The Prayer of Gentle Drift and the Prayer of Exhaustion

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.

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19 thoughts on “The Prayer of Gentle Drift and the Prayer of Exhaustion”

  1. Thank you for some more wise words. I sense that you speak of the exhaustion of the spirit, when we do feel that emptiness and wonder what it is all about.

    Thankfully, I don’t get that often, as any suffering I have doesn’t compare with the millions suffering in places such as Nepal, the middle east and Africa. But can we suffer information overload, which given the news of all of the suffering, exhausts our spirit as we strive to take it all in and to pray for it all.

    Perhaps in these situations targeted prayer is the option we need to take. Instead of saturating our prayers, we take one situation at a time and concentrate on that. And dealing with the others in the same way as we move through the day or week.

    And I love the idea of The Prayer of Gentle Drift. Because, sometimes I find myself in that place and it’s such a peaceful place to be. Just listening and waiting and sometimes finding God speaking clearly or more likely obliquely to us about situations as we drift along in his arms. Wonderful thought.

    • I sometimes think it’s because I’m not very clever, or perhaps just lazy (oh dear) that I tend to treat prayer as a simple business, leaving it in God’s hands, just praying with the intention of praying for whatever matters most, even if I don’t know what that is. Otherwise, I think we can get very uptight about all the different claims on our attention.

  2. You write so beautifully, with a spare and elegant prose, that your point hits home all the more. Yes, indeed. I know what it is to be tired, and sometimes think I am exhausted. But I exaggerate. Let us concentrate on those who are truly at the end of their rope. Thank-you.

  3. Thank you Sr. May I simply echo Laura & Helen’s comments. Any other comment would be superfluous. God bless your day.

  4. I have been fortunate to only have known the prayer of exhaustion once, and you describe it intimately. As for the prayer of gentle drift, a wise old priest once told me that it is a gift from God, who knows my needs, and therefore I should welcome it and not feel guilty.
    Thank you for this post, it says so much more than the words themselves.

  5. I agree with all that has been said……and it is all utterly beautiful. Bless you dear sister in your daily walk;sometimes the nearness of eternity means that we are all the more open to the work and sensitivity of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Thank you for your words which, given my particular situation, were very comforting. I have a neurological condition and one of the symptoms is chronic fatigue; sometimes it’s being weary, lacking energy and sometimes it’s suddenly hitting a brick wall of complete exhaustion that stops me in my tracks. It’s really difficult trying to keep up a reasonable prayer life when not only one’s body but also one’s mind is empty, lacking function… nothing. You have reassured me that at those times I still can be at prayer 🙂

    • I’m very sorry to hear of your condition and trust you will never forget that you are praying even if it doesn’t feel like it: the desire to pray sis what counts.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. I can definitely relate to the prayer of gentle drift -thoughts floating away from prayer and towards mundane concerns. However, I often feel guilty when it happens that I was unable to keep my attention on God and the prayer we share. What is your opinion on that?

    • Unless you deliberately choose to entertain your distractions, I don’t see any reason for feeling guilty. Personally, once I become aware of distraction, I try not to pay any more attention to it — but always gently, as though it were of no real importance, just as one might brush away a fly rather than pursuing it with a fly swat. If it keeps recurring, I simply tell God that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet and ask him to deal with it. You may find what we say about prayer on our main web site http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk helpful, especially this and this.

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