Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)
There are numerous scriptural texts that address the theme of prayer in the spiritual life. But there is much about this text that reminds me of the popular saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The above quote from Matthew speaks to two issues in prayer; 1) perseverance and determination in prayer, and 2) trusting in our Father in heaven; believing and knowing that the Lord desires to give us those things that are for our salvation and well being. This is why we are to persevere in prayer. I would like to further discuss these two thoughts in this month’s newsletter.
Perseverance and determination are important attitudes that are necessary if we are truly going to build a habit of prayer in our life. Notice I stressed habit. Prayer is first and foremost a habit. It involves the act of the will to behave in a certain manner when it comes to reaching out to God on a regular basis. I believe we too often make the mistake of equating prayer to an emotional experience of it. We pray when the spirit “moves us to pray.” Or we seek to feel a certain way after we pray. There may be occasions when we pray we experience certain emotions such as happiness and other “goose bumps.” But if any of you have read the Psalms one will find anger, sadness, despair, and feelings of abandonment, in addition to happiness in the prayers of King David and other people involved in the formation of the Psalms. (It is safe to say that for the Orthodox Church the Psalms are the book to read if we want to learn about what it means to pray. They are so important in our cycle of worship that all 150 Psalms are read each week as part of the liturgical cycle of the Church. This is largely done in monasteries.) Emotions are not the foundation that should guide our prayer life. If we based our prayer habits on praying when we felt like it, eventually we would stop praying. I would submit to you that determination and perseverance have more to do with choice and the exercise of our will than with how we feel at a given point in time. Perseverance and determination imply that you will continue to do the thing you have been called to do even when difficulties and temptations come your way. Some of the greatest examples of perseverance in prayer are little children when they seek to get their parents’ attention. Even when parents ignore their kids, they continue to tug at their parents’ clothing until they get a response.
One of the Litanies of our services is called the “Litany of Fervent Supplication” or “Augmented Litany” in which we respond to petitions saying Lord have mercy” three times. To be fervent and to persevere in prayer has more to do with being “faithful” in prayer, and less to do with being emotionally moved to pray. So, if we keep a prayer rule (more on this in future newsletters), we make sure we say our prayers and don’t make excuses for not saying them. I said last year at one of the Presanctified Liturgies that “prayer is to the soul what breathing is to the body.” I realize breathing is not something we persevere in doing or are determined to do. But breathing is repetitive, constant, life giving, and not based on whether we feel like breathing. The bottom line is if we stop breathing, we die. The bottom line with prayer is if we stop praying, we spiritually die. Just like breathing, prayer needs to be repetitive, constant, life giving for the soul, and not based on whether we feel like praying or not.
The second theme I want to address concerns the following words that I began this note with:
“Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”
What is our idea of who God is? What image do we have of God that has been formed in us through our upbringing? If our view of God is one who is mean and punitive, then I would think it would be difficult to pray. During my life I have heard of stories of children who have been physically and emotionally abused by parents and have used scriptural quotes to justify their actions towards their children. This abuse of children and misuse of scripture to justify this abuse can really traumatize people and distort their image of who God is.
Thus it is not so far fetched to realize that that are some who do believe if you ask God the Father for a piece of bread, that they will be given a stone instead. If our only motivation for what we do in our spiritual life is go to heaven and not go to hell, this is not laying a good foundation for a prayer life. The aim of prayer is seek communion with the God, not to score brownie points with Him or to make Him angry at us. Thus we need to seek the True God in prayer and not the distorted icons of God we have formulated in our life. How then do we find this Father who is in heaven that wants to give good things to those who ask Him? What icon of God the Father is being modeled in our Church? As we exchange the Kiss of Peace at the Divine Liturgy, these important words are exchanged with one another: “Christ is in our midst! He is and always shall be!” We are reminded as we face one another during this kiss, that we see the image of Christ in one another, even among those who are not Christians. So as we learn from the Holy Gospels about who Jesus is and how he lived in this world, we need to become examples by the power of the Holy Spirit of the very divine energies of our Lord Jesus Christ. We incarnate (make flesh) the life and love of Christ by the way we treat each other. If Jesus loves us in a self-sacrificial manner, we are to love each other in the same self-sacrificial manner. If Jesus forgives sins “seventy times seven” then we are to do the same. If Jesus seeks to serve and not be served, then we are to do the same. If our Lord tells “judge not, lest we be judged”, we are to be icons of that behavior. If Christ told the woman caught in adultery to “sin no more”, we are to act accordingly and not treat God’s forgiveness of our sins, as a license to continue sinning. If Christ tells us to deal with the beam in our own eye and not look at the speck in our brother’s eye, then we are to live our lives in the Church seeking to face our own sins and not focus on what is lacking in our brother and sister. The quality of our church life is the soil which cultivates our prayer life which in turn cultivates our relationship with Jesus Christ. People will find the True God in the Church, if we by grace strive to become what God is by nature. (St. Athanasius) The prayer of St. Ephrem captures much of what I have been saying in this last paragraph.
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give, unto me, the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may see my own sins and not judge my brother, for blessed are Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Our prayer life is cultivated by the quality of our church life, and the quality of our church life is empowered by our prayer life.