How to Pray in Times of Darkness

A prayer for when prayer feels hopeless.

I have an app that reminds me to pray morning, noon, and night. I love it because it provides both space for my own petitions and written prayers. Growing up Mormon, there was something anathema about writing and reading prayers, but I’ve discovered that it can be very helpful. Sometimes you don’t know what to pray, or the things you pray on your own feel shallow, and leaning on the wisdom of others who have gone before can provide depth and clarity. I’m discovering that a healthy prayer life includes a combination of written prayers, praying scripture (particularly the Psalms), my own petitions, and silence.

It’s been a rough few weeks in Mormonism. Though I no longer practice Mormonism, I don’t imagine there will ever come a time that I’m not invested in the community and culture that raised me–particularly as long as my husband and children still participate. Between the revelations that an admitted sexual abuser appears to remain a member in good standing while a public advocate for child safety was excommunicated, and leaked documents indicating cover-up and hush money toward victims of abuse, I’m exhausted. This is corruption, this is evil, this is the very definition of “sin, death, and devil,” as Martin Luther would frame it and as a good friend pointed out to me yesterday when I shared with her some of what was going on.

So I have been relying lately on prayer. It’s so easy to get sucked into the darkness. In fact, I daresay it’s impossible not to. In the past, I might have prayed to avoid the darkness, imagining that whatever is dark should be pushed to one side, ignored.

But that’s where a robust prayer practice, one informed by scripture and silence and the wisdom of the community of faith, is so helpful.

Sometimes, our call is to go directly into the center of darkness. The Christian faith is one that deals unflinchingly with the reality of evil. It exists, it is powerful, and it is all around us. And if we are to be fully human, we must acknowledge it for what it is.

But we must not try to face the forces of evil alone.

My dear friend and mentor, Kathryn (who happens to be an Old Testament scholar), reminds me often that the prayer of lament and outrage over evil is a faithful prayer. She points me to the psalms, where the poet wonders where God is and begs for the destruction of her enemies. In the past, when I pretended the darkness wasn’t dark, these psalms troubled me. They seemed so negative, so violent. Now I understand that when we enter into the darkness, to pray what is true is an act of clinging to God, even when we can’t see two steps in front of us. Even when we are blinded by horror and rage.

This, of course, is the meaning of the cross. It is God’s acknowledgment of evil–an evil that God faces fully by taking on human flesh, and defeats through love and self-submission. For this reason, Luther says that a theologian of the cross must call a thing what it is, just as God in Christ showed the world the terrors of evil through the agonizing scandal of the cross.

In my prayer app, the afternoon practice includes this prayer:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
body of Christ, save me;
blood of Christ, inebriate me;
water from the side of Christ, wash me;
passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me;
within your wounds hide me;
suffer me not to be separated from you;
from the malicious enemy defend me;
in the hour of my death call me,
and bid me come to you that with your saints I may praise you forever and ever.

This is not a joyful prayer, in the sense that the imagery is stark and even grotesque. To be saved by the body of Christ; inebriated by his blood; washed in the water that gushed forth from his side; strengthened by his suffering; hidden within his wounds–these are not images of trumpets and fanfare and triumph.

Yet there is a kind of hope, a kind of intimacy, in being joined to God through suffering–as if we are sharing in Christ’s pain, and Christ is sharing in ours. This is not to say that we seek suffering for its own sake; rather that we are freed to acknowledge the suffering that already exists in our lives and in the world because Christ is with us. And we can hold onto the paradoxical hope that even in the midst of it all, Christ has defeated it, not by sidestepping it, but by being fully present in it, and being raised to new life through it.

This is an aspect of Christian spirituality that is more clearly experienced than explained. And so in this moment of heartache, trauma, and betrayal, I commend the practice of prayer to you. And if you don’t know what to pray, and if you don’t know how to pray, pray the psalms of lament. Lean on the prayers of those who have gone before. Or just sit in silence, knowing that whatever is in your mind and heart and life, God is in it with you.

Peace to you in this moment of trial, my friends.

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