The Struggle to Pray
A young man had gone up to a monastery to learn how to pray. Work and prayer always go hand in hand at a monastery. First, the abbot gave the man a prayer rule, to end each day with 15 prostrations: that is, to get down on his knees and prostrate before God, each time asking for mercy. Second, the abbot assigned him the task to help rebuild an old stonewall. The first morning came. The young man jumped out of bed and ran to work. He spent the day digging up stones, carting them off in wheelbarrows, and carrying back new stone to patch the ruin. It was hard work, but he was virile and proud. Then evening came, and he had 15 prostrations to make. One…Two…Three…and he quit and fell asleep.
Well, the next day he got up excited to go about his work with the other men, and proved his manhood again. Evening came. One prostration…two…three…he couldn’t find the motivation to do any more, and fell asleep. This pattern went on for some time, and eventually the young man became discouraged. He’d come to the monastery to pray, he told the abbot, but could hardly stand in his prayer corner for more than a minute or two. He didn’t lack physical strength. He could throw stones around all day long. And yet he wasn’t strong enough to make a few prostrations. The abbot smiled and said to him, “The strength you find for manual labor comes from your desire to please other men. The strength you find to pray comes from your desire to please God.”
Why is it that prayer is so hard?
A lot of people have motivation and drive. We make sacrifices all the time, staying up late to study for school or spending hour after hour building our careers. We Americans especially have pride in our hard work and determination – and well we should. But do we place the same pride in the time and effort we put into prayer?
Prayer is hard.
In the Orthodox Church, each of us is expected to keep a prayer rule, which has been worked out by you and your confessor. This usually involves setting aside time every morning and evening to read psalms, to pray for loved ones, or to merely stand in silence before God. In this prayer rule, the saints and fathers of the Church all stress, the first and foremost thing is consistency. It’s better to say one ‘Our Father” each morning and evening for years to come, than to pray for an hour one day and to forget to pray for the next month. It’s the repetition that changes us and reshapes us into the likeness of God. Imagine a young boy who wants a relationship with a girl but isn’t willing to invest more time than an occasional phone call here and there. He’s never going anywhere that way. If he wants the girl, he has to spend time with her. If he wants to become one with her, he needs to give her his whole life. And that’s how our relationship with God works.
But as glorious as this sounds…when it comes down to it, it’s really hard.
The minute you start building a life around prayer you discover all kinds of things to do which never existed before. All of a sudden you become busier, your other jobs become more important, a new TV series starts playing, or the kids start screaming more loudly. Prayer is hard work.
Then, once you’ve finally established a consistent prayer life, you’ve marked off that time in the morning and evening and dedicated it to God…you’re standing there before the icons…and what happens? Your thoughts start scattering in a million directions
A monk on Mount Athos puts it this way, “We are constantly occupied by all kinds of thoughts that appear in our heads, and it seems we no sooner start to pray than we catch ourselves thinking about something else.”
The Apostles experienced this too, that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus took them there and asked them to pray. Then He went off and knelt by a stone to prepare His soul for crucifixion, and when he returned to the Apostles, what were they doing? They were snoring! It’s his last night with them, and they couldn’t even spend an hour in prayer. “Watch and pray,” Christ says patiently, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” So He goes back to His place in the garden, to return a little while afterwards and, again, find His loyal disciples back asleep (John 26:36-43).
It’s at least assuring to know that the disciples struggled with the same things we struggle with. The spirit may indeed be willing, but the flesh is certainly weak.
Prayer is hard work.
Today, we heard the Parable of the Lost Coin.
“What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost’ (Luke 15:8-9).”
This is a parable about God’s earnestness to save us. God cherishes us the widow cherishes those ten coins, who, when she looses a single coin searches through every nook and cranny to find it. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God loves you so adamantly that He’ll do everything possible to heal your relationship with Him.
You get a sense of this in the Book of Deuteronomy:
“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth. May my teaching drop like the rain…As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young…the Lord alone guides” (32:1-11).
If you wonder where God is in your life, God is hoping and trying to saturate us in his love in the same way that rain drenches the earth and a mother bird nestles its birdlings.
What stops Him then?
All too often, our hearts are too far from Him and our ears too clogged up to hear. This is why it’s so hard to pray and why it’s so important to pray.
Those 5 minutes that you stand in your prayer corner, or that brief hour during mass, is a little microcosm of your relationship with God.
Thoughts aren’t really random and they’re certainly not out of our control.
Our Thoughts go directly to all the places where we’ve invested our hearts.
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).
Again, imagine a young boy in a math class. The teacher lectures on about addition and subtraction (that’s about the extent of my math) but the boy’s mind is on Sally Sue in the pretty dress. Where is his heart? On the lecture or on the girl? This is how we are with prayer. So often, our hearts aren’t in it, because our hearts aren’t with God.
But this shouldn’t be disappointing. It takes humility. If we try to pray again and again and never make progress, but slowly start thinking less highly about ourselves, then it would all be worthwhile.
But meanwhile, if we try, we can mature in our prayer. It’s learned by practicing, like everything else, and it can be mastered. “To saints their very slumber is prayer,” St. Jerome writes. The more time we spend with prayer, the less schizophrenic our thoughts become, and, day or night, we can find rest in God.
The Parable of the Lost Coin tells us something about God. But, at the same time, it says something about us. You and I must also become like the widow searching for the coin.
In the Hebrew world, the number 10 represents perfection. When God made us, He crafted us in the perfect way, in His very image, so that we would had every chance to grow and flourish. But ever time we sin we fall away from that perfection. We loose our perfect 10, and end up with 9: an incomplete person. In other words, the soul starts looking like a shattered mirror with a thousand tiny pieces scattered everywhere. Instead of being one person with one will and one desire to worship Him, our desires are scattered all over the place. Part of us still loves God. But another part loves the world, another loves the ego, another loves the flesh. The coins are scattered. You can call it spiritual schizophrenia.
So what can we do?
It starts and ends in prayer.
First, you struggle to set aside time for prayer. You can’t do this alone. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and so if you try it by yourself you’ll either not pray enough or you’ll take on too much and despair because when you can’t keep it up. Learning to pray is a lot like becoming an athlete. It takes accountability; you need a team and coach. And so, in order to grow in Christ we need our parish life and we need frequent confession, there’s no other way and only pride keeps us from it.
Then, once you’ve established a prayer rule, you begin the life-long struggle of going deeper into that prayer. It might help to remember the widow who lost her coin. The coin was so precious to her that she scrubbed the floor, searched through the cracks between each board, moved everything aside, all because she was determined to find the coin. If only we could strive so hard to find God.
So what are the obstacles in your life that keep your heart from inner prayer?
That’s what we all have to think about, and strive to work on, at every cost. Without that one coin we’re incomplete; it’s all or nothing.
You stand in front of the icon, your lips are moving, but your thoughts are all over the place. How can you bring them to God? There’s no end to the tools in the toolbox of the Church. We have the Holy Scriptures. We have 2,000 years of writings by saints and bishops who dedicated their lives to the task. We have the sacraments. We have one another. We have everything we need. All we have to do is go to work.
May God, through the prayers of His Blessed Mother, His saints and heavenly angels, and the Church militant and triumphant, give us the strength and determination to bring our hearts to Him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.