The Time for Prayer

A brother asked a hermit, “If I oversleep and miss the time for prayer, I hesitate to keep the rule of prayer. I am embarassed and do not want the brothers to hear me praying.”

The hermit gave him this advice: “If you sleep late, get up and shut your door and windows. Then pray your psalms. Both day and night belong to God. You will glorify God whatever time it is.”

This story rings very true to my experience. Most people fail in a rule of prayer because they fail. This statement is not a mistake – but a statement of the most obvious. The reasons we do not pray almost do not matter – the reasons certainly do not matter to the enemy. Fortunately, finding oneself in a state of sin is a very good reason to pray – a reason that is almost never lacking in our lives. I wrote the following thoughts at the end of 2006. Worth repeating.

MonkPrayerSometime back someone said to me, “Whenever I’ve sinned I never feel like praying. I feel unworthy and I just can’t pray.”

The statement sounded correct – I’ve had the same feeling often enough. But I kept thinking about it until the question came to me, “What am I waiting to feel before I pray?”

In the case at hand, I would suppose one would be waiting not to feel like such a sinner. And then I understood.

There is the story in Scripture of two men who went to pray, one a Pharisee and one a Publican (bad tax-collector for Rome) (Luke 18:10-14). We are told that the Pharisee prayed easily, lifting his eyes to heaven, and thanking God that “he was not like other men.”

The publican did not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

What struck me on reflection, however, was the puzzle of not wanting to pray when I feel guilty of sin. Having sinned, I do not wish to pray, I do not feel worthy of prayer. What am I waiting on?

I think, upon reflection, I’m waiting until I feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so I can pray, without realizing that such prayer is almost useless. Indeed, strangely, I pray, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” with greater ease when I feel like a righteous man than when I feel like a sinner.

And this is part of the disease of religion – for make no mistake – religion is frequently a disease.

Relgious feelings (the Pharisees were masters of them) are deceptive in the extreme. I think I feel like praying, I am in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. I am not ready to pray – I’m eaten up with myself as a pious man.

When you feel like a Publican, then you can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell me, “Father, I can’t serve in the altar today, I don’t feel worthy.” No doubt. But you’re in much greater danger when you do feel worthy.

Come in and approach God’s altar knowing you are not worthy and you will find grace and forgiveness.

None of this is to say don’t go to confession. But it’s good for us to say, sometimes, “Father, forgive me, I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere.

To see the truth of ourselves is a very hard thing. And to love God precisely in the truth of ourselves is harder still. But this He wants from us. Pray like a publican. There are so many more times available for prayer if you do. And while you’re there, pray for those who are praying like a pharisee. May God free us from delusion.

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23 Responses to “The Time for Prayer”

  1. Jakub Says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, you stated it well, I rather pray as the publican…

  2. redundancy pay Says:

    The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer. We can follow it, but still can pray from our hearts.

  3. Lucy Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is totally unrelated to this post (which I found quite convicting and compelling, by the way – I think that if I could pray while I was sinning, I could finally pray without ceasing! And yet, I think that confessional statement would be a good start for me as well!), but I have a question for you. Please feel free to delete this comment, although I would very much appreciate some direction.

    Would you be able to suggest reading material for my son that would help to shape his worldview? I know this seems weird, but today he read a book about mammals in school (he’s in third grade) that was written to manipulate emotions and cast people as destructive to the beautiful world and animals (I was at his school tonight and read the book myself – I was horrified by the inflammatory and manipulative language. And yes, it was brought it to the attention of the teacher. She didn’t really get it.). He was actually quite traumatized. We talked about how so many science books are written by people who don’t know how much God loves human beings and that this causes them to see the world in a broken way, like looking in a cracked mirror. I fear that I have failed to give him a good foundation of truth that would help him to see the world in a more… Godly fashion. I know he’s only eight and so is still very young, but he’s bright and interested in science and I know how hard it is for bright scientists to keep their faith. His reading level is above average for his age – perhaps some lives of saints who lived in harmony with nature and yet understood the immense value of human life? Or is there, by some chance, a science or nature book written by an Orthodox believer? I’m not looking for six-day creationism by any means, but it would nice to find something to combat the anti-human environmentalism present in his school books. Or is there something else entirely that I could do? I think he already struggles with faith – he loves God (and loves Church, too), but I’ve had a hard time making it real to him because of my own failings to live my faith.

    Anyway, I ask you because you have children who are faithful Orthodox and you have an obvious commitment to the education of believers. Again, please feel free to delete this comment, as I am sure it will not benefit the conversation regarding this post.

  4. george Says:

    God speaks in so many ways …. He has in this post today

  5. Francesca Says:

    Brilliant post

  6. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Thank you for this post. May I have permission to print it in our parish newsletter? If so, how would you like it to be accredited?

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Lucy,

    Someone recently brought a site to my attention that has a wealth of resources for teaching children. It’s by an Orthodox home-schooling mom. I suspect you may find some useful things there.

    http://evlogia.typepad.com/evlogia/the-mostholy-theotokos.html

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Mrs. Mutton.

    Glad to have it used anywhere. To list the author and give the site’s address is gracious plenty.

  9. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Thanks, Father. Not that I seriously think it will resonate, in a parish where many still think that the point of the Orthodox Church is to preserve and promote Greek culture, but ya never know.

  10. Phil Says:

    Father, this is one of your “greatest hits.” Even having read it way back when you first posted it and seeing the great truth in it, I still have this problem. On some of those days when I feel especially sinful (which should be all of them, but, unfortunately, isn’t), that’s been a reason for not praying. I know that’s what the enemy wants, but still – I feel unworthy to approach God, even “far off.” Please pray for me.

  11. Brandon Says:

    Lucy,

    I’m sorry I don’t know of any orthodox science books, but for Orthodox children in general a great site is http://orthodoxchildrensbooks.com/. The Kid’s Corner has a lot of activities, and the books are beautiful (my girlfriend bought 2 St. Catherine books, one for herself and one for her goddaughter, and it’s one of the most high quality children’s books I’ve seen).

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes, Phil

    On such days we pray like a Publican, a miserable Publican.

  13. George Patsourakos Says:

    The fact that Jesus preferred the prayer of the Publican over that of the Pharisee indicates that being humble is a critical attribute of Jesus. Moreover, the fact that the Publican asked for Jesus’ forgiveness for being a sinner, while the Pharisee implied that he was sinless, indicates that the Pharisee was denying that he had any sins.

    The bottom line: All people are sinners; only Jesus is sinless.

  14. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    My weakness is that I am often prone to scrupulosity. I become introspective, and in the process disillusioned as all my failures and faults face me head on. I could be in a room with one hundred people and I would be the worst person in the bunch. Honestly, this weakness has plagued me all my life (even prior to being a Christian), but worsens with the years. The result is that my prayers often consist of imploring God not to let me die in this condition until I fulfill His purpose for me.

    However, I don’t think that God wants our prayers to be consumed with repentance, asking for forgiveness, and self-absorption. I also don’t think it is advantageous for one’s (my) spiritual growth to be overly self-critical.
    Instead, shouldn’t our prayers be balanced with repentance, requests, and praise? Would you say that the Psalms are one of the best examples for how we should pray?

    Now, another question. As regards confession in the Orthodox faith, what is the understanding/teaching on this sacrament? Is it similar to the Roman Catholic faith where mortal sin cannot be forgiven except by confession to a priest? (or the intention to do so as soon as possible) My husband grew up in the Anglican Church where confession was practiced. (as I’m sure you know). I don’t think he found any advantage/healing in confession from what he has told me over the years. He has also told me the penance of saying ______ Hail Marys and ______ Our Fathers had no effect…he just said them quickly to get it over with. Is there some sort of penance given in confession in Orthodoxy, or spiritual advice? Or does one have a Confessor for that, who is not necessarily the same person one confesses their sins to?

    Ok, I’m done with the questions for now. 🙂

    In Christ’s Immeasurable Love,

    Darlene

  15. mary Says:

    isn’t it funny we people can find every excuse not to pray,but if a friend calls and says lets go get starbucks,am right on it.o to be viligent in prayer.

  16. David Says:

    I think this post could be written not just about prayer but of all aspects of Christian life. Always waiting to do it “right” or “when it feels right” is a fools excuse. The act of prayer is self-contained.

  17. Lucian Says:

    Here’s another helpful link (picture):

    flickr.com/photos/37380883@N04/3751322301/

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Lucian,

    I would have thought that St. Ignatius Brianchaninov would have written the note in Russian! Good picture!🙂

  19. spiritof76 Says:

    Father,

    This is a great post. As I read it along with the comments I think that I would like to hear more about the “sickness of religion”. I hope that we all can begin to more fully take the cure.

    “O God, your way is in the holy place….Your way is in the sea.”

  20. Sean Says:

    Father,

    I have all too often felt exactly the way you described in your post and I truly can relate to what you have written. I was thinking about it when it struck me it’s not just that I feel unworthy of praying when I have sinned gravely. In truth, even though I feel unworthy, I do know I need to pray and it’s those times, that, when I do bring myself to praying I think I pray most sincerely and fervently (because I am really asking for forgiveness, and it’s totally heart felt).

    What actually keeps me from praying is not the sin itself: it’s the fact that I know that when I was commiting it, it was in full knowledge that I am doing something wrong. And when still I know I have sinned gravely and my inside burns for forgiveness, I somehow feel I will be a hypocrit if I ask for forgiveness, because I know I may repeat that same sin – no, not “may” repeat, that I WILL repeat that same sin (especially when it refers to human passions). If there is a thing I really dislike, is hypocrisy, and when I have sinned and pray I somehow feel I am being hypocritic and a liar to the One who cannot be subjected to lies. And I hate being a liar (although I often am one).

  21. Max Says:

    Sometimes, when I have no desire to pray, I simply stand before my altar in a dark room and light a candle and bow my head. That usually inspires me to pray the Jesus Prayer. If that opens my heart a little, I say the Lord’s Prayer. This is enough to open my heart to speak to the Lord from my heart or to read from the words of Jesus or the Psalms. I don’t make things complicated or lengthy. If it becomes a lengthy experience, it’s because the Spirit has taken hold of my heart that evening.

    I fail to pray every night or even light a candle. Maybe I should commit to at least light a candle.

    The thing I always forget is that the Lord is gracious beyond my imagination and forgives me long before I come before Him… and that He is truly pleased when I come before Him, even if I am not pleased with myself. God is not pleased with my coming before Him because I’m some holy righteous person, but because it glorifies Christ to exercise even the smallest amount of Faith. Glorifying Christ always pleases the Father and seeking forgiveness/healing always glorifies Christ.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Sean,
    Even a liar and a hypocrit should pray. We cannot wait until we are the kind of sinners we prefer. We must start with the kind of sinners that we are. Pray…

  23. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Max & Sean — and of course, Fr. Stephen — I can’t tell you how encouraging your remarks are to me. I suspect that most, if not all, of us struggle with this kind of awareness of sinfulness when we begin to pray, and in our inexperience, we are unaware that such things come from the enemy of man and the father of lies. Thank you all for heartening me to get back up after having fallen down…

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