Prayer is a necessary part of the Christian life and our relationship with Christ; however, forming a habit of prayer takes time and effort and may at times feel frustrating. Debbie Herback offers wisdom from the saints as well as practical advice to begin and persevere in prayer, even when intimacy with God feels challenging.
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Printable Study Guide PDF
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Reflective Study Guide Questions
“You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all of your heart.”Jeremiah 29:13
1. The first stage of prayer according to St. Teresa of Avila likens prayer to watering a garden; involving a lot of hard, active work. The second stage of prayer is filling a bucket using a water wheel, where it is easier to be brought up into prayer. What has been your experience with prayer? Which stage do you think you are in?
2. In this talk, Debbie Herbeck says that we might come to prayer with unreasonable expectations that end up leaving us frustrated in our experience in prayer. We might expect prayer to come more easily than it does or with less distraction. We might expect to feel a certain way. What are some expectations you bring to prayer that might be unrealistic?
3. The first step to a thriving prayer life and an intimate relationship with God is making time for prayer. Do you give God the best fruits of your day? Do you make prayer a priority? If not, why? How might you be able to make time for prayer each day?
4. God does not force his way into your heart; He desires your permission for Him to enter and bear fruit. Do you come to prayer with your own agenda or do you come with a heart open and willing to receive whatever He wants to give to you? What do you think is holding you back from doing so?
Text: An Invitation to Deeper Intimacy
Hi, my name is Debbie Herbeck. I’m delighted to be with you today, and the title of my talk is “Prayer: An Invitation to Deeper Intimacy.” I’d like to begin with one of my favorite scripture passages from Jeremiah. It says, “You will seek me and find me “when you seek me with all of your heart.” That’s from Jeremiah 29:13. There’s so much you could say about prayer, honestly, but I’d like to talk specifically about just how to begin in prayer, how to persevere in prayer, particularly when we feel distant from the Lord, when we feel like prayer is hard work, when we don’t really know where God is, how do we continue to grow in prayer so that we can grow in intimacy with Him.
We are Made for Love
I want to begin by saying that we are made for love. That we’re made to receive love. We’ve been made in love, we’re made for love, and we’ve been made by love. And so we can take it to the bank that Jesus wants this kind of intimacy, this depth of love for each one of us. I also want to remind us that Jesus never holds anything back from us. That everything that He has to give and wants to give has already been given through His death, and His resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That He wants to give us His heart and reveal His love to us, even when we’re doubting, even when we’re discouraged, even when we’re walking in difficulty and despair, even when He feels distant.
I love the example of Jesus coming to the Upper Room to, in particular, reach out to Thomas or doubting Thomas as we know him. And what Jesus invites Thomas to do is to put his hand into His wounded side and perhaps literally to touch His wounded heart. And so this is a beautiful image of the Lord coming to us in our woundedness, in times when we’re doubting and feeling distant, and as if he’s saying to us, “Come. “Come and feel my heart. “Come and bring your heart to my heart.” And this is what prayer is.
What Prayer Is
Prayer is two hearts touching one another in deep union and deep intimacy. St. Teresa of Avila has a really great teaching on prayer and the different levels of prayer, and I’d just like to use two very simple examples that she uses of the first two levels of prayer to help us understand how this might work in our own lives. She talks about prayer as this long invitation, this long lifelong invitation by God to deeper intimacy and relationship with Him. And she talks about the soul as a garden, and a garden that needs tending, and a garden that needs to come to life. And the way this garden is tended and the way it comes to life is through prayer. And the way that we do this is by bringing into that garden the living water which is Christ’s life Himself.
So, her first description of prayer, maybe her first level of prayer, she’s really focusing on the water that is drawn from the well. Now, most of us don’t draw water from a well, but I think we understand the image here, and that is it takes a tremendous amount of labor and perseverance to actually draw water from the well. And so this begins with effort, it begins with cooperation, it begins with toil as we begin to pray, and sometimes, it feels like more work and less water as we do this. Sometimes it feels more dry than it actually is flowing. And there’s no doubt about it, prayer often takes work. Her second description of prayer, or her second level of prayer, she talks about it more like a wheel in a bucket that is drawing up the water. We can think of that like the wind of the Holy Spirit and the grace that’s active in our life that we’re cooperating with. So we’re focusing less on the work and the effort that it takes, but the cooperation here.
It gets easier. If we’re cooperating with the Holy Spirit, with this power, this exterior force, we experience the ease, we experience the water level of our prayer rising, and we begin to experience the fruitfulness of it. We’re more aware of God’s presence, of God’s promises, of His voice. We find it easier to persevere, easier to desire to go to prayer. And I think many of us live kind of back and forth in these two different levels.
God is Not an Emotion
Obviously, St. Teresa talks about other levels, and those are levels that we all want to be able to get to, deeper levels of prayer and intimacy with the Lord. But I just want to talk about where most of us live every day as we struggle with prayer. The challenge that we can face, sometimes, when we do this, begin to pray. And maybe you can relate to these. These are ones that I experience in my own life. That prayer isn’t really good or helpful or worthwhile, sometimes, if I’m not feeling anything.
And I think within our culture and our society today, there isn’t ornate focus on the feelings and the emotions. And so we have a wrong reliance sometimes on our emotions as we’re praying. And when the emotions die off or die down or they go away, we feel like God Himself has gone away. But God is not equal to emotion. God is not an emotion. He gives us our emotions as a gift. But when they go away, He’s still present, He and still is with us as we pray and as we seek Him. I think we can be easily discouraged or distracted in prayer and we lose heart, and we begin to feel like, “Am I really making progress?” And so, oftentimes, we quit too soon. We have unreasonable expectations, as if somehow, overnight we’re going to have this incredible not only experience of the Lord, but deep intimacy. And, like any relationship, this takes time. It takes patience. It takes perseverance to grow this relationship through prayer. We need to know that distractions are normal. There are normal part of life, and certainly, a normal part of prayer life, especially as we try and quiet our hearts and our minds in a world that is so busy and so noisy. And so we can bring those distractions to prayer. We can bring them into prayer and give them to the Lord.
How to Persevere in Prayer During Dry Times
Sometimes I like to just write them down, so to get them out of the way, just to acknowledge that they’re there. But to have time just to quiet our hearts and minds before the Lord. So, I want to give you some practical examples and practical ways that we can really grow in prayer as we persevere, especially through dry times.
Give Him Your Time
The first one is just give Him your time. Not as a duty not, as a chore, not as something you’re checking off the list, or something you want to get from Him, but just give Him the time consistently and persistently. Carve it out of your schedule. Make it part of your day. Give Him the best fruit of your day, not the leftovers. Make it a priority. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta often said, “God cannot fill what is already full.”
And so, if we’re coming to God full of other things, in our heart and our mind, worries, anxieties fears, cares, distractions, if we’re allowing other things rather than the Lord to fill us, there really is no room for Him in our heart and our mind. So we need to set aside time that we’re really giving to the Lord that isn’t full of other things so that He can really fill us. Make time for God, and it will change your life.
I was recently talking to a young woman who is just getting ready to graduate from high school, and we were reflecting how much God has changed her in the last four years. And I asked her, “What do you think is the primary reason that you’ve changed so much, so positively, that you’ve grown so much in your own relationship with the Lord?” And she said, “I decided to make prayer a priority. I decided to put it in my life every single day, and to make it happen.” And I’ve seen her grow in her confidence, in her maturity. I’ve seen her healed. I’ve seen her walk in the promises of God because she is learning to know and love her savior through the time that she has spent with Him. So give Him your time.
Give Him Permission
The second thing is give Him permission. I know we’ve all heard it said that God is a perfect gentleman, but it’s really true that He respects our freedom, the free will that He’s given us. And so we really need to give Him permission, when we’re with Him, to work in our lives, to be there with us. We need to come without an agenda, without a to-do list for the Lord, and just to be able to say, “Lord, I’m afraid here. “I’m distracted here. I’m discouraged here. “But I give you permission to do what you need to do “to draw me into deeper union with yourself.”
Give Him the chance to love you. That means being still, being quiet, listening, receiving. We love because He first loved us. Remember that, and give Him the opportunity and give Him permission to love you. Finally, certainly not all the things, but the thing that I love the most, is to really find Jesus through God in the scriptures. We need to be spending time every single day reading and meditating, reflecting on the word of God so that it can feed us, it can feed our souls. It can help us know who Jesus is. What did Jesus say? Where did He walk? How did He relate to those that He was reaching out to with God’s love? Who is this man?
I remember the first time I read the gospels, I was a freshman in college, and I had grown up in a Jewish home and had no understanding of who Jesus was. Had never had the opportunity or the invitation to read the gospels. And the first time that I read the four gospels and I allowed myself to ask the question, “Who is this man?” God began to work in my life. And as I read and reflected on this man, Jesus, and the way that He loved, the way He lived, the way He healed, the way He spoke, I began to wonder and ponder in my heart, “Could this be the one? “Could this man, Jesus, be the Messiah?” And so just the simple reading of the scripture set something in my heart aflame and a deeper desire to know who God was.
So, we really need to dig into the scriptures. We need to read the scriptures, and let them speak to us, and let them inflame in us a love for the Lord. Jesus is alive. And scripture says, in Hebrews, his word is “living and active,” and it’s “sharper than a two-edged sword.” And this requires silence, and it requires stillness. One of my favorite ways to pray is to do something like a Lectio Divina, and this is a Catholic practice of learning to really listen to God’s voice and respond to God’s voice.
Reflecting on Scriptures
So, what I like to do is just do, before we close, a just brief little Lectio to kind of introduce you to it. Maybe you do it already. But to remind us of the power of stepping into the scriptures ourselves and putting us there as active listeners and active recipients of God’s grace. So I’d like to begin with a very familiar passage to each one of us. And I often like to reflect in Lectio on some of the gospel narratives because they really are a place where we can set ourselves in the story and imagine ourselves there.
So, this is from Mark 4:35-41. If you have your Bibles, you can go ahead and open them up. If you don’t, I encourage you to go back and to read this on your own and reflect on it. But I’m going to begin by reading it. “On that day, when evening had come, “he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ “And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, “just as he was. “Other boats were with him. “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? ‘Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, ‘that even the wind and the sea obey him?'”
So this is a story that we’ve heard many times of the disciples in the boat with Jesus. And I ask you now, as you have heard this and as you go back to read it, just to place yourself in that scene. And many, if not all of us, are there as one of the disciples in that boat. And as you read this and you reflect on it, you can begin to ask yourselves questions, and here’s some of the questions that you might reflect on, that might come up as you reflect and you meditate.
Questions to Meditate On
Where am I in my relationship to God right now? Am I in the boat with Him? Am I there as one of His disciples? Or am I on the shore, watching this scene unfold from a distance? Where am I in my relationship with God right now?
Another thought might be, what do I believe about Him that isn’t true? This line that jumped out at me in the scripture is, “Lord, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Have I ever said to the Lord, ‘Lord, don’t you care?’ What do I believe about him that isn’t true? Do I believe that he doesn’t care about my future, about my family, about my finances, about the condition of my heart? What do we not believe about God? A third question might be, “How do I view Jesus? How do the disciples view Him in this story? Do I view Him from a place of fear or hurt or mistrust? Or do I view Him from a place of deep love and deep trust? And the third question, What does it look like for me to wake up Jesus? What does Jesus think about being woken up? What does it look like for me to wake up Jesus? To tell Jesus honestly what I’m feeling and thinking, and hurting about? To admit my own lack of faith and trust in Him? What does it look like in my own life to wake up Jesus?
So, this is just a small example of how we can, with this help of the Holy Spirit, dive into different scripture and allow the Lord to speak into our own lives, our own situation. The words that were written thousands of years ago weren’t just written for the people back then. They weren’t just written as a historical account. They were written for us today so that we might know and believe the one true God. So, prayer is two hearts touching one another. It’s an invitation to grow in deeper intimacy with Him. But like any relationship, it takes work, it takes effort, it takes honesty and humility, and it takes time.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the gift of prayer. And Lord, we’re sorry for any ways that we have not given you the time and the permission that you desire to be with us. We’re sorry for ways we’ve come with our own agenda, and we’ve been discouraged when we haven’t trusted you. Lord, give us and stir in us a hunger, a deeper hunger for prayer, a deeper hunger for intimacy with you, and give us all we need, Lord, to draw near to you, to know that you love us, to receive that love, and to love you in return. Amen.
About Debbie Herbeck
Debbie Herbeck has shared with many her personal journey of faith from Judaism to Christianity and subsequent entrance into the Catholic Church. For the past forty years, Debbie Herbeck has worked extensively in youth and women’s ministry, speaking, leading mission trips,and mentoring high school and college age women. She is the founder and Executive Director Pine Hills Girls’ Camp. Debbie is the founder and Leader of the Be Love Revolution, a ministry that exists to help young women encounter Christ and be His love to all they meet. Debbie has written four books, and is a frequent author and speaker for Blessed is She and contributing writer for Undone: Freeing your Feminine Heart from the Knots of Fear and Shame.
Debbie and her husband Peter recently wrote a book together entitled: Lessons from the School of Love—Creating a Christ-Centered Marriage. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan and have 4 young adult children and 11 small grandchildren.