Falling Asleep While Praying Is Just Fine
I've always struggled with praying silently for very long.
It makes me feel like I'm not a very good pastor sometimes, especially when I hear stories of other pastors who spend hours praying alone in their office or on some mountaintop.
The truth is, I get bored during long prayers, my mind wanders, I find myself thinking of anything except what I intended to pray for, and sometimes I fall asleep.
I remember years ago, at the church I served in seminary, there was an interminably long prayer as part of the service.
In fact, those prayers (which we called Prayers of the People) were supposed to be at least five minutes long. As a staffer, I had to offer them every once in a while, and a minimum of five minutes was the guideline I was given.
I had a friend on staff who told me once that he was going for nearly eight minutes on the Sunday he was scheduled to offer the prayer. And then he did.
At any rate, there was this interminably long prayer, and I put my forehead on the back of the pew in front of me while it was happening, and I fell asleep.
My son finally nudged me when it was over and told me with a snicker, "You were snoring." Then he informed me I had a red, indented line on my forehead where the pew back dug in.
If I fell asleep during a long prayer at church, you can imagine how hard it would be to maintain consciousness while praying silently for longer than a few minutes.
As a result, my prayers tend to be short. Or they take the form of a conversation between myself and God. Conversations are more engaging anyway.
So I've spent years of my life feeling bad about this, and then I read this amazing quote from a pastor named Rich Villodas from a book he wrote about spiritual practices:
Think of boredom during silent prayer as an act of purification. In this uneventful moment, God purifies us of the false god of good feelings. Silent prayer is often something I want to avoid because it forces me to exorcise the demons of excitement, stimulation and distraction.
Can I tell you how much this quote lit me up? And it also challenged me, too.
Villodas reframes the idea of boredom during prayer and makes it useful. He acknowledges that because our world is filled with "the false god of good feelings," we often get distracted during prayer because we're not doing something that effectively makes us feel good in the moment.
Prayer and meditation allow us to let go of our need for excitement, stimulation, distraction, or anything else that gets in the way of our drawing closer to the Divine.
Silent prayer can become (as Villodas says) a purifying act where we let our minds rest from their labor, our souls reconnect with Creation, and our hearts become more attuned to the movement of the Spirit of God.
And if this letting go leads us to acknowledge our weariness, we should let ourselves rest.
After all, we can only help the people we pray for or ourselves if we are well-spent. Falling asleep while praying doesn't make you a bad Christian; it makes you human.
Even Jesus eventually pitied his followers when they fell asleep while praying with him at the Garden of Gethsemane.
Ultimately, I believe there is no wrong way to pray as long as your heart is bent on connecting with God--even if you are feeling raw.
I've prayed some pretty angry prayers to God from time to time. But at the heart of every one of those prayers was a need for the Divine presence and a longing for help.
There have been times when I have been face down on the carpet in a church sanctuary late at night, begging God for some sign, evidence that God was there in the middle of my sorrow, fear, or whatever else I was struggling with.
I've also prayed prayers of gratitude, thanksgiving, praise, and the like when it felt as though God had done something miraculous in my life or the life of a loved one.
However you choose to pray, give yourself some grace as you do it. Let your time of silent prayer or meditation help purify you and release you from all the thoughts and anxieties that keep you from connecting with God.
And let yourself rest when you need to, knowing that you rest in the arms of a God who loves it when you let go and open up for whatever God has to offer.
May it be so, and may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.