Worship and You:
We know that prayer is important—we’re even told to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17)—and yet we Christians tend to have a dark secret: we don’t actually pray. For example, a recent study found that, while 90 percent of North Americans say they pray, only 37 percent do so at least once each day, and the average prayer lasts under five minutes. If we believe prayer should be an essential part of our lives, why do we not engage in this vital activity?
One reason people shy away from prayer is because we believe God is missing in our lives. An Orthodox writer describes the problem like this:
To know of God in the wisdom of the mind, this brings shimmers of peace and a foretaste of joy. Yet such joy is bounded, able to be swayed; for he who knows God’s presence but in part, still is able to imagine His absence. One who sees God only in this place or in that, sees Him missing from those places in between. His joy is fleeting, for as in a moment it arises in the perception of God’s presence, so it retreats in the illusion of His absence.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom reminds us that God is never absent from us, but there is nonetheless “the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. We turn in all directions and He is not to be found.”
We first must realize that God is never truly absent from His people. Holy Scripture contains numerous promises of God’s presence (Exodus 33:14; Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5). Christ further promises, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Blessed Augustine therefore reminds Christians that Christ has “never withdrawn His glory.”
At the same time, Augustine also notes that through evil we can leave the presence of God. Such people, as a direct result of their own decisions, “inhabit the land of commotion, that is, of carnal disquietude, instead of the enjoyment of God.” At such times, according to Metropolitan Anthony, God may withhold His presence from us because “an encounter would be judgment and condemnation on us. We should learn to understand this absence and judge ourselves because we are not judged by God.”
The full ramification of separating ourselves from God through our sinfulness can best be understood in the context of relationship. Metropolitan Anthony explains:
If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is.
As you can see, the sense of God’s absence can also be for our spiritual healing—God allows us to experience His absence to remind us to always be attentive to Him. He allows us to experience the temporary result of our natural tendency to separate ourselves from God so that we do not spend eternity experiencing such separation.
Distractions are a seemingly inevitable part of prayer for most of us; too often our prayers are like this, “Our Father…did I turn the living room light off…Who art in heaven…I could sure go for some pizza right now…” Many people allow the frustration of being unable to focus their attention in prayer to dissuade them from continuing to pray.
St. Theophan the Recluse comforts us with the fact that wandering thoughts during prayer are not in themselves a sin, “Thoughts wander when one is reading spiritual works and during prayer. What should one do? No one is free from this. There is no sin in it, only vexation…If thoughts scatter involuntarily, what fault can there be?” At the same time, we must also recognize that our failure to focus our attention on God is emblematic of our weakness and spiritual immaturity. Just as people understand when we are occasionally distracted while talking with them, but would resent our attention always being diverted, so God will be displeased if we do not even try to pray without distraction. As St. Theophan states, “There is fault, though, when one notices thoughts wandering and, taking no action, one wanders along with them. When we catch our thoughts wandering off, we must bring them back to their proper place at once.”
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov teaches that we can only develop the ability to remain focused in our prayer by relying on the grace of God: “The rapt attention which keeps prayer completely free from distraction and from irrelevant thoughts and images is a gift of God’s grace. We evince a sincere desire to receive the gift of grace—the soul-saving gift of attention—by forcing ourselves to pray with attention whenever we pray.” Notice that God will give us the ability to pray attentively—but only if we sincerely work at focusing our attention on our prayer. St. Ignatius concludes, “God can give (the mind) stability and will do so in His own time in return for perseverance and patience in the practice of prayer.”
St. Ignatius gives us a useful tip for focusing our attention: “Specially helpful in holding the attention during prayer is an extremely unhurried pronunciation of the words of the prayer. Pronounce the words without hurrying so that the mind may quite easily stay enclosed in the words of the prayer, and not slip away from a single word. Say the words in an audible voice when you pray alone; this also helps to hold the attention.”
Perhaps the most common reason for not praying is that we simply “do not feel like it.” We intend to pray, but there always seems to be something more interesting to do, or we are too tired, or any of thousands of excuses. The problem, as Protestant professor Eugene Peterson aptly puts it, is that “to pray by feelings is to be at the mercy of glands and weather and indigestion. And there is no mercy in them.”
St. John of Kronstadt forcefully addresses those who avoid prayer because of disinclination, “People say that if you do not feel inclined to pray it is better not to pray; but this is crafty carnal sophistry. If you pray only when you are inclined to, you will cease praying altogether; this is what the flesh desires…You will not be able to work out your salvation without forcing yourself.” St. Macarius the Great also inspires us to overcome our disinclination when he says, “One must force oneself to pray, even if one has no spiritual prayer…In such a case, God, seeing that a man earnestly is striving, pushing himself against the will of his heart, He grants him true prayer.”
All of these obstacles to prayer—a sense of God’s absence, distractions and disinclination—are all related to one central problem, which St. John says lies in the human heart, “Those who pray little are weak in heart, and thus, when they wish to pray, their hearts become enfeebled, and so do their hands, their bodies, their minds, and it is difficult for them to pray.” The key, as we can see, is to persist in prayer. The more we pray, the easier and more beneficial we will find prayer. It is important to be patient during this growth—St. Theophan says it may take months, or even years, for us to be able to peacefully focus our attention on our prayers.
Despite the amount of time and effort required to build up the spiritual discipline of prayer, St. Theophan reminds us that this process isn’t an act of brute force with no reward; instead, “As the mind begins to stand firmly before God, it discovers such sweetness, that it wishes to remain in true prayer forever, desiring nothing more.”
A significant way in which we can increase our desire to pray is by developing an attitude of true thankfulness for all the blessings provided to us by God. St. John the Solitary explains how we can develop gratitude in our prayer lives:
When evening comes, collect your thoughts and ponder over the entire course of the day: observe God’s providential care for you; consider the grace He has wrought in you throughout the whole span of the day; consider the rising of the moon, the joy of daylight, all the hours and moments, the divisions of time, the sight of different colors, the beautiful adornment of creation, the course of the sun, the growth of your own stature, how your own person has ben protected; consider the blowing of the winds, the ripe and varied fruits, how the elements minister to your comfort, how you have been preserved from accidents, and all the other activities of grace. When you have pondered all this, wonder of God’s love toward you will well up within you, and gratitude for His acts of grace will bubble up inside you.
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