Book Reviews

When the Well Runs Dry:

Prayer beyond the Beginnings

A Book Review

Prayer forms the foundation of every Christian’s spiritual life. It is our lifeline to God and, like our God, is itself a mystery—initiated by the Holy Spirit—that draws us into mystical communion with our Creator. As Christians, we go to prayer to show our devotion and be close to our God, seeking peace, consolation and wisdom for our lives. We then often return refreshed and renewed from our encounter with the Beloved. Thus, to develop our interior prayer life ought to be the desire of every child of God.

Yet, we commonly find that in the pursuit of a deeper prayer life we often come up dry and wanting. Where is the God that I first struggled to find and then felt so clearly in my prayer? Why do I now labor to find any refreshment at all where a wellspring of peace and love once filled my soul? Why, after so many years of devoted prayer and Christian living, do I find it so difficult now to feel God’s presence? Such feelings of despair and desolation may arise as we desire to open ourselves up further to the Lord in our prayer and in our lives. During such times of spiritual dryness, our efforts to be one with God seem to have left us alone, wandering, and lost by the side of a once familiar road looking for someone with whom to connect.

In his book When the Well Runs Dry, Fr. Thomas H. Green, S.J. provides a very important understanding of prayer for many Christians who start to wonder why their prayers have begun to feel empty—even as if God has departed them. Through the examples of some of the great mystics of our Christian tradition, such as St. Teresa of Avila (圣女大德兰) and St. John of the Cross (圣十字若望), Fr. Green is able to impart some of their wisdom to us in a readable fashion to help us better understand the journey of the interior life and the true call to faith in prayer that the Lord gives us. Indeed, Fr. Green reveals to us, that it is out of his great love for us that the Lord allows us to encounter such struggles in our prayer and discernment in seeking to follow God’s will.

The call to prayer and, indeed, the call to faith is an invitation that originates from God and reminds us that it is God who chooses us; it is he who initiates a relationship with us for which he gives us the grace to freely respond. Thus, as our prayer life progresses beyond the early stages and we begin to take for granted the Lord’s presence in our prayer as though it is we who call him to be there, God quietly reminds us that it is he who draws us to prayer and replenishes our soul. In so doing, God invites us into a deeper relationship in which greater trust and effort is required to bear the fruit of our devotion. Yet in the end, like a marriage that carries beyond the honeymoon period and through its own share of difficulties as well as the mundanity of ordinary life, the Lord rewards our fidelity with a far deeper and more mature love than we ever could have previously imagined.

Green relays St. Teresa’s metaphor of watering a garden to describe the various stages of growth in our interior prayer life. The first stage examines the laborious effort involved in prayer as beginners who, while doing our best to remain open to God, are easily distracted and have yet to develop the discipline to “confront ourselves honestly,” choosing instead to avoid the pain that often comes with such deeper levels of soul-searching. St. Teresa likens these early efforts at prayer to using a bucket to draw water from a deep well in order water a garden—a lot of sweat for not a whole lot of water.

Once we are able to maintain a steady discipline, we are able to transcend the great effort involved with drawing the water of prayer from the well and receive the divine grace that Teresa likens to a water pump. This grace enables us to collect our will and focus on our prayer with far greater clarity than ever before. While there are still some effort and distractions involved, our will is “captured by the love of God.”

This stage then leads ultimately to the last two stages of the interior life in which God provides a stream of water to flow through us without any effort on our part beyond irrigating the soil for the water to reach the flowers of the Lord’s garden. In much the same way, we must actively cooperate with God’s gift of grace and love in order for the Incarnate Word that dwells within us to bear great fruit. When we ultimately transcend even this stage in which the Lord takes on more and more of the work, we find that we can finally let the Lord lead us in prayer so that he can use this time to more fully shape and transform us “to be simply the clay in the hands of the potter.” Only when we truly let go in prayer can the Lord lead us into the depths of his mystery on a journey of beauty and discovery.

In this way, faith leads us to hope and, in turn, to love. This love of the Father that we encounter in different ways throughout our spiritual journey grows stronger as we mature in our faith and understanding of God’s will for our lives. However, Green insists, having experienced God in such a real and meaningful way through prayer is not meant to be an end unto itself. To experience God in prayer necessitates a call to action—to live out and share that experience with others and not cling to it. In so doing, Green says we imitate Mary Magdalene, who, upon seeing the risen Lord, rushed off to tell the others rather than staying by him. Thus, not merely by the act of prayer, but through the virtues strengthened through it and by living out those virtues, we attain the true goal of prayer—not mere devotion but a living out of the faith that is fortified through such prayer.

When we are capable of this, that is, having our faith and will tested through prayer and living out those virtues strengthened by such prayer, then our prayer will often begin to take on a new character of dryness—in which it may become more difficult to encounter God and understand his will—that enables us to more closely imitate the struggles and true faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are given a cross to bear for which our prayer prepares and strengthens us so that we, too, like Jesus, may “learn obedience through suffering.” This dryness in prayer, that we experience as our interior life matures, is what Green describes as the “cross of desolation,” only through which we are able to have true faith in God’s merciful love and truly learn to love as Christ.

In a beautiful and sincere way Fr. Green weaves us through an understanding of prayer beyond the beginnings. With his many clear and relatable examples, he guides us through the insightful writings of the early church mystics on the interior life. In so doing, he opens our eyes to see where God is truly leading us and to know that when we do experience dryness in our prayer lives, it is our Lord purifying us. He does this so that we might let go of all that inhibits his grace from more perfectly flowing within us and allow his mercy and love to more completely surround us in our prayer.

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Tricia Bølle

Tricia Bølle

Tricia Bølle has been working with young adults in universities and local faith communities for since 2008. A graduate of Stanford University, she founded an educational nonprofit, DEI in Asia, to develop programs and training to promote personal growth, civic engagement, women’s issues, crisis intervention, and psychological well-being among Chinese university …View Full Bio