Most people who pray will have experienced the Prayer of Gentle Drift. Typically, it takes place on sunny afternoons in the garden or when one has eaten. One settles down in a favourite spot with the firm intention of praying, composes one’s limbs into an attitude of prayer, the back straight, the head upright but relaxed, and attempts to focus mind and heart on the business in hand. Then, little by little, a prayerful drowsiness takes hold until, to the casual observer, the regular breathing could be mistaken for actual sleep. Perish the thought! Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat. I sleep, but my heart keeps watch, we protest. And, by and large, I think we are right. Prayer is God’s gift. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive his gift. But what about the Prayer of Gentle Drift’s stern sister, the Prayer of Exhaustion?
I must confess that I myself have only experienced this a few times though, like most people, I have often claimed to be exhausted (even nuns are not exempt from being drama queens on occasion). Exhaustion is more than tiredness or fatigue. It is, as the word suggests, being completely and utterly drained — of energy, emotion, willpower, everything. Prayer at such times may seem impossible because we cannot find words or summon up the faith to believe that our prayer will be heard. When we are totally empty, we forget that words aren’t necessary for prayer or that faith is a gift beyond our beck and call. All we know is emptiness and a weariness that goes beyond pain. That is when the Prayer of Exhaustion comes alive in us, and the Spirit of God prays most powerfully, articulating our need in a way we ourselves never could (cf Romans 8. 26–27).
Today, as you read these words, that Prayer of Exhaustion is being prayed all over the world: by the people of Nepal and India, as they cope with another earthquake; by parents at the bedside of a dying child; by those held captive in terrorist camps; perhaps by the man or woman sitting next to you on the ‘bus or underground. Pray with them and for them. It is our privilege to be part of the Communion of Saints and to express our love and concern through the medium of prayer even when no other action is open to us.