“We pray with fingers crossed,
But you listen patiently anyway.”
-In A Market Dimly Lit, by meWithoutYou
“Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”
“The ultimate purpose of the spiritual Way is not just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all the time.”
-Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
In a few of the episodes of a Podcast I recently finished listening all the way through, The Areopagus, one of the hosts, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, talks a bit about how he struggled for a long time with his daily prayer rule. He also mentions what he eventually realized was the problem: He didn’t really believe that it did anything. If it’s not accomplishing anything, then of course, you’re not going to want to do it.
It’s definitely something that I can relate to myself. I went a pretty long time not believing prayer really accomplished anything. Yet I have had, for as long as I can even remember, a habit of praying as I lie down to go to sleep. In many ways it was kind of a brain dump. I softly spoke aloud all my concerns, needs, and any wrongdoings I may have recalled doing that day. Then, not too long ago, there was a period of several months where I was simply mad at God, and I intentionally ceased those prayers.
I guess for most of my life, my thoughts about prayer have been that I’m not sure whether or not it does anything. I can’t say that I’ve ever asked for any particular big thing in prayer and had it come to pass. I mean, sure, I’ve had “answered prayers” before, like I prayed that I would get a particular job and I got it (but then again, there are an equal number of times I prayed I’d get a job and I didn’t get it). My experience just doesn’t tell me that anything is more likely to happen if I pray for it than if I don’t. And the impossible things I’ve prayed for, have, sadly, remained impossible.
Recently, I’m thinking that perhaps prayer does do something, and has been doing something, but it was not the something that I thought it should be doing. When I have asked myself, “Does prayer work?”, it has largely been self-focused. I am asking for things that I want and then basing whether or not it worked on if I get those things or not. Now, sometimes those things are things that I am asking for someone else, but still, there is a self-focused component there.
That’s not to say, though, that prayer doesn’t do anything for the person praying. In fact I believe it does. But while it is good to ask God for the things we desire, or to bring complaints when we feel we’ve been dealt with unjustly, those things should not be the goal of our prayers. The goal of our prayers should be communion with God, union with God, becoming like God. The act and habit of praying itself opens us to God and shapes us toward that end.
And when I think of it that way, I do get the sense that prayer is doing something. In the time periods I’ve prayed both fervently and consistently, I do genuinely see that happening. Prayer seems to be the very act of dying to one’s self to enter into communion with God.
A new addition to my prayers that I have discovered in Orthodoxy is “The Jesus Prayer”. I’d heard it referenced by that name several times and it took awhile before I knew what they were talking about. At first, I thought perhaps it was another way of referencing “The Lord’s Prayer” (it’s not).
It can have a few different forms, but the basic prayer is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
A big part of the idea here is that when you don’t know what to pray, that is what to pray. Simply ask for mercy.