If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that praying is not always easy. In fact, it sometimes becomes apparent when we examine our hearts that we find that the real issue underlying the difficulty we find in saying our prayers is that we simply don’t want to pray. Perhaps there have been times when prayer was easy and we have convinced ourselves that if it’s not easy then something must be wrong. This could not be further from the truth. Such cycles are perfectly normal in the spiritual life and, in fact, are necessary for us to grow in spiritual maturity. Sometimes (or perhaps even oftentimes), prayer is hard work and many of us are tempted to simply throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity. If we wish to progress in the spiritual life, we must be aware that it will not always be easy and we must be honest with ourselves about what is required to cultivate within ourselves a deep and abiding desire for God.
Psychologists say that communication is the life blood of relationships and my experience is that this seems to bear out in practical life. I have been married for nearly 17 years and will freely admit that it has not always been easy to maintain a healthy degree of communication with my wife in that time. So many things enter into our lives that serve to distract us… we become busy, we have work obligations, church obligations, different schedules… the list goes on and on. The reality is that anyone who has been married for more than a few months will undoubtedly agree that healthy communication in a marriage is real work and, as is the case with the application of this principle towards prayer, modern people have cultivated a great deal of skill in getting out of work. At the end of the day, though, marriages (and lots of other types of relationships) will simply not survive if communication breaks down. Imagine for a moment that we decide to just stop speaking to our spouse for a week… what do we think would happen? Can we even consider what it would be like to wake up in the morning and not greet our spouse… to walk by them in the hallway and pretend as though they are not there? This is unimaginable. There are certainly times in married life where communication is difficult, but (generally) we intuitively understand that we have to put in at least some effort to maintain and cultivate relationships with those we care about, so we do the work even when we don’t feel like it.
One of the most common things I hear as a priest is, “Father, I’ve had a bad week… I missed my prayers almost every day.” When I hear this, I almost always think about the scenario described above where a husband ignores his wife for an entire week. I will often tell the person something like this:
“Imagine that you’ve been at work all day and that your spouse has been at home waiting eagerly for your return. You were in a hurry this morning so you were forced to rush out the door without even saying Good Morning. Finally, you come home, you open the door and you walk right past your spouse who is standing there joyfully waiting to greet you. As you walk inside, your spouse follows behind you trying to get your attention but you just ignore them, continuing on to your chair, plopping down and turning on Netflix and reaching for a beer… aaand, you repeat this pattern every day for a week until, finally, you wake up one morning and decide that today you really do love your spouse so you decide to throw them a party and invite all of your friends to show how much you care. Don’t you see a disconnect between your daily behavior and your professed beliefs??”
Obviously, you can see the point that I’m trying to make. We have to begin to think of prayer as something more than a mere formality… Prayer is not so much an obligation in our Orthodox approach as it is the response of a loving heart reaching out to God in response to His constant reaching out to us. When we rush out of our houses in the morning without praying, we are ignoring our Beloved Savior who, ”stands at the doors and knocks” and longs to make His abode within us. When we fail to pray in the evening and throughout the day, we are undoubtedly turning a blind eye to the constant and loving efforts Christ is making to connect with us and bring us out of the prison of our own passionate and self-centered living. To crown this pattern of ignoring the Savior for an entire week, when Sunday finally rolls around we get up and get dressed in our Sunday’s Finest to come to church and attend the banquet of the Liturgy, only, once we arrive, we feel empty and incomplete. Should this come as a surprise to any of us??
I once heard that St. Theophan the Recluse said that the Christian soul flies to God on two wings: the wing of personal/private prayer and the wing of liturgical/communal prayer. This seems intuitively to be the case… if we wish to reap the harvest of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, then we must cultivate the garden of the heart continually, not only once in a great while. No successful gardner plants his garden and then ignores it completely until harvest time, and it is the exact same in the spiritual life.
Another common thing that I hear is that, “I don’t feel love in my heart toward God and that’s why it’s hard to pray.” To address this, it is worth reflecting first on what it means to love. In our modern society, love is understood to be a feeling… an emotional sensation that we either have or don’t have and there’s not really too much we can do about it. Couples frequently cite, “we have fallen out of love” as the reason that they must get divorced. So often we hear, the feelings just aren’t there anymore, as if we are so very immature that everything that we do or don’t do is subject to our feelings and nothing more. The reality is that love is a conscious choice to sacrifice for someone, be it for God or for the people that God has put into our lives. In the Holy Gospel, we are commanded to love: “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Here, our Savior is not commanding us to experience a certain feeling. Instead, we are being told to sacrifice for those who mistreat us, to take up our cross and follow Christ, following His ultimate example of love which was poured out for us all upon the cross… “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” This is not easy, but it is both possible and necessary for us if we hope to make any progress in the spiritual life. To connect this to prayer, a life in Christ requires us to come outside of ourselves and make daily sacrifices for God. Everything the Orthodox Faith has to offer is, in fact, centered on this principle. We pray, we fast, we attend services, we give alms, we show kindness to those around us because this is also how we show our love for God. Truly, there is no other way.
So, from this reflection we can see clearly that we must practice daily communication with God to have any degree of spiritual life and we do this as an act of love for God, sacrificing what would otherwise be our time in a desire to give it freely to God in the hope of cultivating closeness with Him.
Being the weak humans that we are, however, sometimes we need some extra motivation to bring us to the point where we are willing to choose God over ourselves. Thankfully, there are many opportunities to find such inspiration available to us in our daily lives. I can speak from experience that there have been plenty of times where the time rolls around to leave for vigil on Saturday evenings and I find myself beginning to resist. I think to myself, “I’m so tired… I won’t get anything out of vigil tonight” or “I have so much work to do at home… I should stay and do that instead.” Of course, in my case these are fleeting thoughts as I’m a parish priest and am not in a position to not come to church. What I have found by experience is, I think, noteworthy. Even on the days when I am extremely tired and/or distracted, a marvelous thing happens after I stand in church for a little while. It usually takes 20 minutes or so but eventually (and invariably) my mind and heart begin to calm and my life comes into focus. At these moments, I realize that there is no other place I’d rather be… standing in the midst of the Church is where I am most myself. It is where all other wants, desires, obligations, stresses, anxieties simply fade away. I become like Prince Rilian in CS Lewis’ “The Silver Chair” and finally, if only for a few fleeting hours, I become aware of what is truly important and meaningful in life and I wish to live like this continually.
What is the point of this little anecdote? Well, primarily the point is that if I had not forced myself to come to vigil even when I didn’t feel like it, I would not have had this experience. When you find yourself talking yourself out of attending church, stop and realize that this is likely the work of the enemy of our salvation who wishes to rob us of such opportunities to experience God in the Divine Services. I remember once I had a parishioner ask me, “Father, why do Orthodox services have to be so long??” I really didn’t have a good answer for him for a few days but finally it occurred to me… it takes time for our hearts to thaw. If we take meat out of the freezer, we can’t do anything with it until it has fully thawed, once all the ice completely melts away. The same thing happens to each one of us as we stand attentively during the Divine Services and allow the warmth of the Holy Spirit to restore our frozen, stony hearts to hearts of flesh.
Referring back to how St. Theophan says that we fly to God on two wings, the wing of private prayer and the wing of liturgical prayer… realize that this same opportunity awaits us in our homes. Most Orthodox Christians have a designated part of their home where they keep their icons, lampadas, prayers books etc. This “icon corner” is, very simply, a domestic church, a place where the communal liturgical life of our parish intersects with our daily domestic routine. Sadly, I can say that I have seen many icon corners that are painfully underused. We go to the effort to purchase beautiful icons and other items to make our home icon corners beautiful and inspiring and then frequently choose to watch television or surf the web instead of communicating with God on a daily basis. As is the case with simply making it through the doors of the church, realize that when we don’t want to pray, perhaps we can muster enough strength to simply walk to our icon corners and light the lampadas and simply sit down for a moment, dwelling in the midst of the saints. I think we will find that if we do this, we will then take the next step and decide to go ahead and say our prayers and… I can assure you that it has never happened that someone regretted saying their prayers in such instances.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast teaches that the Holy Spirit comes to us in waves… at times, we find it easy to pray and this is a sign that we are receiving a visitation of the Holy Spirit. At other times, we may find that we are more spiritually dry and prayer comes only with difficulty. Elder Joseph taught his disciples that in such times we should rejoice, because this is a sure indication that the time of sweetness will soon return to us. Likewise, when we are in the time of sweetness, he encouraged his disciples to gird themselves for battle as the time of God’s withdrawing from us is likely at hand. It is in this cycle of God drawing near to us and withdrawing that growth occurs and for this reason, we must become men and women of spiritual valor and endurance who do not simply cease doing what is right and beautiful in the eyes of God because it is no longer easy. If we can remember this, it can be an encouragement to us when we feel spiritually dry and, with God’s help, we can cultivate within ourselves the habit of prayer even when we find that we don’t want to pray.
May God strengthen us in our desire for Him!