The Warfare of Prayer

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A friend relates the story that when as a young, protestant teenager, she approached her pastor to ask about a prayer life, she was met with little or no answer. She had an instinct that there was more to prayer than she knew – but she was living in a tradition that knew little about prayer.

It is a lack that is born of a truncated notion of salvation. Salvation itself, in her early tradition (the same as I grew up in) was confined to the mental assent to Christ as Savior. Once an individual had said, “Yes,” to God, the rest of life was spent in helping others say, “Yes,” as well. The weakness of this presentation of salvation is that our relationship with God is severely reduced. Missing is the sense of communion that is our true life with God.

The purpose of prayer is nothing other than communion of God and man. Salvation itself is the restoration of this communion. The Christian life is to be a continual growth in communion with God. Thus our life of prayer is not an occasional intercession thrown out at the universe on behalf of some matter about which we have concern – but is rather a continual relationship in which we give ourselves to God and receive God again to ourselves.

Though such a relationship is clearly taught by Scripture and by Christian tradition – it is frequently not known or taught in some Christian circles. It is an absence that empties the Christian life of its true content. Substituting Bible Study for communion with God is not a proper solution. All too often, the Christian life is offered an American form of spiritual “busyness” rather than the traditions of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and penance. These are the traditional practices that have been given to us for the formation of our life in Christ. The study of Scripture is a good thing if its result is its application in our lives. Anything less would be a distraction. The same could be said about other forms of spiritual reading. From the Desert Fathers comes this short reminder on the life of prayer:

Abba Agathon said, “I consider no other labor as difficult as prayer. When we are ready to pray, our spiritual enemies interfere. They understand it is only by making it difficult for us to pray that they can harm us. Other things will meet with success if we keep at it, but laboring at prayer is a war that will continue until we die.”

14 Responses to “The Warfare of Prayer”

  1. nancy Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Such wise words. I think that converts who come from the “Bible study” landscape long for engagement with prayer and seek contact or communion with God, but they have no real “model” or example other than their own former experience which frequently is as you describe–saying yes to God but missing the true communion. I have noticed that many times cradle Orthodox in my own Church are frequently confused by others’ “need” for Bible study. It seems to me that the liturgical year of the Church (such as witnessed today in the Prodigal Son parable) has provided those cradle Orthodox Christians with ample Biblical examples of the words of our Lord, and as Lent progresses, those who listen will find ample readings from Old and New Testament which lead them in meaningful directions.

    These comments are not meant to denigrate study of the Scriptures, but simply to highlight what you have been saying about “busyness” as a substitute for what the Church teaches us about a life of prayer, penance, alms, fasting and true communion with God. Let us all pray that guided by our Holy Church, we will find this life in Christ during the Lenten season.

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    Without a doubt the finest combination of Bible Study and prayer will come with the first week of Lent as we pray the Great Canon of St. Andrew. I provides both in deep measure.

  3. Deb Seeger Says:

    I have found that keeping a prayer journal with dates of the inception and the date of the known answer to the initial petition builds my faith in prayer immensely. Sometimes I go back to 10 , 20, 30 yrs old journals and my faith to press onward in the face of opposition in my prayer life for others and even myself is confirmed and I can privately reap the rewards. Keeping a journal is somewhat comparable to the old testament when they built stone alters to remember what the Lord our God has done. THANK YOU, Fr. Stephen for reminding me and stirring this item in my recent wavering faith– to not give up. You are a blessing and I appreciate your postings.

  4. Lucy Says:

    I too come from a tradition that does not understand prayer as well. I struggle to pray, in all honesty. I want to, I know God wants me to, but it is so hard sometimes. It has helped tremendously to have the prayers of the church, but it still feels strange to pray the prayers of others. I always find myself putting it off (even just morning and evening and the hours) because I’m intimidated by it. I don’t know if I’m afraid of somehow offending God or if it’s just pride and I don’t want to do it “wrong.” I feel bad about my inability to establish a prayer rule, my lack of motivation and follow-through. Believe me, I’ve brought this to my priest in confession. It scares me, honestly. If I don’t want to talk to God now, why would I want to when I die? I guess it makes me feel better that a Desert Father says it’s a battle. That means it’s not just me.🙂

    Thank you Father, for reminding me of the purpose of prayer and its importance.

  5. FrGregACCA Says:

    There is always the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

    Or the words of Scripture, particularly the Psalms:

    “O God make speed to save me; O Lord make haste to help me.”

    “O Lord open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

    and

    “Thy will, not mine, be done.”

    Those of us who grew up in certain traditions were frequently reminded of our Lord’s admonition against “vain repetition,” but not all repetition is vain, and we are called to “pray without ceasing”.

  6. wanderer7 Says:

    The purpose of prayer is nothing other than communion of God and man. Salvation itself is the restoration of this communion. The Christian life is to be a continual growth in communion with God.”

    this sounds like meditation to me

    “Though such a relationship is clearly taught by Scripture and by Christian tradition – it is frequently not known or taught in some Christian circles. It is an absence that empties the Christian life of its true content.”

    the Gnostics, or the mystical Chrstians, were systematically suppressed by the Catholic church

    you have written a very insightful post

    thank you

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    I have read gnostic writings – they weren’t the mystical Christians – they were simply wrong and heretical. Orthodox Christianity was not surpressed and has always maintained the understanding of union with God as the purpose of salvation. Gnosticism disappeared for good reason – it’s not Christianity.

  8. mrh Says:

    Those of us who grew up in certain traditions were frequently reminded of our Lord’s admonition against “vain repetition,” but not all repetition is vain

    But our Lord made no such admonition; “vain repetition” is a just plain wrong translation. The Greek polylogia implies neither “repetition” nor “vain”-ness.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    mrh,

    very good point. I find that the Jesus Prayer is about as far removed from “vain” as anything I’ve ever known.

  10. Martha Says:

    Father, asking for your blessing.

    I feel that struggling in our prayer life is probably very normal and possibly even a good sign. My strict Catholic upbringing, in which the nuns made us memorize and recite many prayers, helped me a great deal when I became Orthodox. Yet it took me a further decade or more until my prayer life became something living and joyful. A turning point for me was when I forced myself to recite the Trisagion prayers consistently.

    These prayers had always been a stumbling block to me. They are recited so quickly in our church, as if they need to be gotten out of the way so that we can get to the important stuff. The repetition seems, if not vain, then surely tiring. It was only after many months of forcing myself to concentrate on the Trisagion prayers as the foundation for my prayer time that I began to appreciate their importance.

    I feel like the Trisagion prayers open a door in my heart to a place where I can begin to really speak to God. I have also benefited enormously from praying the Canon of Repentance and an Akathist to the Theotokos on a regular basis. These prayers have the affect of opening my heart so that it feels larger and warmer – it’s hard to describe.

    Another good thing for me was when I stopped asking for stuff. I stopped viewing prayers as a visit to the spiritual help-desk and just prayed the prayers in my prayer book with no aim or objective. On those occasions when I have asked for things, the Lord has heard my prayer; and for me, this is where the struggle intensifies. No matter how fervent my supplication was and no matter how good my intentions are, inevitably, I fail to give thanks. It is as if I am always intercepted at this point and I have come to believe that the evil one must truly hate our expressions of thanksgiving to God. I have tried to resolve this in part by giving thanks along the way – not waiting for an opportunity to light the candles and arrange the icons but to thank God in my heart for all things, as if I may not get another chance to do so.

    Even as I write this with all sincerity, I feel as if I am setting myself up for failure and set back in my prayer life; but I thought it might help to share it with others who are struggling and preparing for Great Lent.

    As always, Father, thank you so much for your guidance and kindness.

    — Martha

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Martha,

    May God bless. Nothing can be harder, I think, than the consistent giving of thanks, but I believe it is the greatest victory in prayer. May God you give grace to give thanks for all things.

  12. James Says:

    Father Bless,

    I would like to ask something related to what Martha has said. I am OO, and like in your communion, we have lengthy daily prayers that the Church and her fathers have prepared. The prayers are beautiful and full of joy in a way no spontaneous prayer could be .

    I know that a disciplined prayer life can be built through following the rhythms of the Church. And I try to say my morning and evening office regularly, my problem is that often I feel that I am just going through the motions, I miss the joy and peace I feel when I spend some time alone in silent prayer.

    How can one ensure that the same joy and peace can be felt when one is saying the daily offices?

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    James,

    If you have good spiritual direction , time alone in silent prayer can indeed have more joy. It’s good, however, in such an undertaking to have a knowledgable spiritual father to help protect ourselves from delusion.

  14. Marianne Says:

    I agree. The Western approach is to join in group prayer, praise and worship on Sunday and then go home. Getting alone with God does not happen as much as it should. The rest of the week, He is just a passing thought. TV or work consumes their time.

    But it is the quiet time that deepens us, even if God is silent. But even though we wish to hear His voice, and we may not, His presence is there and we can feel it.

    But when He finally speaks, it is something that stays with us forever. It can carry us for years, just one thought or word from Him. And sometimes, the waiting for this one word can be as much a blessing as the final receipt of it. Because when it finally comes, we have been changed.

    God bless you
    marianne

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