Several of the parables of Jesus deal with the topic of a Master or a Bridegroom delayed in His coming. Those who are waiting, these parables teach us, must stay alert while they wait. The worthy servants are the ones who are awake to receive the Master when He comes. The Psalmist expresses very well the attitude of alert ones: “My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen wait for the morning.”
This attitude of alert waiting is liturgically expressed in the prayers of Matins, said traditionally very early in the morning. Matins, in its fuller form, is a one-and-a-half to two-hour (sometimes longer) prayer service that ideally ends just as the sun is rising. Like the watchmen waiting for the morning, the prayer of the monastics and others who rise early to pray liturgically manifests the inner attention and longing for the coming of the Master–even though those who are waiting are sometimes more than a little groggy. They are rousing themselves and crying to God, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And they are begging the Theotokos and all of the Holy Ones to intercede for them.
Most of us in the world, however, do not keep watch in a liturgical way. The responsibilities of our life and the weakness of our faith is such that we struggle to rise two hours after dawn and only with great effort manage to pray the Our Father or some other small prayer rule. We are weak, but we are not abandoned. We can still keep vigil in our hearts.
How is this? How can we pray with attention when we don’t actually say many prayers? What is our prayer if it is not our prayers? Are we the ones weighed down with sleep because we struggle to pray, because we are not satisfied with the level of our prayer life and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it–much that actually makes a lasting change? Is the Door of the Kingdom still open for us?
Actually, it is a terrible thing to be satisfied with your prayer life. Only those in delusion think they pray as much as they should. Jesus saves the sinners, not the satisfied. When we suffer pain because we are acutely aware of our failure in prayer, then that pain itself becomes our prayer. That pain is our longing. That pain is our vigil. That pain is our attention as we await the coming of our Master who will save us from ourselves.
With longing we wait for the Lord. Prayers help us express this longing, but it is the longing itself that the Lord is looking for.