Day 5, a little about prayer
I am one of those people who is tempted to read about something rather than actually do it, and it is the same with prayer. Sometimes I think I haven’t spent as much time praying as I have spent reading about prayer. Here at Lebh Shomea I’ve been given an opportunity to do something to change that. Apart from my usual level of mindfulness of God throughout the day (minimal); reading and meditation on Scripture (Bible? What Bible?); the (very) brief prayers I pause to offer; and wandering around the grounds prayer rope in hand (gawking at the wildlife); I’ve settled into this daily routine of formal prayer:
5:30 am, Morning prayer rule (45 min).
7:00 am, Mass with the community (30 min).
10:55—11:55 am (when the lunch bell rings), Jesus Prayer (60 min).
4:55 – 5:55 pm (when the dinner bell rings), Jesus Prayer (60 min).
6:30—6:45 pm, evening prayer rule (15 min)
Bedtime prayers (5 min)
That’s 3 ½ hours of standing-before-the-Icon kind of prayer a day. It ain’t easy, especially the Jesus Prayer part.
I say the Jesus Prayer before lunch and dinner because it’s easier to concentrate when I’m not full from a meal, and also because the bell will tell me when my hour is up and I can better resist the temptation to go look at the clock to see if I’m done yet. (Yeah, it happens to the best of us.)
I remember reading about Elder Sophrony, when he was still a monk at St Panteleimon’s on Mt Athos, how a respected brother came to visit him and Sophrony was offering him hospitality by brewing a pot of tea. The monk asked Sophrony about prayer, and Sophrony said to him, “You stand at the edge of the abyss for as long as you can stand it, then you step back and have a cup of tea,” and he served the monk a cup of tea. I am trying to push myself a little, to stand, if not at the abyss, at least within sight of the abyss, for a little longer than I think I can stand it, because I’m figuring I underestimate what my endurance really is, and I know where the desire for that cup of tea comes from.
Some observations about prayer, a few of them actually based on experience:
It’s better to keep your eyes open when you pray, even if you catch yourself studying the patterns on the wall.
Staying in the present moment, in the here and now, is very hard work. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Repeatedly, ’cause you will. And then you’ll fail some more. Just bring your attention back to the prayer.
When you get tired, simply try to focus and keep your mind on the words of the prayer, which St John Climacus says is the safest way to practice the Jesus Prayer anyway.
Don’t expect to pray well. Don’t expect to pray poorly. Don’t expect anything at all.
Just showing up to pray is half the battle. Continuing to show up, moment by moment, is the other half.
Prayer won’t get any easier with practice. One of the Fathers of the desert says, “Prayer is warfare to the last breath.” That shouldn’t discourage us from praying; it should just clear away some false expectations.
The best prayers seems to be the briefest, like the Jesus Prayer, or the prayer of the Canaanite woman (“Lord, help me”), or the prayer of the father of the paralytic boy (“I believe, help my unbelief”), or like the Psalms (“Give me understanding according to your Word”).
Thinking about prayer isn’t praying. Reading about prayer isn’t praying. Wanting to pray isn’t praying. Intending to get up and go pray isn’t praying. Praying is praying.
If your attitude toward prayer is carnal or psychological, feelings matter. If your attitude is spiritual, they don’t.
One of the Fathers says, if prayer goes well, everything goes well.
The Benedictine abbot, Dom Cuthbert Butler (no relation) said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”