Sunday, March 27, 2016

Pray without ceasing

Prayer has always been difficult for me.  Not that I am special in this respect. From what I read the struggle to pray is a common theme throughout history.  Jesus chided his disciples for falling asleep while they were suppose to be praying (Matt. 26:40) and James rebuked the church for praying with selfish motives (James 4:3), just to point to a couple of famous examples.

I cannot count the number of stories I've read of people who have prayed for hours on end, days without number about God knows what.  I remember reading, with a great amount of awe and and even greater portion of jealousy, these accounts.  Many times these accounts preceded "revival" and I would often think, "If I could just pray like these men and women we would certainly see God's Spirit poured out".  But I am not one of them.  My thoughts incessantly wonder or I go through dark nights of the soul that leave my mind blank and any desire for prayer frightfully absent.

There is no lack of books and teachings on how to pray and what to pray for. Just visit any Christian bookstore or search on Amazon where the word "prayer" presents a shopper with over 128,000 choices.  I've even tried a number of them.  I've used prayer lists, gone on prayer walks (before that was vogue), gone on prayer retreats, prayed in my "prayer closet", used centering prayer, yelled, cried, fell asleep, fell into sin and, many times, just gave up.  I've read books on prayer, books about praying people, listened to sermons on prayer and gave sermons on prayer.  And although I believe that struggle will always be a unwanted guest thanks to our fallen nature, struggle became a dominating factor in my prayer life.

This is where, more than any other area in my life, the Eastern Orthodox church has come to the rescue of this one struggling pilgrim in a number of significant ways.  The first (the topic of this post) is in the prayers of the Church.  As it turns out, as I already mentioned, I was not alone in my struggle. Many other men and women struggled with the same things I was struggling with.  People who struggled but, unlike myself, were victorious over the enemies of their souls.  But even better they were inspired to record their prayers for us.  What a treasure trove these prayers provide.  Additionally these prayers have had the benefit of hundreds, even thousands of years of vetting! How did I miss these?

Well, to be honest, I didn't quite miss them as much as, in the zeal of my youth, I came under the mistaken idea that unless one prayers extemporaneously one does not pray.  Not only is this anti-biblical, but it is just plain nonsense.  Jesus was praying Scripture when he cried from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  (Matt. 27:46).  Jesus even gave us a prayer and said to pray it (Luke 11:2.  Juxtaposed, however, with Matt. 6:9 and one gets the idea that Jesus meant the prayer both as a template but also as an actual prayer we were to use in our daily liturgical  lives).

I had been introduced to one of the ancient church's written prayers many users ago through a little book titled, "The Way of a Pilgrim".  Not only was this book an interesting look at the Russian Orthodox church and life in general in the nineteenth century, but it is still credited with almost single handedly introducing the west to a particularly Orthodox prayer:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me"

Time will not allow for me to talk about that prayer in detail. Indeed, whole volumes have been written about it (Check out this link for more information).  Suffice it to say that the prayer is intended to be repeated continually and without ceasing to the end that eventually one's heart will continue on praying the prayer even when the mind and mouth are not.  This isn't a mechanical recitation, but each word is to be considered as one prays. But all in all it is a prayer that is easy,regular and uncomplicated and at times that is just what I need.

"But doesn't the Matthew 6:7 tell us not to use vain repetition when praying?", you may ask.  That is a good question, but really not relevant in this case.  First, we all repeat things in our prayer.  Count how many times you or someone else repeats the words, "Lord Jesus" or "Father God" in a prayer.  Or how often you end with "In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen".  Second, and more importantly, can the name of "Jesus" ever truly be considered "vain" when said from the heart?

But this isn't the only source of prayer.  The Orthodox Church has a number of prayer books available for people to use.  I'm currently using the one printed by the Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, NY.  It includes morning and evening prayers along with a number of prayers for various occasions. My point isn't to advertise for a particular book or tradition here but rather to offer another resource to help in your prayer life.  Having prayers already written down that the church has deemed worthy of prayer and theologically correct (again, this will depend upon your tradition) was for me a godsend.  At first I felt as though I was somehow cheating because I wasn't coming up with stuff on my own.  That is, for the most part, a fairly American thing. We like to think we are clever and resourceful, not beholding to anyone, and prayer is no exception.  But sometimes it is good for us to come to the full realization that we can't do it on our own and that there may be someone else out there who is more qualified than ourselves. After all, this is exactly what the Scriptures teach us:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

(Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)

These prayers can help us at times when we really can't or shouldn't be helping ourselves.  This doesn't mean that prayer isn't a struggle. I still have to get up early or go to bed early and discipline myself to pray, even if it is with the aid of a prayer book. But when those times come when I cannot think of a single thing to say to God, I believe without a doubt that he sees the intent of my heart and hears the prayers I am reciting as if they were my own.  And that has helped me more then you can possible imagine.

As days go on I hope to share more information about my journey with God and particularly Eastern Orthodoxy.  So stay tuned!