A reflection on Prayer by Diocesan Chancellor, Archpriest Paul Jannakos
Prayer is the most needful and natural of all human abilities, more natural to us than eating and drinking, or breathing, even.
When unceasing prayer arises and abides within the human heart “all is well.” And “all is well” because the deepest and most powerful effect of prayer is how it unites us to God in a manner that is beyond any “logical” definition. Indeed, here is a mystery deeper and far richer than any human experience that is merely fleshly, cerebral, psychological, or emotional. Because when one has glimpsed even just a small bit of genuine prayer, “crumbs from the Master’s table,” (Matt. 15:27) then all is light, peace, joy, gratitude, and love. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Just as Moses “turned aside” to see the Burning Bush, believers are simultaneously confirmed in their faith by these many little epiphanies of grace that are revealed in a life of prayer. In their pure and unceasing prayer, many of the saints (Macarius of Egypt, Seraphim of Sarov) thus shone with the uncreated light of Christ. Those who fail to discover or recover prayer remain stuck in a flat, joyless “one story universe.”
But for all believers, this higher and richer experience of authentic prayer will inevitably come with a price. Because, simply put, following Christ means allowing oneself to become “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), which does not mean to be deficient of the Holy Spirit but to become wholly vulnerable to and naked before God by being stripped of every worldly affection and security. Only then is the heart wide open to the Lord, without anything blocking His way (riches, possessions, relationships, etc.). Poverty of spirit is a standard prerequisite to all prayer. Without it, no one feels the need to pray, and prayer subsequently becomes a dead, empty formality. “For these people honor me with their lips but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).
It is also important to know that prayer will never be something static but will always be in flux. Over the course of a single day, one’s experience of prayer will ebb and flow, and it will be necessary to accept this up-and-down aspect of prayer as something that exists on account of our own human weakness and sinfulness. Our minds and hearts will be distracted, and the inner fire of prayer will be dampened and extinguished. Along with this, there will be periods of time—weeks and months most likely—where the believer will go from the highest peak of prayer to the lowest, deepest valley. There will be times, that is, when we may experience the ecstasy of prayer and “move mountains” (see Mark 11:23), knowing that it is not we who pray but literally “the Holy Spirit Who intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:26). These are moments when the heavens open and when one knows for sure that God’s Kingdom really exists.
Yet there will be times, too, where those who strive for prayer will feel completely abandoned by any graceful consolation for weeks and perhaps even months at a time. Here is the experience of a terrible loneliness and despair like none other. The heart will become hollow and gloomy, and the words of prayer will turn to ashes in one’s mouth. Such an apparent forsakenness is not far from what the Lord Himself experienced while hanging on His cross: ”My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).
All of the saints perfected by grace over a lifetime of striving experienced, countless times over, this “long, dark night of the soul.” They were each tested by God. They each needed to become another Elijah in the wilderness, hopeless and alone, in a state of sorrow that defies the imagination. ”Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than any of my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). Many beginners in prayer reach this first test and find it far too painful. Such a startling flip between the fullness vs. absence of grace is more than they can bear. And it’s unbearable because they have yet to learn true humility and patience.
Yet those who continue in the way of the Lord and fight for a life of prayer learn, eventually, that these “wilderness experiences” and tests are the Lord’s way of not only furrowing down deeper into the heart, but also a way of hungering and thirsting for God that reveals the essence of every human person. Only when one cries out in prayer “longitudinally,” for the whole of the human lifespan, faithfully and unremittingly no matter how full or empty one inwardly feels, will the Lord turn prayer into the kind of bliss that is a foretaste of the Kingdom to come.