As we move into the second week of the Nativity fast, I am confronted with the discipline of prayer.
The purpose of the fast is to free us from worldly pursuits, and to set us free to engage in spiritual virtues – like prayer. So what about prayer? First, do I pray? Second, if I do pray, where, when, and how long do I pray? Finally, what is it that I pray for? Do I “name it and claim it” in Jesus’ name as if God were an empty check waiting for me to fill in the blanks, or do I humbly, and reverently submit to his gracious and perfect will as Jesus’ teaches us “…Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”?
A couple of things are certain. Praying is essential – and praying is hard. Probably the hardest thing any Christian will attempt to understand and master in their lifetime.
I’m convinced that praying is hard, simply because Satan fears it the most. Imagine a world full of Christians who, daily, hourly, weekly, and moment by moment – are in communion and oneness with God through prayer? Imagine the power and the fullness of faith that would be given to the Church that prays ceaselessly – but alas – Satan fights us at every stage to stop any ideas that we have to pray consistently and with a childlike faith. But we must persist.
Praying is what we were made for. Praying means oneness. A communion of mind, heart, body and soul. Praying is more than words, it is more than, “how long” and “when” and “where”? To pray is to be with God. To pray is to obtain the mind, and heart and thoughts of God. To pray is to speak the very words of God, thus for centuries the prayer-book of the Church has been the Psalmody, and how blessed are those who will pray them weekly. (In fact, that is my Nativity fast objective – to pray each of the 20 Kathismata, all 151 Psalms each week, dividing the prayers up: morning, noon and night.) Not easy to do, but I am growing in my patience and persistance – not to mention that as I pray these words out loud, I am obtaining the mind, heart and the very words of God Himself as they soak into my spirit and soul.
So here is what I have figured out after forty-five years on the concept of prayer:
It’s a lifelong pursuit, and a continual battle.
- It’s not easy, but it’s extremely necessary.
- It’s required for growth toward Theosis.
- I must learn pray with the mind and words of the church.
- I must end each prayer “…Thy will be done…” for God’s will for me is greater than my wishes for myself.
Here is what our Father in the faith – Evagrius of Pontus teaches us;
Sometimes it happens when you start to pray, you find you can pray well. At other times, even when you have expended great effort, you may find your efforts frustrated. This experience is to make you learn that you must exert yourself constantly, for having once gained the gift of prayer, you must be careful to keep it safe.
Do not pray for your heart’s desires, for they may not entirely harmonize with God’s purposes. Pray instead as you have been taught: “May Your will be done in me.” Pray to God this way about everything, that his will might be accomplished in you, for He only desires what is good and useful in your life, whereas you do not always request this.
I have often prayed and asked God for what seemed good in my own estimation. Like a fool, I kept on at God to grant me this; I would not leave it to Him to arrange as He knows best for me. Then, having obtained the thing I had prayed for so stubbornly, I have often been sorry that I did not leave it to the will of God, for the reality often turned out very different for the way I had imagined.
Evagrius was born in Pontus around the year 345 and studied under the Cappadocian Fathers. St. Basil the Great tonsured Evagrius a reader, and St. Gregory the Theologian elevated him to the diaconate. As a deacon, Evagrius Ponticus would attend the Second Ecumenical Council (First Constantinople) in 381, which formulated the last portion of the Nicene Creed (the article dealing with the Holy Spirit). After visiting Jerusalem, Evagrius became a monk in the Egyptian desert in 383. There his life would touch those of two other saints: St. Macarius of Alexandria, his mentor; and St. John Cassian (“Cassian the Roman”), his disciple. (Many believe he also met St. Macarius the Great.) He died in Kellia, Egypt, in 399.
Evagrius passed on his firsthand knowledge of the Desert Fathers to many visitors and disciples, becoming particularly well known for his teaching on prayer. He exhorted his followers to practice the virtues, engage in regular Psalmody, and refrain from making any physical/mental images during prayer. However, like so many others, he became influenced by the teachings of Origen, believing in the doctrines of apokatastasis, the “restitution of all things” (including the reconciliation of Satan), and in the Platonic notion of the pre-existence of the soul. The Fifth Ecumenical Council (Second Constantinople) in 553 deemed both these doctrines (and Origen himself) heretical. Although never glorified as a saint, Evagrius’ teachings on asceticism, prayer, and the spiritual life had a profound impact upon both Christian East and West.