Tools for prayer
By: Dina Abdelmalek
When asked what virtue requires the greatest effort, one of the desert fathers answered and said “I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”
I don’t know about you, but when I read that, it was quite comforting! I’m glad that the heavies also struggled with prayer. There are so many times where I just don’t feel like praying, or when I do, I don’t know what to say, or I get distracted, but as I read what the church fathers had to say on prayer, I found out that that was okay! We’re meant to struggle, but we have to force ourselves to pray. In fact, The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced!
Thankfully, we have many tools for prayer and so I’m going to write about a few.
Tool 1. Preparation
Although we seem to make preparations for every other task, we do not prepare for prayer. We take up prayer with our hearts and minds unprepared, with our thoughts and feelings scattered. We need to prepare for prayer! Preparation is a critical tool for success in our prayers. It is the beginning of prayer and “a good beginning is half the work”.
To prepare for prayer we should firstly designate a prayer space, a space free from all distractions. St Theophan then suggests standing for a moment, or kneeling before our prayer space and striving in this time to focus our thoughts and to call to mind the One to Whom we are praying. As we stand before Him, we need to awaken in our souls a sense of reverent awe, having a conviction that God is looking at us, that he is looking at our mind and at our hearts, and that His reward is in His hand.
During this time, we need to reject any sort of resentment we hold in our hearts “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him…” Mark 11:25. We need to detach our hearts from the world, to allow it to be lifted to God through our prayers.
Finally, we need to re-establish our sense of spiritual need, to remember our helplessness and our weakness: were it not for God and His infinite grace, we would most definitely be lost. This will force us to cry out to God in our prayers. We won’t put prayer off, we won’t let our thoughts slide so easily and we won’t let ourselves be distracted, but rather we’ll be pouring ourselves before God.
Tool 2. The Bible-The Psalms
There is no doubt that the Bible is one of the greatest tools in our prayer life. One way we can use the Bible is through the book of psalms. The book of psalms is such a beautiful treasure, in it we find a fit form of divinely inspired words to use in our prayers to address God on each and every one of life’s occasions, words both of repentance and of praise, of thankfulness and of petition, of sorrow and of joy. This makes the psalms one of the BEST tools for prayer. For we can take the words of the psalms upon our lips claiming them as our own. We can offer the words of the psalms to God as our own heart’s utterance, just as though we ourselves have made them up.
The church in its infinite wisdom has given us the Agpeya- a book of prayers compiled nearly entirely from the psalms. When we don’t read it hurriedly, when we pay attention to every word and we let the meaning of each word pierce our hearts, it transforms our prayer life. For example, in psalm 51, when we read “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” we should let those words pierce our hearts, trying to really feel our sins, our stains and having felt our dirtiness we should then cry out to God in prayer to cleanse us.
Tool 3. The Bible-Bible stories
“The study of words should give place to an immediate dialogue with the living Word himself”- Bishop Kallistos Ware
Another way the Bible is used as a tool for prayer is when we use the stories in the Bible in our prayer. Let me explain myself by giving you a couple of simple examples. When we read the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, we read “But He NEEDED to go through Samaria”. Jesus elected to go directly through Samaria. So basically, Jesus sought the Samaritan woman out! He sat at Jacob’s Well and waited for her to come for water, knowing that she would. We can use this story when we stand before God in prayer, we can say to Him “Lord, You sought after the Samaritan woman and enlightened her mind, seek after me also, seek after me and enlighten my mind”. In Mark 9:24, when we read the father of the mute child cry out to God “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”, we shouldn’t just read over that and continue with the rest of the chapter, we should lift up our hearts as we read those words and cry out to God to also help our unbelief and to continue to do so whenever we pray.
Tool 4. The Bible- God’s promises
Another way the Bible is used as a tool for prayer is by reiterating before God the words of His promises. The church fathers say it is difficult for a man to enter upon a fervent and true prayer with God without doing so. Again, I’ll give an example of what I mean: In Mathew 11:28 Christ says “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” So when we do find ourselves weary and weighed down, we can come to God and say “Lord, You said to come to You when we are heavy laden and You will give us rest, I’m tired, give me rest, give me the rest that You promised”.
Tool 5. Simplicity
The final tool for prayer is to pray simply. Sometimes we feel like we need to make our prayers long, and so we talk excessively in our prayers not realizing that it is better to pray little but often! One of my favourite quotes on prayer is by Elder Macarius of Optina, he says “Pray Simply. Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer. Consider yourself unworthy of it-then you will find peace. Use the empty, cold dryness of your prayer as food for your humility. Repeat constantly: “I am not worthy, Lord, I am not worthy!” But say it calmly, without agitation. This humble prayer will be acceptable to God. So we need to pray in all simplicity and remember that “One word-from the publican sufficed to placate God, and a single utterance saved the thief” -St John Climacus
I’ll end by saying that true prayer will never be achieved by human efforts alone. In the words of St. Macarius of Egypt: “Prayer is a gift of God, an act of divine grace. Therefore, in your prayer for all other things, do not forget to pray too about prayer.”