The brothers asked Abba Agatho: “Father, which virtue in our way of life needs most effort to acquire?” And he said to them: “Forgive me, I think nothing needs so much effort as prayer to God. If a man is wanting to pray, the demons infest him in the attempt to interrupt the prayer, for they know that prayer is the only thing that hinders them. All the other efforts of a religious life, whether they are made vehemently or gently, have room for a measure of rest. But we need to pray till we breathe out our dying breath. That is the great struggle.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 12.2
If Abba Agatho is right (and I think he is), then any tricks of the trade of prayer ought to be valued more than diamonds. Prayer is the primary means by which the soul on a daily basis is raised up to God and united to him in love. Without prayer what aspect of the Christian life has any effect? Indeed, without prayer, can there be faith? Can one be said to live in the grace of the sacraments? Can one know Jesus Christ without prayer? In many cases these items are symbiotic—I do not mean to settle any “chicken or the egg?” sort of questions. As Dom Hubert van Zeller wrote, “there can be no prayer where there is no faith” as well. But the fact remains: prayer too is an essential component, a sine qua non, of the Christian life, and as such the cultivation of pure prayer ought to be one of our primary concerns.
Prayer, then, is the most fundamental ascetic practice. It is even a prerequisite for theology, rightly understood. One can write about what one has read about God without prayer. But one can only write about God himself with prayer. It is just as if, for example, a person read and studied all about the president of the United States. Such a person may know more facts about the president, but knowledge of a person is almost wholly separate from knowledge about a person. One only needs a minimum of the former for the latter. Yet no matter how much of the former a person has, it is no substitute for the latter. Scholarship is wonderful and worthwhile and even can be a part of that deeper knowing, but if I want to find out about who someone really is, I will ask that person’s friends, or better, I will speak to that person myself and seek such friendship.
Christianity does not deny that God is “first cause” of all things or “first principle” of existence, but it refuses to reduce theology to such philosophical topics. No, theology depends on revelation—not merely what has been recorded, whether in the Scriptures or any other aspect of Holy Tradition, but in particular on the revelation of the Holy Trinity in prayer. Evagrios the Solitary is known for the following dictum: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Prayer again stands at the center.
To attempt to attain such personal knowledge naturally draws the resistance of all that works against the truth. Thus prayer becomes the battleground, and our enemies are legion. Every passion, every thought, every imagination—all things both within us and without seem to work against what ought to be the most natural thing in the world, to sit at the feet of Jesus and bask in the warmth of the presence of God.
What, then, can be done? If we must “pray till we breathe out our dying breath,” then prayer is our one immutable vocation. The work of prayer colors all our other works, even works of love itself. Love, as St. Augustine has pointed out, can be ordered or disordered. It is prayer that orients our inner life to God and our outer life to our inner life. It is prayer that aligns our love toward that which is truly deserving of love and discriminates between what of those things is more worthy than others: God first, then our neighbor as ourselves. Prayer makes such love possible.
I remember a friend from college once saying to me, “I cannot love you if I do not pray for you.” He’s right. Love, true love, is the product of prayer or necessarily coexists with it at least. In the endeavor to love and love rightly, we must be tireless. We cannot relent. To pray at all times requires great focus and practice.
As for what else can be done, praying traditional prayers by the saints of the Church helps one to know what to say to God, so that, above everything else, we might know the Holy Trinity, who is love. Reading these love letters to God helps one to see what is so lovable about God. Making these words one’s own cultivates love for God and thus communion with God.
Another benefit of traditional, pre-written prayers is that they do not require the use of the imagination. While imagination may be a good thing in some contexts, when getting to know another person our own false conceptions are the enemies of true knowledge and intimacy.
One such pre-written prayer is actually aimed at continual prayer, so that one may, in fact, pray “till we breathe our last breath” as well as after. That prayer is the Jesus prayer, and taking time to intentionally and undistractedly practice it and make its repetition a second nature can insure that no breath, even our last, will go unwasted.
There are many other wonderful practices, icons help focus the mind and raise it up above all merely material appearances and conceptions.
Incense likewise even transfigures our sense of smell, so that we might say of Christ, our Anointed one,
Because of the fragrance of your good ointments,
Your name is ointment poured forth;
Therefore the virgins love you.
(Song of Solomon 1:3)
And we also might remember that the prayers of the saints are like incense before his throne (Revelation 5:8).
Lastly, candles remind us that Christ is the Light of the World (John 8:12), who yet says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 15:14).
This brief list is far from complete. Nonetheless, all of these practices assist our prayer in the soul’s ascent to God, through his Son Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. If such love is worth striving for (and it is) and if prayer is truly “the great struggle” of our spiritual lives (and it is), then we need all such assistance we can get.