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How can I pray when I can’t even think straight?

October 29, 2011 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Prayer, Suffering

How do I pray when I am sick and can't think? I feel as though my words are just going out into thin air and no one in heaven hears me. What words do I use and Who will listen?

even think straightThis is a difficult question both to experience and to answer. I have suffered significant ongoing pain and discomfort, constant medication, multiple surgeries and related complications…

When I became a Christian more than fifteen years ago I did so in part because I recognized that apart from Christ, there is no good reason to continue to endure the suffering of this life. The idea that there was an ultimate reason for suffering brought me some comfort. This simple understanding was that my suffering was not in vain and that I would someday, have relief – permanent relief in the arms of Jesus. I didn’t have a specific answer to why I suffered as I did, but I understood from meditation on the scriptures that God was in control and that nothing comes to us that is not for our ultimate good (whether allowed by or caused by God). This meant that God was refining me, preparing me for the day when I would meet him face to face. This was enough for me then, and still brings me great comfort now. This scriptural promise from the book of Revelation in chapter twenty-one was particularly moving to me and is worthy of repeated reading and meditation by those who suffer:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.

I find great comfort in the knowledge that even if my suffering doesn’t subside in this life that it will be obliterated in the next. Not only that, but God himself will reach into my soul, cleanse me of the suffering that came through my own decisions, the suffering that came through circumstance and providence, and will himself comfort me in a way that will be absolutely loving, absolutely perfect and absolutely complete. This encouragement was compounded when I discovered another important promise from St. Paul in I Corinthians chapter 10:

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

And another in Philippians chapter four:

I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

As I am writing this it strikes me that a few verses and commiseration may not be all that helpful. Still, if you meditate on them and participate in the life of grace, I have no doubt you will also find sufficient comfort to make it through just one day – or at least one day at a time. One more verse is in order regarding your specific question from Romans chapter eight:

Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

When we cannot pray, we simply just say, “God I am here, and I need you.” We may not even use words. Our tears may be the only way to communicate with him. We rest in him knowing that he does hear us even when we don’t feel it and that he not only hears us, but that the Holy Spirit offers our deepest needs to our heavenly Father and that these are answered because they are His will.

Beyond meditation on these great truths, what can you specifically do? That all depends on how incapacitated you are. The key is to pray, participate in the sacraments, and seek help. It is important for you to talk to your parish priest or to search out a spiritual director or someone who is in an intimate relationship with Christ. They can help you come to better know the great God of comfort and maybe even gain an understanding of practical things you can do to fight your way through. To gain a better understanding on your own, Father Benedict Groeschel has written several good books on suffering that may also be of help. This one, Arise from Darkness: What to do when life doesn’t make sense might be particularly helpful to you. Aquinas and More bookstore also has a number of books on suffering. Just type the word “suffering” in the search line and you will likely find something that will help.

Never stop praying. Even if you just sit in silence and can say nothing, cry out to him in the simplest way and he will hear you. I know this is true, because he heard me, and rescued me from my distress… over and over again.

I suspect our readers who understand suffering might have a few ideas for you as well – at the very least I know that they will be praying for you. Be assured of my prayers.


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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Dismas

    I don’t claim to understand suffering except that it seems to be one of God’s greatest mysteries and something very powerful and redemptive before the Throne of God. All who suffer are in my prayers each and everyday.

    I offer the following two websites in the hope of greater peace and joy for those asked to heroically and patiently suffer and also that I may share in the graces wrought by your suffering and prayer.

    (Knights at the Foot of the Cross)

  • Thank you for these resources

    • Jogrove

      Remember too, in the ultimate state of His Passion, as a man, Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” So it is only human and to be expected that we may reach the end of our tether at some stage of suffering and feel that we cannot go on. In Gethsemane Angels came and ministered to Jesus. God, in being pure Existence, is pure Love, pure Knowledge, pure Compassion. In being everything that is good in a perfect and complete way you will always be safe and comforted if you only believe in Him. 

      • Absolutely – this is why I have the face of Christ on the post. There are a thousand ways to find peace in suffering – ultimately they all lead back to Christ and his suffering on our behalf.

  • Dwyder

    Saint Therese of Lisieux too knows a thing or two about suffering. Everything I’ve read by her and about her (except for some liberal biography in the Penguin series, awful!) has tremendously helped. I especially love: I BELIEVE IN LOVE…a book written by a French priest who writes it as a “retreat”. I forget his name. Saint Therese, little flower, intercede for us. “Do little things with extraordinary love”…including small sufferings and annoyances. When I pray the Divine Mercy chaplet I often include all the people who suffer. Thank you so much for your writings. God bless you…diane wyder

    • I haven’t read Saint Therese yet so maybe this is why I am asking this but how do we do things with extraordinary love? How do we know that we do what we do with extraordinary love?

      • LizEst


        That can be a great mystery. To do things with extraordinary love means to do things for, with and in God, who is love. How is this possible? For us, it is impossible. But, for God nothing is impossible.

        So, by loving God with his own love–despite not being able to do this–by our own intention, we can join our love to God’s extraordinary love and love him with his own love. That way, he is loved with extraordinary love. More practically, one can have in mind that every single thing that fills up one’s day can be done and offered for God. When you dry a child’s tears, have in mind that you are drying the tears of the child Jesus. When you have an argument with someone, have in mind that you are arguing with Christ…and then, when that realization comes to you, beg God’s forgiveness, amend your argument and treat that person with extraordinary love remembering what Jesus said about what you do to the least of my brothers, you did to me. Mother Teresa also echoed that in “five fingers” or words: “You did it to me.”

        So, when you are too tired to do one more little thing for someone in need, remember that Christ is present in that person and treat them as you would treat Christ with joy and a smile: not “get it yourself” but “let me get it for you,” not “get me a cup of coffee” but “let me get you a cup of coffee.” Remember, Christ came to serve not to be served. And so, to do things with extraordinary love would be to do things as Christ would do them, beginning with a morning offering when you wake, joining all things in your day to Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass and for all the intentions of his sacred heart.

      • Becky Ward

        A simple way to know you’re doing things according to God’s will, which is extra-ordinary… by doing what you prefer to do the least. Keep in mind what Jesus says about doing good to those who treat us well, and whom we like…..even the pagans do that!!

        I’ve heard it said that we don’t need to wear hair shirts and things like that these days because our ‘hair shirt’ may be family members. 🙂 (And we are theirs!!) Often it is precisely with those who we are closest to that we have the most difficult time being truly humble and charitable. 

    • Mary

      “I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux” by Father Jean C. J. d’Elbee, published by Sophia Institute Press, .

    • Jeanette

      ‘I Believe in Love’ by Father Jean C.J. d’Elbee – a wonderful book that I’ve read three times and recommend to all.

    • inIpso

      “I Believe in Love” is AMAZING! My poor copy is dog-eared, underlined, marked, and bent a million different ways! This may sound dramatic, but in all seriousness I have seen this book change peoples’ lives.

      I don’t like to suffer… but the book actually makes suffering attractive because it is done for the Beloved as a response to His Love. Love for Love, as he says in the book. Every page is full of beautiful and challenging things you could meditate on for weeks! I think sometimes people get intimidated by St. Therese, or on the
      other hand think her “too flowery”. If so… I Believe in Love is the
      book to read!!!

  • Annieb

    Last year was awful for me, I suffered terribly in many different ways. These helped me;
    1. Always praise God – read Habbakuk
    2. The prayers of friends / parish
    3. Knowing that Jesus suffered too. By suffering, I might be able to become more Christ like.

    It was almost beyond bearing at times, I would lie in bed clutching a holding cross unable to speak or even cry. But it does pass, all things do. Just tie yourself to Jesus and never let yourself be separated from him .

    • LizEst

      Ah Habakkuk! This is a wonderful suggestion. Very well worth meditating on.

      When God tells Habakkuk the vision is to be written on tablets, the word for tablets “luchot” is the same word for tablets as that used for the tablets of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. This suggests that the answer could be almost as important as the Ten Commandments.

      God writes straight with crooked lines and says as much at the beginning of this book, “a work being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told” (1:5cd). So, we don’t know what God is up to in permitting all this suffering. But God is good and just even in the face of the existence of evil. As the Catechism (#314) says, “The ways of [God’s] providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end…will we fully know the ways by which–even through the dramas of evil and sin–God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.” We do well to trust in the Lord and model Christ’s obedience through suffering, while following the words of Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” Jesus, I trust in you!

  • Angela

    I have heard it said that “the desire to pray is itself a prayer” so you are praying even as your heart is yearning for that closeness with God. 

    Remember that our relationship with God is not in many ways different than our relationships with others. In times of sickness and suffering, we cannot relate to our friends and family as we would when we are healthy and well. We can’t be the life of the party, and they would not expect us to. And yet, we want to be with them, even if it means they are just sitting by our side or providing us with comfort. And God wishes to do the same. Just as our loved ones don’t require our words when we are ill, neither does God. 

    Prayer doesn’t have to involve any words at all. Just placing ourselves in His presence and being willing to have Him love us, that is enough. Think of an attitude of ‘being with,’ ‘abiding in,’ ‘resting in,’ ‘being drawn toward’ or ‘being enveloped by.’ Those are some of the deepest experiences of prayer. I usually think of God (especially when I am in His eucharistic presence) as being the Sun and I am exposed to His light and warmth no matter what I do or don’t do. I could even sleep in the chapel and He would still envelop me. I could be suffering with the most scattered and distracted thoughts or enduring a strong headache and yet, I would benefit from the exposure to His powerful presence. Even if you are not able to be near Him in the Blessed Sacrament, walls and distance do not stop those divine rays from penetrating your soul. 

    Sometimes we mistake prayer for an activity of ‘doing’ when it is really a state of ‘being.’ You can be with Him with every single breath. 

    Some people find that having something else to focus on such as an intention to offer up the suffering for, makes the pain and discomfort more bearable. I believe that we will never know this side of heaven how many of God’s graces have been opened for us by those who suffer and offer themselves in this way. 

    I will pray for you as I go to Mass this morning. I know that God is very close to the sick and suffering and I will ask Him to make His love manifest to you and console you at this time. Pax. 

  • tyna

    I understand this struggle.  I have suffered with a chronic illness, unbearable pain as well as a child sexually molested.  The book Lessons from the
    School of Suffering: A Young Priest With Cancer Teaches Us How to Live by Rev
    Jim Willig is one of the best helps in what to do with your suffering.  We pray daily in our rosary for those of you suffering.  As stated before, cling to Christ.

  • Laura Bulger

    Last December I completely ruptured my rotator cuff and had to have major reconstructive surgery on it… needless to say the pain was unbearable. I was in bed for over a month and a half; I felt stranded and very much alone.  
    I managed to call my parish priest who once a week brought me Communion and would sit and talk with me and hear my Confession (because of the pain medication, I would sometimes fall asleep on him while he was there) regardless it was an enormous help and relief and didn’t deter him from coming each week.  Since those drugs I was taking put me to sleep and caused my mind to be foggy at best while I was awake, I gained great comfort in just HOLDING onto the Rosary and looking at the Crucifix I have on my wall.  
    As I was taken off the drugs and the pain persisted my only consolation because I felt my prayers were “dry” and “babbling” was to meditate for as long as possible on the Shoulder Wound of our Lord and know that He had this cross with me and together WE would carry it. 
    I hope this suggestion helps.  
    God wants us to allow Him to come to us sometimes so that He can heal us in many ways, not just physically.  This experience has brought me closer in TRUSTING Him which I believe is necessary, even when we THINK we totally trust Him already. Please also know that nothing comes to us without His permission… good or bad and that He is with us ALWAYS!  Pray for the suffering and persecuted and sometimes don’t use any words at all… just meditate and be alone with our Great Healer… He is there; understanding, healing and helping us to grow in many ways in order to Glorify Him in a much deeper loving way.

    God Bless — Laura

  • barjonah

    I too suffered much over the past years. Much emotional and physical pain. I found comfort in the Psalms. I read one a day sometimes more. I particularly found solace in the those that numbered in the 20’s. Especially Psalm 23 and 25. Knowing that God is with you and ultimately triumphant over what ever we face is a great comfort.

    I too found great comfort in the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux.

    I also took the time to contemplate my suffering in light of Jesus’s and began to look at things differently because he did not complain at all but accepted his suffering on our behalf. When we can offer our suffering for someone else it makes it easier to bear.

    I will pray for you. For healing and God’s peace and grace. God Bless!

  • Marthagonzalezhan

    Rejoice when the Lord allows you to share in His suffering for the salvation of souls!  In the pain, think of Him.  Think of how He endured the pain out of Love.  Meditate on the pains He felt as you feel your own and the way He Loves will become so much more real for you.  Sometimes I have been in the depths of excruciating pain due to a spinal condition, and I would have never thought it possible, but I have actually found joy to the point of tears because of the Love.

  • Michelle

    When St. Therese was near death and in great suffering, the pain forced her to pray in silent love. When asked, “What do you say to Jesus?” She answered, “I say nothing-I only love Him. I can still suffer and love, and that is enough.” I found this novena, “Joy in Suffering” by Bishop A.A. Noser, published by TAN books to be helpful in understanding how St. Therese found joy in her suffering. I have also found the book of Job to be very helpful as a way of accepting that God’s plan for me is perfect, and He knows far better than I what is best for me.

  • Cynthia

    I have suffered pain and fatigue for the past 25 years. As a convert to Catholicism I particularly appreciate the fact that I can unite my suffering to Jesus’ suffering and it then has value and purpose. This is a prayer that I have typed in a large font to make it easier to read. I put it where I can readily find it when the waves of pain overwhelm me…

    O my God, Lover of the Afflicted,
    Accept each pain, each heartbeat and tear, each groan and sigh,
    as an act of love, of submission to you Holy Will, and of sorrow for my sins.
    Unite this sacrifice to yours for the intention of (name it here),
    and let my suffering be pleasing in Your sight.
    Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  • Becky Ward

    I’ve found this helpful:

    God has created me for some definite service.
    He has committed some work to me that He has not committed to another.
    I have my mission – – which I may not even recognize in this life.

    I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
    God has not created me for nothing.
    I shall do this destined work.
    I shall be an angel of peace, a messenger of truth in my own place.

    I will, therefore, trust Him — whatever, wherever I am.

    I can never be thrown away.
    If I am sick, my sickness serves.
    If I am in sorrow, this is my task.
    God does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about.

    I have my mission – – and I will fulfill it.

    Cardinal John Henry Newman (Now St. John Henry Newman, I believe.)

  • Michelle

    I think sometimes we put too much thought into prayer, instead of letting go and letting God, and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our prayer. As long as we place ourselves in God’s presence and quiet our minds and hearts, prayer will evolve. We are so used to having a check list and an agenda that this habit creeps into our prayer life. Just simply say “Dear Lord, here I am” … and let your heart take over. It works for me every time!

    • Yes – you are right. Some can get too caught up in method or approach. Your advice is good. The only tweak I would add is that we don’t seek to quiet our minds but to turn them to Christ. Then, focus on him, if he causes quiet, then we rest in it, if he engages, we follow…

  • John D Dique

    Sometimes a moment of seemingly complete paralysis can be PRECISELY where the individual is supposed to be, for only then the individual may be willing to LISTEN. Listening is most important if the pentitent or the prayerful are to get anywhere at all, or progress even one step further on the journey of faith. For this writer who is no stranger to prophetic dreams and visions, knows that sitting in a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is placed, just listening, allows God to enter his space, and rearrange his troubled mind. Thus it is sickness, or some other trouble that often draws the individual to listen to the God within, who speaks in words profound, and is an opportunity for a renewed dependancy upon the One who allowed all humanity to call Him “Father”. Jesus directs in many ways, but He asks of all one thing: Follow. Trust in God is the most important aspect of prayer. “Be it done unto me, according to your word”, became the solution for all mankind, the moment of the incarnation…. Be it done unto us…”your will be done, on earth, AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”.

  • Claire

    Years ago my father gave me a little booklet put out by the Holy Name Society that said that just saying the name of Jesus is a very good prayer. I have found this to be so. Later when my father was in the hospital before his death and was unable to even pray the rosary I reminded him of this.

  • Cydlim

    I have a very good friend who discovered a lump in her breast and that the lump was found to be malignant.  This article came very timely and will share it with her.  She is a firm believer and holds tight to God’s promise that He will never leave her nor forsake her.
    Please include in your prayers Penny de Leon for complete healing and to continue to surrender all her will to God.

  • judeen

    suffering is a powerful prayer.. offered with the passion agony and death of Jesus Christ to God the Father for souls.. just the suffering is a prayer… powerful suffering souls suffering for others.. but the memorized prayers also sometimes are the only thing we can pray .. there are saints that just said the Our Father … just try to concentrate on the words and mean them

      we also seek confession, if you are spiritual the devil sends you suffering to try to get you to give up… confession protects you also praise the Lord.. the devil will also send pain for you to suffer.. He can not touch you if you praise the Lord…
      if the devil and not human weakness is doing this suffering He will flee for your using it for good and the pain will stop..
      also there is a lot of curses – many problems are caused from.. break all curses , hexes and seals 3xs in the Name of Jesus Christ who was born crucified and dead and rose again.. it is that easy…. remember all sufferings you receive graces .. these graces will help others to know God if you use them to love and understand… and guide them to God

  • Clare

    there is a “call” now in this time and for the coming days to pray without words.I call this the Silence of Holiness-it is just being in His Presence with Gaze. Gazing in His Presence. This is about all one can do in suffering. And He doth fill thy soul. And fill it for what the soul doth not know now.

  • Mark A. Rains

    Some good introspective observations have been made here, when we are either beckoned to enter into “the fellowship of sharing in [Christ’s] suffering”
    (Phil. 3:10) “on His behalf” (Phil 1:29) or, know we are fulfilling the law of
    Christ, as we are willing to carry the burdens of others (Gal. 6:2; cf. Col. 1:24). But,
    focus on the question in the first sentence. When these and
    those other times of ambiguity arise in the interior life, I have found much comfort
    in knowing that Jesus always lives to intercede for us (Heb. 7:27), even when we
    don’t “feel” like praying. Pax inter spinas (Peace among the thorns), Mark A. Rains

  • A333jeremiah

    God Bless you. This Q&A came at the time when I was needing assurance that my trust in God was possible with His word prompting me on everyday. Thank you for sharing your insight, it truly is from the Holy Spirit. In His Love Patricia

  • JMJDevotion

    Wow! What a profound question…and a thoughtful answer. I am a convert to the Church. I suffer daily with unending pain. Some days are better than others. I have read a lot about suffering in the books on Mother Angelica of EWTN. I am searching for a way to learn more. I want to learn to suffer in silence, to really use my suffering for the good of others. I too, have days when I am unable to focus on prayer. I wrote my own “mantra” to help me when I am unable to focus:

    “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I love you. Immaculate Heart of Mary, I love you. I offer this pain for the souls in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.” I just repeat it over and over and over. I know it is not much. It is simple. In my heart, I become pain free, even when it remains in my body.

    • Alexandra-k

      Beautiful and simple prayer JMJ – I will try to say it when I suffer and can’t think of more intricate words. In the end it is all about intention, not words..

  • Lecarmel

    I am reminded of a sentence that St. Therese of Lisieux wrote in one of her letters. She said that “a day in the life of a Carmelite without suffering is a day that is lost”. Suffering enables us to participate in the Christ’s redemptive mission. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, another Carmelite, said that it is in suffering that she is able to exercize her priestly ministry, for in the offering of our suffering we offer a sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God and of benefit to souls. Easy? No! By no means. Beneficial? Yes! By all means. Eternally so.
    Just persevere in staying in His presence. He is happy you are there with Him, keeping Him company. You console Him for there are few who do.

  • jack g.

    Hi I liked the post. There are many of audio books, rosaries on cd and many different editions of Scripture on cd., also . As far as praying it is enough to be there for God and He will understand our weakness. Didn’t Jesus say about a loving Father Who gives much more than we ask and much more than we can give to our children although we are wicked by the original sin. Jesus I trust in Thee is enough of a prayer for the whole day. I do pray a lot and I love you all in Christ. Jack

  • Marlene

    When I feel I can’t pray I call on a select group of friends I call my prayer warriors. Ive been through cancer and have felt too weak and depresed to pray, But I have felt held and blessed in the prayers of my friends. You can count on my prayers for you. God Bless and remember He is the God of your storm.

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