Orthodox America

  Prayer and Will

Archpriest Valery Lukianov

       In the eyes of God, unceasing prayer is without doubt the most precious; and a cry from the heart, short and strong, is worth more than prayer composed of a lot of verbiage. However, from this we must not infer that in our labors of prayer disorder should reign. Look at the order in the church service. Shouldn't our prayers at home reflect a similar order--without limiting the essential operation of heart and mind? Surely it must be so, for the Holy Church has established a certain rule of prayer which has been strengthened by the ascetic experience of centuries. This rule requires, first of all, that we adopt a discipline, a discipline which in its turn is governed by man's free will. The first step, then, in beginning to pray is to discipline oneself to fulfill a rule of prayer whether in the wider sense of the services, or in the narrower sense of a private rule at home. Struggle is always difficult for our human nature, but according to the measure that we force ourselves to pray, we shall find sweetness in it. Then our struggle is changed to joy, and we discover the natural way to an unceasing prayerful disposition. But without the beginning, no one can reach the end!

    Let us establish ourselves with a prayer rule. And where shall we find such a rule? Do you have a prayer book? Today's Orthodox Christians have money enough for everything, --for magazines, newspapers, for smoking and drink, not to speak of movies and theater; but to buy a prayer book they have no means. It is sad to say this , but alas it is often so. Every year here in America, in his concern for his health, man consumes two billion dollars worth of various pills and tablets. Regardless of the fabulous cost of these "saving" medicinal remedies, man, fearing that he will die without them, is totally unaware that without a prayer book, without using it for the fulfillment of a prayer rule, he is heading for a death far worse than physical death--the death of the soul. From the dawn of Christianity the prayer book was and is that saving little book by whose words the strugglers of piety prayed and were saved.

    Those who do not use a prayer book sometimes say: "l want to pray with more warmth and compunction in my own way." But such people do not know that the fruits of warmth and compunction do not come immediately of themselves. It is better to make the first step: morning and evening pray according to the prayer book and read through the daily appointed Gospel verses, and then that which you seek will be added unto you.

    So you see, beloved reader, that the way to sweet and unceasing prayer lies through the constant struggle of forcing oneself, in spite of our natural human weakness and laziness; it depends on the earnest fulfillment of our daily prayer rule, following which hundreds of ascetics and God-pleasers through the ages found salvation.

      Every mariner knows by experience that a smooth sea does not necessarily indicate that the voyage is without danger. Unseen rocks beneath the water's surface can instantly rip through the boat's hull, and then it and all those on board might become the inheritance of an ocean tomb in the underwater abyss.

      And so it is with prayer. The well-intentioned Christian who directs his will towards the good, is constantly exposed to all manner of temptation, designed at every turn to divert him from the concentrated labor of prayer. At times the heart resists prayer through laziness and stony insensibility, or with, doubts and lack of faith, or inner constriction, or else crude and lustful thoughts; very, often with distraction, bowing towards earthly things, earthly cares; or again, through remembrance occasioned by an offense suffered through the fault of our neighbor and the resultant feelina of hostility towards him; or through anger, or notions of finding pleasure in worldly books or television. Very often the enemy will lead astray the heart with whispering insinuations that God has no need of prolonged prayer and even that it will not move Him (Matt. 6:7-8). You desire to pray with the heart, but you catch yourself praying only with your tongue, mechanically, while your mind wanders. Then suddenly a thought comes which you feel you must immediately write down or else, you think, you're sure to forget it. Or your attention is caught by a candle burning low, or a spot on the page, or the disarray in the room; or your clothes feel tight; you want to open or close the window, etc., etc. All of this forms a barrage of distractions which surround a man just at the time he chooses to pray. Many, many temptations are strewn along the path of those beginning their rule of prayer

       Sensing within himself this fierce-battle of temptations and thoughts, the man at prayer could easily fall into despondency, feel himself abandoned, driven into a dead-end. But is this really so? Not at all! First, one must remember that these provocations are permitted for our spiritual benefit, l f, from the feeling that there is no way out, that your soul is pressed, you cry out to the Lord from the depths of your heart: Lord God, have mercy on me, a sinner!--this is precisely what is necessary and beneficial for you, The cry of repentance is the cry of salvation ! The Lord will surely warm your heart if only you will cry out to Him for help in fighting against the temptations which assail you.

    Pray soberly and with faith, assured that at this moment God is truly before your very eyes; be attentive, restrain your thoughts, lock your mind into the words of prayer, pronouncing them without hurrying; strengthen yourself with the remembrance of death; reproach yourself, enkindle a lively faith in God's Providence. You ask for mercy--be merciful yourself, forgiving your neighbors their offenses and injustices, is it difficult for you to love your brother? try at least to have compassion for him. Again and again, strive above all to pray with the heart, with warmth of soul, with tears and with a feeling of sincere thanksgiving to God for everything, so that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matt. 12:34). What is most perilous for us is hypocritical prayer, prayer that is external, lacking inner substance; this only angers God: "This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me" (Matt. 15:8).

      Indeed, through the exercise of will, through watchfulness and perseverance in fulfilling one's rule of prayer, there is revealed the natural transition to unceasing prayer of the heart, with remembrance of the name of Jesus: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

     The great teacher of piety, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, gives hope to those who strive after this high calling: "He who with constance and reverence attentively occupies himself with prayer, pronouncing the words either aloud or in a whisper--as it best suits him, and encloses his mind in the words; he who during prayer constantly chases away all wandering thoughts and images--not only those which are sinful and vain, but even those seemingly good; --to such a one the merciful Lord grants in His good time mental prayer of the heart and soul.

      This same hierarch, however, forewarns against the desire to achieve this beneficial gift of prayer quickly: "It is not profitable for you to receive prematurely grace-filled prayer of the heart. It is not profitable to taste prematurely of spiritual sweetness. If you receive them too early, you will not acquire the preliminary knowledge of the reverence and great care necessary to safeguard this gift of God's grace. Without such knowledge you can use this gift for evil, to bring harm and destroy your soul."

     We should not be foolish or impatient, given over to fantasy, deception and hope in ourselves, imagining ourselves to have attained some measure of competence in mental prayer. It is better for us to proceed alone the tried and true path of the reverent and fervent fulfilling of the prayer rule, for this path has brought countless numbers of God-pleasers to salvation in the Lord.