Advice on Prayer

Prayer requires a certain longing of the heart. Certainly discipline is involved; but, and this is merely my opinion, forcing yourself to say prayers may not be the answer either. People seem to make too big a deal about prayer rules. Like the Sabbath keeping that made some of the Jews miss Christ in their midst, so I think prayer rules sometimes keep us from growing in our relationship with Christ. A prayer rule exists to help us, we do not exist to keep the prayer rule. If my prayer rule is not working, I change it.

The goal of a prayer rule is to produce prayer, not merely to say prayers. Jesus tells us that we are not heard because of our many words in prayer. A prayer rule that is drudgery and continually dry is no prayer rule at all, for it is not producing prayer. Prayer is communion with God, not saying words. Words are useful, they can help us pray; but what our soul longs for is connection—communion—with God. Sometimes (and this may go on for several days at a time) all I can do during my prayer time is stand before my icons and say “Lord have mercy.” I say “Lord have mercy” again and again until my heart is pained and I feel a little sadness, a little longing for God in my heart. If this feeling doesn’t come, then I kiss my icons, ask the forgiveness of Christ and all of the Saints and go on with my day gently repeating “Lord have mercy” and carrying a little sadness that I have not been able to connect with God. Sometimes, I need to read an inspiring book or passage to help me pray. There are times when I spend my whole prayer time reading, which creates a longing in me and produces prayer that stays in my heart throughout the day.

Keep in mind that the “ideal” prayer life that seems to influence most of us is based on a very regulated life, a life based on a monastic pattern. Most of us do not live such a life. And even in a monastery, not everyone attends every service (someone has to be cooking dinner during vespers) and not every season is the same (when the monks have to do hard manual labor, the prayers are greatly shortened, and sleep and food are increased). And yes, even monks fall asleep during services or saying the Jesus Prayer in their cells. We read the stories about saints who after a lifetime of labor (and with their unique graces and calling) are able to keep vigilant prayer alive in their hearts at all times. Who are we? We are beginners. We haven’t even yet begun to learn how to repent. In fact, it is only as we accept our failure, our inability to make ourselves pray, that we can start to know our dependence on God for help. This is where repentance begins: in accepting our failure. So long as we keep saying to ourselves, “I just have to try harder,” we are only extending our miserable delusion. Once we allow our hearts to be broken by our weakness, our lack of love, our inability to pray, then we can begin to find God’s help.

It wouldn’t hurt most of us who struggle in prayer to repeat continually the words of psalm 50, “A broken and a contrite heart You will not despise.” Let your own weakness break your heart, and God will accept that as an offering of much greater worth than any mechanically pumped out prayer rule.

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