How often we experience a real struggle in offering heartfelt prayers to God. How often we say words as we attempt to pray and wonder if they even ascend above the very roof of our home. Though we offer our prayers with good intention, we may not always leave feeling as though we’ve connected with God. We wonder if maybe we’re not doing something right.
What we are experiencing is a dissension between the spirit, which is willing, and the flesh, which is either more interested in staying connected with the things of the world or so full of worry that it won’t let go even for a few minutes to find rest in Christ.
Our spirit desires to pray and connect with our Lord and Creator, while our flesh entertains thoughts about financial status, health concerns, parenting challenges, marriage issues, or some sort of family matters. It’s as though our entire being is experiencing a Mary and Martha syndrome. Martha was troubled about many things, and though there was much to do, Mary chose to be still and sit at the Master’s feet to be with Him.
In many ways, this is what we do. We stand before our Lord and we’re troubled about many things, surrendering our mind to numerous thoughts, which both distract and disturb us. Elder Aimilianos articulates it this way:
And so it is that, when I pray, I feel at once an insurmountable obstacle, which separates me from God; the fact that I am flesh, that I am, in other words, a carnal man; that I am flesh and He is Spirit. Confronted with the transcendence of God, and with His holiness and brightness, and that I am beginning a dreadful struggle, a battle, which the Old Testament so splendidly portrays for us in that battle, that struggle, that wrestling of Jacob’s at the foot of his famous ladder (Gen. 32:24-30).
We need to be reminded that prayer is a struggle. We are commanded to pray without ceasing because prayer is no longer natural to us in our fallen state. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve were in the state of unceasing prayer; not so for us. So, we have to labor a bit in order to develop a life and a state of prayer.
We have numerous examples in both Holy Scripture and the lives of the Saints where we are shown how prayer is a struggle. Take for example the life of St. Mary of Egypt, who for seventeen years struggled in her prayers before she received grace to pray without ceasing.
I see several things that lead to our struggles in prayer. One is that we have an adversary who never wants us to pray. Two, most of us live extremely busy lives. Whether we want it or not, life seems to just sweep us up and carry us off downstream. Three, and perhaps because of the second reason, it seems we have little time or energy to pray.
Though it is a struggle to pray, we must never become fainthearted. God knows our struggle, He knows our life and all the cares of it, He knows all that we must endure, and He is merciful.
There was once a man who lived in a large city in Greece and one weekend he went to see a holy elder on Mount Athos to ask him about prayer. This man was concerned that he wasn’t saying enough prayers and he was concerned about his soul. When he sat down with the elder, the elder asked him, “Do you attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and major feast days?” The man answered, “Yes.” The elder then asked him, “Do you work in an honest way, and do you take care of your family?” The man said, “Yes.” The elder then asked him, “Do you give to those in need when you can and do you read a little bit from the Bible each day?” Again, the man answered, “Yes.” The elder then told him, “You are doing well. Go back home and continue doing what you’re doing. It is not for you to pray long hours each day. That’s what we do as monastics here on the Holy Mountain. You, on the other hand, are taking care of and serving many, many people and it is not for you to spend many hours in prayer each day. Keep God in your heart and whisper the name of Christ on your lips, and you will be saved.”
It’s good for us to remember that there is indeed struggle in prayer because it’s not natural to us. It is also good to remember that struggle is good, especially when it is for something that has great value, such as our relationship with God. We also need to remember that all of us struggle when it comes to a “consistent” prayer life. We are all facing the same adversaries in life. Finally, let’s not forget that we all get to come together in the church and pray as a family. Though it can be difficult and a struggle to pray even in church, don’t think for a moment that it’s not without blessings! The devil will try to disturb us even in the Church during services in order to frustrate us. Thank God though, that we have the opportunity to come together to offer our prayers in unison, with one voice to Christ our Lord. This is no small thing!
Though we struggle in prayer, know that we all share in this struggle. Though we struggle in prayer, know that God sees and listens to our attempts and blesses them. We have all been bitten by the spirit of perfectionism and live in a world that stresses results. We become fainthearted when we judge our apparent lack of progress, and then the devil has us just where he wants us, feeling defeated and hopeless. This is not from the Holy Spirit, dear people. Offer your payers simply and from your heart and then even if you say just three words in this way, they will pierce through the heavens.
With love in Christ,
Father Timothy Pavlatos