Prayer is the Essence of Christian Life
Prayer is the single most important activity of the Christian’s daily life, and it is also the one we neglect or resist the most. This is why:
Prayer is what God created us for; that is, He created us to be always in loving communion and communication with Him. The fundamental capacity for this prayerful communion was disabled by the sin of our first parents and it is passed on to every human being. Now, by means of Holy Baptism and the other Holy Mysteries, we receive the grace of God to acquire this saving, ongoing relationship with God. But the fallen nature is still fighting us, and the demons fight us; prayer is the last thing they want us to do. So we struggle, even to pray for a short time.
We must, however, establish a daily habit of prayer, in order to have any kind of real relationship with God. But how? I wish to present a story from my own experience, in order to explain the simple yet powerful means to acquire the daily habit of prayer:
An Instructive Story: Learning How to Pray
I will never forget the night I learned how to establish a daily habit of prayer. It seems odd that it should come only after six years of being a priest, but there you are.
My spiritual father then was an elderly and very austere Russian bishop who had the reputation for eating priests for dinner. I had decided that I needed whipping into shape and therefore asked him to take me on. Since he lived several states away, we agreed that I would write him my confessions in letters, and, after reading them, he would call me. What follows is the story of his response to my first confession.
Several troubling sins had never ceased bothering me, despite being confessed here and there to various priests. I had never actually laid them all out to a single confessor at one time and therefore thought it worth the try to tell them all to Vladika. I wrote the letter with great trepidation – I knew his scary reputation and expected a great reaming out, either for the sins themselves or for not trusting in God’s forgiveness and thus confessing anew previously confessed sins. When the phone rang that night and my wife called down, “Dear, it’s Vladika ________!” I trudged to the receiver like a condemned man to the scaffold.
His voice came on, very soft. I will not attempt to reproduce his actual speech here, only the content of what he said. Imagine a calm, grandfatherly voice with a soft Russian accent, speaking with the precision of an Oxford don.
“ Ah, is this Fr. Steven?”
“ Yes, Vladika. Bless.”
“ Fr. Steven, I have read your letter very carefully,” (He would! I thought), “and I want to teach you something.”
Teach me something? What? I thought he was calling to strip me naked, crush me, and throw the remains to the beasts of the field and the birds of the air.
“ I want to teach you how to find consolation in prayer.”
At the time, my only feeling was one of overwhelming relief. Later, I realized that it was one of the chief moments in my life. This was a man who meant business. He did not moralize, did not criticize, did not justify this and condemn that. He taught me what I needed to do in order not only not to sin, but also not even want to sin. If the Lord Jesus dwells in the heart through prayer, we are in Paradise, and we do not want to leave.
What did he teach me?
“ The Holy Fathers, and most recently the Optina Elders, teach us that the secret to consolation in prayer is regularity and the struggle for attention. How long is your evening prayer rule?”
“ A half-hour, Vladika.”
“ Too long.”
Too long! I thought, astounded. What kind of a bishop is this?
“ You wander in your thoughts and finish your rule only with difficulty. You actually omit it many evenings and go to bed without prayer. You make no progress. Is this not so?”
“ Yes, Vladika.”
“ I want you to do exactly what I say and do not deviate.”
“ Yes, Vladika.”
“ The important thing is not how many prayers you read or which prayers you read, but the amount of time that you pray every day, that you always devote this amount of time every day without fail, and that you struggle for attention. I want you to start with ten minutes – no more, no less. Set an alarm clock or timer for ten minutes, so that you do not have to look at the clock. Read the appointed evening prayers or the Psalter or an akathist. When the timer goes off, stop. While you are reading, your mind will wander, perhaps five to ten times per minute. Each time, you must force your mind back to the words of the prayers. You must do this without fail.”
“ Yes, Vladika.”
“ As time goes on, if you are regular in performing this rule, and if you struggle for attention, you will naturally gain stability in performing it, and you will gradually desire to add time to your prayer. When you desire to keep praying, keep praying as long as you wish that day, but do not yet add the time to your rule. When you feel this desire daily for several weeks, then you may add another five minutes to your rule. Once you add time, however, you must never subtract it. This is why the desire must be tested, not obeyed immediately. After awhile, your prayer time will grow, you will perceive that this prayer is a great consolation, and you will never want to give it up. Do you understand?”
That was it.
My experience before and after this great event in my life is that people who are wavering and confused in their faith are not praying regularly or properly. Their souls are confused because the light of the soul, the noetic mirror of the spiritual intellect, is darkened, and this darkness is darkness indeed. A person in this state will wander forever in the labyrinth of opinion, attraction, and emotion, never finding rest. He will eventually compromise, distort, or lose his faith, because he has no inner experience corresponding to that faith’s dogmatic and moral teachings. On the other hand, one who is praying regularly and in the right manner receives great firmness in his faith, stability of life, and inner calmness. He has a firm foundation for the activities of daily life and for the struggle for salvation.
If prayer is going right, everything is right, for prayer will let nothing go wrong.