The Struggle for Prayer

Palm Sunday, April 21, 2019
Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today hath the grace of the Holy Spirit brought us together; and we all lift Thy Cross as we say: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

This hymn is sung several times this weekend in our celebrations of Palm Sunday, and it speaks very directly and profoundly to one of the struggles I hear the most in spiritual conversations. And what is that struggle? It is the struggle to pray.

“Father, I don’t pray like I should. I don’t come to church like I should. My mind wanders. I don’t pray very often. I don’t feel like doing it. I don’t feel like I get anything out of it.” These are all things people have said to me, and what I hear is that prayer is a struggle. Most of the time, prayer does not come easily.

Prayer is a struggle. You know this if you have tried it, especially if you have tried to do it every day or even every week or every month. It is a struggle to pray every morning, to pray every night. It is a struggle to come to church every Sunday, to come to other services.

I have had this struggle myself. I confess to you that there have been periods, sometimes long periods, when I just haven’t said daily prayer. There have been times when I come to church for prayer and just don’t feel like doing it. I even sometimes have that dreaded feeling of “When will this service be over?”

And this struggle exists in my family, too. It is hard to gather our children to pray together, even over meals. And it is hard to bring our children to church, and my wife, because she is the khouriyeh, has the extra struggle of trying to bring all of our children to church mostly without my help, because I am usually out the door hours before they’re even awake.

A number of our families have similar struggles where, for one reason or another, one parent is not available to bring the children together for prayer at home or at church.

And once we get to prayer, it’s a struggle to stay there, isn’t it? When we pray alone, we can feel like nothing is happening. We can feel like we’re just saying empty words. We can be distracted very quickly. Our minds wander. We start to think about all the things happening that day.

All these same struggles exist both at home and church. The other people around you aren’t as serious as you are. They won’t be quiet. They won’t stand still. There’s a kid running around at your feet, kicking your chair, suddenly talking or screaming very loudly, running in and out of the church. There’s someone checking his phone. There’s people talking in the narthex.

Or if it’s your child who’s acting like, well, a child, then you can feel other people’s eyes on you. You can tell they’re disappointed. You are just trying to pray yourself, and now you are the reason why someone else can’t pray. It was so hard to get here today, but is it even worth it? Why are people looking at you? You’re sure they’re looking at you. They just know that you’re a bad mother or a bad father. We’re just going to stay home next time. Why did we even try this?

If you think I’m quoting you or reading your mind, well, I’m not. I hear these things all the time. I feel them and experience them myself. Even if this is your first time here or your first time here in a long time, I am sure that there is something of what I’ve just said that you have thought or said yourself, maybe even this morning right here today.

What is it that makes it such a struggle? Should it even be a struggle? Why is prayer so hard?

The reason that prayer is hard is because prayer is the struggle to come into the presence of God and to be changed by the encounter, but because we are sinful, imperfect beings, there is a large part of us that doesn’t want to be changed and wants to stay the same.

And it is even more of a struggle because there are actually fallen angels—demons—who are working very hard to make this whole process harder. They want us to fail. They want prayer to be so hard that we just give up and do something else—anything else.

So that brings us back to that hymn. Here it is again:

Today hath the grace of the Holy Spirit brought us together; and we all lift Thy Cross as we say: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Whenever we gather for prayer, whether it is gathering our own thoughts together to pray alone, gathering our families together to pray at meals and other times, or gathering together in this holy temple to offer up the sacrifice of praise and of bread and wine, it is indeed the grace of the Holy Spirit that has brought us together. We cannot do anything good without His grace, even when we do it in a broken, incomplete and struggling way.

I mention that to encourage you. Whatever it is you did today to make prayer happen for you, it was the Holy Spirit’s grace that got you here. He was working with you, honoring your intention, helping it come to fruition.

Note the next line of the hymn: “And we all lift Thy Cross.” Here’s the struggle. When we gather for prayer, it will always be a struggle. It will always be about the Cross. It will always be about crucifying our desires, about overcoming our weaknesses, about fighting against the devil and all his evil demons. It is unreasonable to think that entering into prayer will always be a time of perfect peace and calm.

It is true that sometimes God gives us consolation in the midst of prayer, and that peace and joy flood our hearts because of His presence with us. But we do not go into prayer for that purpose. We go into prayer because we need to be healed, because we need to struggle toward Christ, even while sitting and watching Netflix or messing around on Facebook call to us with their addictive promises.

We lift the Cross up when we pray because we are lifting up a sign to God’s enemies that it is time for them to flee. We will sing something similar at Pascha in a week: “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered; let them that hate Him flee from before His face.”

As we lift the Cross and begin the struggle, the next line of the hymn is what we sing especially today on Palm Sunday but really is our prayer throughout our life: “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

The reason why this struggle is worth it is because it is about the coming of Jesus Christ, Who comes in the Name of the Lord. He is the One Who comes in the glory and power of His Father, Who comes to put death to death, Who comes to claim a people for Himself and to include us in His vindication of that people against their enemies the demons.

And we sing “Hosanna in the highest,” because hosanna means “Save now!” and we cry that out in the highest. Why do we ask God to save us if we have to struggle so hard? It is because the struggle is not what saves us. Rather, the struggle is the journey to the place where we are saved, the presence of God. And when we are in God’s presence, He saves us. He saves us from eternal death, from the coming judgment, from the brokenness and despair of this world, from the demons.

God sees your struggle to pray. He is sending the grace of the Holy Spirit to aid you in your struggle, to gather you for prayer. He has sent us the Cross to lift high in that struggle, to scatter our enemies. And He has come in the Name of the Lord to save us from corruption and death. Don’t give up. Keep pressing forward. And help your brother and your sister as they struggle, too.

To the Messiah Jesus Who comes in the Name of the Lord, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all power and glory and honor, unto ages of ages. Amen.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you Father, so very, very true. I struggle with prayer and going to church every Sunday but I have never given up trying. I stumble, I fall, I hesitate, I fail, but I always get up and I try and try again. These are words and lessons I taught my kids growing up, to never give up and to keep on the straight and narrow path. Thank you for your wise and encouraging words.

  2. This was very beautiful and timely for me. “The struggle is not what saves us. Rather, the struggle is the journey to the place where we are saved, the presence of God.” I often forget my life struggle is a journey that is leading me to God and that even the struggle of prayer is part of that journey. Thank you.

  3. Father,
    Yes! I agree with Esmee: very encouraging words, indeed! The topic is one that everyone can relate to at some stage in their prayer life.

    Yesterday, I read and re-read your piece several times, and found it helpful even after almost 50 years of praying. Thank you for your candidness, in that you, too, struggle at times. In that regard, we are all in good company, so to speak, for even the Apostles admitted their own struggle to our Lord when they said “Teach us to pray”. Jesus did not scoff at them, but in His great love immediately guided them in what we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer…so we shouldn’t feel anxious about admitting peaks and valleys to our own spiritual advisers. This came to mind this morning when praying the Morning Prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow—in particular, the last line: “And teach us to pray. Pray Yourself in me”, coupled with your encouraging words “God sees our struggle to pray. He is sending the Holy Spirit to aid you in your struggle, to gather you for prayer”. Given both those thoughts, we can feel less anxious, as if being suddenly alone on a stage with a spotlight on us, for the God is always with us, as is our appointed Guardian Angel, and we are ever surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” encouraging us on. Therefore, as you wrote: “Don’t give up. Keep pressing forward.” Yes, you rightly acknowledged that the demons will try to hinder us (ie., sudden incongruous thoughts or fatigue, etc), but over time, if we are persistent, prayer WILL develop, even expand into various moments throughout the day…for there is ALWAYS something to praise God about, to be thankful for, and intercede over for others over. St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray unceasingly” is not a mountain-like challenge, but an invitation to enter God’s “gates” with thanksgiving and praise (Psalm 100:4), whether in times of trouble or happiness (James 5:13).

    Posting this in keeping with: “And help your brother and sister as they struggle, too.”
    Thank You! 🙂

  4. It is indeed a very great struggle. Great article father! I think St Paisisos of Mt Athos refers to this intensity of struggle within prayer when he said “The soft life make people useless. Without toil and struggle, sanctification won’t come .” I really come to understand why they say asceticism is important within Orthodoxy whenever I struggle to complete my prayer rule and fail to do so.

    I find that regularly reading quality accounts of the lives of the saints really helps in this battle Fr Andrew. The best way to achieve a goal is to be inspired by those who have already achieved it and go beyond that goal. The saint’s lives provide tremendous inspiration to remain faithful in prayer because you read them and you see how long and much they prayed, and you’re like what???? Its a really powerful, almost necessary tool for me to maintain my daily prayer rule. It truly fills with the soul with holy zeal and supernatural motivation to pray.

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