I believe it was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman who uttered the famous phrase, "Prayer is hell." Or perhaps he said, "War is hell," but if he'd been a religious man, he would have said that prayer is hell, too.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Followed faithfully, a routine of anguish, dread, and self-loathing can keep even the most torpid soul on tiptoe.

The problem is that few modern-day spirituality peddlers prepare people for what is in store for them when they decide to deepen their prayer life. In the ever-expanding prayermeisters guild, prayer is generally portrayed as a soothing experience, a loving encounter with a gentle God. (Or, if you prefer your devotions deity-free, a mystical immersion in the warm springs of one's truest self.)

Seriously pursued, prayer confronts you with your own sinfulness.

It's pretty to think so. But for me, at least, prayer is a harrowing experience. Whether it's the scriptural self-projection required by "The Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius, the intellect-transcending contemplation described by St. John of the Cross, or the lectio divino of the Benedictines, I frequently find that prayer intensifies my natural pessimism, depletes my energy, and diminishes my ability to negotiate the day.

This is as it should be--to some degree. Seriously pursued, prayer confronts you with your own sinfulness. It exposes your culpability in the evils of the world. It leads you to the brink of your faith, and then tosses you off. It illuminates the distance between who you are, and who God called you to be. And that's the good part: The first step toward repentance is to understand what we are doing wrong.

But after we have arrived at this knowledge, what next? Prayer isn't a diet or an exercise regimen; commitment does not necessarily lead to progress. To think so confuses will power with grace. We are at God's mercy; we have been all along, but now we are painfully aware of our dependency.

The authors of Western spiritual classics are unanimous in their insistence that banishing the overweening self is essential to our spiritual growth. But in my experience, grace does not immediately flow into the self's old room. This can leave one, for long periods, without a firm sense of who one is. There is solace, of course, in the hope of who one aspires to become, but this becoming proceeds at God's pace, not ours. All of which would be fine if we were butterflies. But lacking a cocoon, we must continue to function--for an indefinite period--in a complex world while we are in a weakened state.

To complicate the matter, the banished self turns out to be a wily fellow. One's faults tend to remain one's faults even after profound spiritual experiences; they just get a new wardrobe. We've all met people who are as self-centered in new virtue as they were in old vice. The persistence of the self requires an ongoing internal dialectic about whether you want what you want because you want it (which is bad) or because God wants you to want it (which is good).

Making this distinction is called discernment: the attempt to recognize and cooperate with God's will. Discernment is not an exact science. In the end, it is impossible to say for certain whether the voice that you think you hear is yours or God's. For me, however, that is not its greatest drawback. Rather, I'm daunted by the psychological intensity that authentic discernment requires: the endless self-scrutiny; and the recognition that one is selfish and cowardly. I'd rather not peer too deeply into my own darkness, but past failures, properly understood, might unlock the door to grace.

The process can induce both passivity and depression, and while these responses are not universal, they are also not unique. For many well-intentioned people, prayer is hell.

Mine, however, is not an argument against prayer but against certain popular conceptions of prayer. At the core of these misconceptions is the frequently repeated phrase "a personal relationship with God." I've been urged to build such a relationship since I was in my teens, but it has only recently struck me as a bizarre idea.

I have no means of understanding God. I am unable to reconcile the concept of God as a loving parent with the occurrence of natural disaster, yet I continue to believe in the former and witness the latter. I've heard some sincere and intelligent people say that God was their "friend," and I couldn't imagine believing in so domesticated a deity.

And so I come to prayer, as I suppose many people do, irregularly and with trepidation.

I spend more time now reciting the words of my ancestors in faith, and less time plumbing my thoughts and feelings in God's unblinking presence. At first, I thought this constituted a failure of nerve, but lately I've come to look on it as an acknowledgement that none of us works out our salvation alone.

My attitude toward liturgy has changed, too. Once it made me restless, but now I cling to it. Prayer makes sense for me primarily in the context of community, and speaking the same words as everyone else keeps my overweening self at bay.

Jim Naughton, a Beliefnet columnist, is the author of "Catholics in Crisis: The Rift Between American Catholics and Their Church."

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