite songs expresses it, is ever more “the Lord of the dance.”
The important exception to which I referred is centering prayer. As presented in The Cloud of Unknowing, this was not intended for beginners. Its fourteenth-century author speaks of centering prayer as the way of dealing with what he calls the “cloud of unknowing,” this being another name for the “dark night” or “dry well.” Centering prayer is a way of dealing with the darkness and dryness gracefully and fruitfully. 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 reply, “No. Let us just be silent and enjoy one another’s presence.” How can we enjoy one another (center) if we know nothing about one another?
DGB: I like that. I hear again the relational quality of prayer in the way you describe centering in God as enjoying God’s presence. Something else that I appreciate about your discussion of prayer is the way in which you provide an understandable introduction to such great prayer masters as Teresa, John of the Cross, and Ignatius. You have obviously lived the gifts you have gleaned from these people, and I am sure there are many more than you can tell us of in a few moments. But can you say something specific about the most important things you have received from each of these three great teachers on Christian prayer?
THG: Since I am a Jesuit, St. Ignatius is my father in the Lord. From him I have received what I describe as a “contemplation in action” spirituality. It is also from Ignatius that I learned to pray as a beginner, and it is his classic rules for discernment which are the basic guidelines of my work as an apostle and as a spiritual director.
When my prayer life moved into deeper waters (which Ignatius does not discuss, although it was clearly part of his own experience), St. Teresa of Avila was my first, gentle guide. She is much more talkative and informal than St. John of the Cross, her companion in the reform of Carmel. For this reason, she was much less threatening when the dark night set in.
Eventually, though, I needed someone to speak directly and frankly to me. When I was strong enough to take my medicine uncoated, John of the Cross became the second father of my soul. And I also discovered as time passed that John is probably the best spiritual director the Church has had. Since more and more of my ministry was devoted to spiritual direction, John became a very important guide in that ministry—a debt I acknowledge in my latest book, The Friend of the Bridegroom.
DGB: You have written that “there is no single method of prayer and no one way to encounter God.” Any thoughts about the relationship between personality and prayer?
THG: St. Teresa says, “Do whatever most moves you to love.” I think this is the best advice. Prayer is a means, not an end. The end is love! While I am not a psychologist, I think personality does enter into the picture. That is why I tell beginners that they should experiment with the various classic ways of learning to pray (lectio divina, meditation, contemplation, etc.). For example, contemplation is more imaginative, and meditation more rational. One’s own temperament and imaginative capacity will certainly be relevant to whether contemplation is fruitful. But I am convinced that personality counts for more when we are beginners. As we mature and the well runs dry, God takes over more and more, and my experience is that our personality plays much less of a role. Dryness is dryness, whether you are a charismatic or a solitary hermit!
DGB: In Drinking From the Dry Well, the sequel to When the Well Runs Dry, you state that “prayer is a form of life. As such, it must be dynamic and changing.” What is your response as a spiritual director when you encounter someone whose practice of prayer seems not to have changed in any significant ways over time?
THG: I would suspect that the person is probably, perhaps unconsciously, blocking growth, afraid to risk launching into the deep. But God is very patient, and I, as his instrument, must also be patient. One practice I find helpful is to suggest that, when people begin their daily listening prayer, they spend the first 10 or 15 minutes just waiting on the Lord. If the waiting is peaceful and fruitful, they can spend the whole prayer time just waiting, letting the Lord take over. If, though, they find themselves “high and dry,” or restless and distracted, they can then get to work reflecting on the Scripture or expressing their petitions. Most people talk first and then listen, which is fine for beginners. But when the well runs dry, I think it is better to listen first—to let the Lord truly be the Boss, the Lord of the encounter.
It is good to recall that St. John of the Cross says all faithful pray-ers enter into the dark night or dry well. It is not just for mystics. It is the normal way. But John also says that very few persevere in the dark prayer. What do they do? Here again, I believe personality enters in. If we are pious souls, we will fill out prayer with novenas or petitions or devotions. As long as we are talking, we do not have to face the silence! But if we are more of a social activist, then we will get so busy with God’s work that we have no time to pray. Again, we escape from the dry silence, forgetting that the work of saving the world is the Lord’s and not ours!
DGB: Finally, with the increasing interest in spiritual direction that seems to be occurring in a number of Christian traditions, I wonder if you can briefly say anything about how to help others in the prayer experience. How do you understand the role of the spiritual director, and where does prayer fit within this?
THG: This is the topic of my latest book, The Friend of the Bridegroom. The title, from John 3, is John the Baptist’s reply when the disciples ask him if he is the Messiah. He says, “No. I am only the friend of the Bridegroom.” I chose that title because I believe John the Baptist is the model for a good spiritual director. He is a friend on the journey, not an authority figure. Initially, like John, the spiritual director assists the disciples to encounter the Lord Jesus. Once they have encountered Him, John (and the good director), has the sensitivity, the delicadeza (as we say in the Philippines), to leave the bride to the bridegroom. He does not imitate my two beloved uncles, who told my father that, since my mom was their only sister and their mother was dead, they felt obliged to go on the honeymoon. They were joking, although my dad didn’t think so. But that story, and its outcome, is told in the book!
DGB: Some joke! But I really appreciate your notion of spiritual direction as assisting others to encounter the Lord and then making sure that you don’t get in the way of the love relationship that begins to develop. Good advice for spiritual directors as well as all who seek to be spiritual friends to others.
Thank you very much, both for your books, and now for these moments of all-too-brief conversation about prayer.
THG: And thank you, David, for the privilege of sharing with you and your readers. May we both be true friends of the Bridegroom in our future ministry.