The Prayer of Incompetence

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

As you may remember, the theme for our most recent Ministry Conference last summer was “Seasons of the Soul: Rediscovering the Ancient Paths of Prayer.”  You may also remember that I repeatedly encouraged those of us in attendance to remain open to expanding our prayer portfolios by incorporating new and life-giving ways to pray when the Lord brings them to our attention.  Well, I had yet another opportunity to practice what I preach recently during a period of time when I found myself so physically, emotionally and spiritually depleted that I simply did not know how to pray.

It was at this point that our Lord graciously introduced me to the “prayer of incompetence,” a phrase made popular by Basil Hume, the late Archbishop of Westminster.  In his book, Searching for God, Cardinal Hume offers this cool cup of water for those of us who may find ourselves wandering in a spiritual desert:

“Often we find ourselves … in what we term the ‘prayer of incompetence,’ where method is useless and seems to be an obstacle and yet, at the same time, there is not an awareness of God, and a seemingly conscious response is impossible … this is a state in which many of us find ourselves for a considerable time.  In the course of this prayer, which does not seem to be a prayer, we have to learn that prayer is essentially a giving to God as well as a receiving from him.  It is also a time to learn to recognize our limitations.”

As a recovering Pharisee, I immediately resonated with this phrase, and with this additional reminder from Thérèse of Lisieux: “Prayer arises, if at all, from incompetence, otherwise there is no need of it.”

Thankfully, Hume not only normalizes the struggle, but goes on to recommend a few, simple practices that may help speak to our condition during such times:

  • “Adopt the attitude of waiting on God, of just being present at prayer even though the effort seems to be unrewarding … God speaks to us essentially and above all in the depths of our being, inspiring in us a greater wanting for God; and this, I think, is one of the characteristic fruits of the life of prayer; a greater desire for God.”
  • “Accept the condition of being apparently abandoned by God … how rewarding it is when we remember, finding ourselves in a mood of frustration, to thank God that we are in this state; to recognize that it is obviously what he thinks best for us!”
  • “Abide [dwell] in the attributes of God – the important ones, the obvious ones: to dwell on the thought of God’s love, to dwell on the thought of God’s mercy, sometimes simply to repeat phrases from the Gospel; snippets of prayer we have learned at one time or another, just to take our attention away from other.”

Again, these were life-giving words of wisdom for me at an unusually difficult time on my journey with Jesus.  My guess is thatmost of you may find yourselves in a similar place at times as well.  If so, we can give thanks together for that “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) who have gone before us, whose lives and testimonies provide much needed words of encouragement just when we need it the most.  But above all, we can rejoice in the fact that when we find ourselves in a place where we don’t know how to pray, we can rest in the arms of our good and beautiful God, the Lover of our souls, the One who passionately and persistently prays for us (cf. Mt 6:8; Lk 22:32; Rm 8:26; Heb 7:25).  He will always “remain faithful, even when we are faithless” (2 Tim 2:13).

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent