Several years ago, I came across an old diary of mine, circa 1984. In it was page after page of original and cringe-worthy stories, poems and songs, as well as adolescent rants against unfair rules, back stabbing frenemies and frustrating older brothers.
Also included in my diary was a prayer list. “Sore throat,” I would write on one line, then “lost library book” on another, followed by the date of the request and then a check mark if that particular prayer had been answered. Looking back, I view this fledging attempt at forging a personal connection with God as heart- warmingly sweet and sincere, but I am also struck by how much my understanding of prayer has evolved over the years, particularly throughout this past decade.
While “please help me” has always been and continues to be the overall theme of my God-directed litanies, my definition of “help” has changed dramatically from when I was 10, 20, even 30-years-old. As a kid and young adult, “Help” meant granting me the thing I wanted – i.e health, success, relief. My requests were specific and rooted in the presumption that a prayer was “answered” when a danger had passed or when my suffering had been alleviated. “Help me feel better,” “Help me get this job,” “Help me keep my loved ones safe from harm.”
Upon joining the Orthodox Church, however, I was confronted with the new to me spiritual concept of “submissiveness.” Her ancient teachings and Traditions are solid, non-negotiable and immovable, immune to changing trends and interpretations. There was nothing for me to create or figure out regarding how I should worship – the services and sacraments were already firmly in place; I had only to show up and obediently cling to them for sustenance.
Through my participation in this ongoing process of exchanging my own ideas and opinions for a spirit of humility and deference, I discovered an unearthly, soul-pruning, mysterious path toward salvation. Not only did Orthodoxy enable me to become acutely aware of my many…many self-centered weaknesses, it taught me to accept and be grateful for them as a means for staying desperately dependent on Christ for strength and wisdom, from one minute to the next. It slowly began to dawn on me that my own understanding was severely limited and not to be leaned on when it came to discerning what was most profitable for my soul. My prayers became more earnest, constant and simple: “Lord Have Mercy!” or “Thy Will Be Done.”
Reverent silence, too, has become for me a necessity for prayerful living. Silence sounds safe and easy, but it is not. Just try it, try and sit in stillness for the sole purpose of raising your mind and heart up to Christ with no other expectation than to be in His presence. You will feel raw, jittery, exposed. Everything in you will want to distract yourself from entering into Reality – the Reality of mortality and repentance. I know this because the struggle is still so very familiar; every day I start from scratch as but a novice in prayer. But if I can persevere through the initial discomfort of being alone with my authentic sinful self in need of saving, I find an oasis of hope, simplicity and rest. The answer to all the anxious questions keeping me up at night and paralyzed with trepidation becomes mercifully clear and uncomplicated: Love. Love Christ. Love my neighbor.
Prayer as a way of life brings purpose, meaning and redemption to my every encounter, undertaking, victory and setback. To begin each new day by renewing my dedication to remaining focused on the present and listening attentively for direction from the Holy Spirit requires a lot of letting go – of assumptions and my own stubborn willfulness. And while this sacrifice of self is done with no small amount of fear and trembling, the alternative, being enslaved to my will, worries and impulses, is profoundly more frightening and tragic. Light, peace and mercy or envy, judgment and despair? I ache for the former! I choose meekness! I choose tethering myself to Christ and His Church! I choose living in the now through ceaseless prayer!
Let us rise in the morning and offer ourselves to God, wrote Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in “Courage to Pray,” … Let us ask the Lord to bless this day and bless us in it. … Every encounter is an encounter in God and in his sight. We are sent everyone we meet on our way, either to give or to receive, sometimes without even knowing it. It is for us to be Christʼs presence on earth, sometimes victorious and sometimes crucified. We must be able to be quiet and meditative, look calmly at all the things that puzzle us, for we will not be able to understand everything until we see Godʼs whole plan… Human wisdom must give way to the capacity to contemplate the mystery before us, to try and discern the invisible hand of God whose wisdom is so different from human wisdom.
I believe, O Lord! Help my unbelief! Help me to want You more than temporary worldly pleasures! Grant me the courage to surrender to You my time, and all my doubts, prejudices, fears and desires that I might experience, and through You even become, a taste of Your Heavely Kingdom here on earth.