Please don’t frown. I am well aware of how people in the Church tend to talk about prayer. I know that prayer is for the soul what food or air is for the body. I also know that you cannot love someone and not want to talk with them at the same time. But still. Is there any priest who could name 5-10 of his parishioners who would not tell him at a confession that they omit prayers or skip them altogether? Well, we priests also have to admit that we aren’t always the example of incessant prayer that we ought to be, are we? While the traditional prayer rule before the Liturgy is more or less a permanent phenomenon in a priest’s like, are we equally zealous when we pray at home after a hard day of work? Or when, for example, we finally get all our kids to sleep (especially if they are small or if there are more than two of them): how long can we pray until we fall asleep?
So if we priests, whose activity is fully dependent on prayer, sometimes are too busy or exhausted and sleepy, what can we say about lay people, many of whom have to combine two or more jobs, who work long shifts, who are torn apart between small kids and elderly parents, who cannot catch their breath in the never-ending maelstrom of household chores, workload, their children’s homework and pastimes, working in the fields, illnesses and a whole lot of other problems that occur out of the blue? Is every one of those poor people who have to get up early or are completely worn out at the end of the day really eager to pray and enjoys the opportunity to read the designated prayer rule? Of course not everyone and naturally not always.
There isn’t anything surprising or blameworthy about it. That’s just the way life is nowadays. Yet, I’d like to draw the line where fatigue ends and laziness begins: a border that separates moderation from neglect.
First of all, trivial though it may sound, the prayer rule, that is, the required prayer to God after waking up and before falling asleep is a must. It is necessary first of all because it is our experience of communication with God. Let us be honest: Our prayer life is mainly not distinguished by its abundance or fruitfulness. That is why the experience of praying, even if for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, is incredibly valuable for us, and that’s not an overstatement. Secondly, the prayer rule disciplines us. There is an almost magic word which often brings about positive changes and makes us better humans. This word is “I must”. This word is a demanding, motivating, and disciplining one. Our mentality leads us to be open to all things that are good and kind. At the same time, we are unbelievably passive and inert. As soon as there appears a factor that spurs us to action, as soon as we hear the word “I must”, we start to act. More often than not, we stretch ourselves and coerce ourselves to do so. But it almost never fails to be effective.
You most certainly need to want to pray if you are to have a proper and good prayer. Can this desire to pray just appear on its own? Well, it can. It can appear on its own once or twice a year for ten minutes. I don’t think I have to ask you whether this prayerful experience is useful or not because it is obvious. That is why in the cases when you like praying but do it seldom, self-coercion might save the day. When a person keeps praying regularly, day after day, regardless of his will, he develops the habit of praying without even noticing it. Of course he will pray without enthusiasm more than once or twice while developing this habit. He will be tempted to do something else instead of prayer over and over again. He will have to admit to himself, shamefully or proudly, that he does not want to pray at all more than once.
Why does this kind of prayer matter, you may ask. It is inattentive, insincere, and formalistic… Yes, it is. Also, it is full of overcoming oneself: one’s unwillingness, laziness, neglect. It is teeming with a decisive denial of relaxation, sloth, and weakness. Yes, this kind of prayer is infinitely far from the ideal. It lacks sincerity, attention, and faith. It is motivated by obligation not love of God. There is the word “I must” instead of “I believe and I confess” in the soul of the praying person. That’s on the one hand. Meanwhile, on the other hand, this kind of prayer is a veritable ascetic endeavor. One’s tenaciousness in doing it gradually leads to one’s mastering it. Morning and evening prayers become the norm. Yes, I dislike praying. I cannot say that I want to pray but I also cannot live without prayer. I need it. Efforts to observe the rule are superseded by efforts to prevent loss of focus and to pray consciously and attentively without any extraneous thoughts. More time will pass, and the desire to pray will come. It will not be the impulsive, momentary “I want to pray,” but the constant need to pray, based on the attitude to prayer as a necessity, without which one cannot live or breathe. Of course, our busyness, our endless problems, sicknesses, ill-behaved children, and vegetable gardens are not going anywhere. We will never be free from fatigue, exhaustion, and the bustle of life. But the rule is meant to be both useful and doable. It is clear that a small rule that is regularly observed is better and more effective than the large one that is read from time to time.
Nevertheless, even with a feasible rule, it is not superfluous to determine a certain critical limit, below which the level of prayer life will not sink, whether you are tired, busy or ill. Let there be three, two, or even one prayer, but at least it will be recited in due time without omissions and in spite of everything. For the rest of the time the extent of the rule will be normal and customary, but there will also be an option for unusual circumstances.
In this case the rule will fulfill its main function, which is to ensure the continuity of prayer life. This is the basis for the acquisition of pure, attentive prayer experience, driven by desire and faith.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds