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Praying to God
adapted from the book, In the Heart of the Desert
by Greek Orthodox Archdeacon John Chryssagis

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, miracles happen through prayer (euche or proseuche).  The desert offers new dimensions about our lives, about our world, and about God.  In particular, the way of the desert teaches us how to pray: how to stand before God, how to speak to God, and above all how to keep silent before God.  It reminds us that God is born in barrenness, where there is an absence of pride, of masks, of illusions and of false images.  Paradoxically, God fulfills in emptiness.  God appears when we are not too filled with other attachments and distractions, when we are not full of ourselves.

One of the lessons that we learn about prayer from the experience of the desert elders is that prayer itself is difficult.   It  only grasped over time.

The brothers asked Abba Agathon: "Among all good works, whch is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?"  He answered: "Forgive me, but I think that there is no greater labor than that of prayer to God.  For every time a person wants to pray, one's enemies, the demons, want to prevent one from praying, for they know that it is only by turning one away from prayer that they can hinder one's journey.  Whatever good works a person undertakes, if one perseveres in them, one will attain rest.  But prayer is warfare to the last breath."

Continual prayer does not, of course, mean that one does nothing but pray.  It means that everything is included within prayer, that prayer accompanies everything that one does.

Some of the monks who are called Duchites went to Enaton to see Abba Lucius.  The old man asked them:  "What is your manual labor?"  They said: "We do not touch manual labor but as the Apostle says, we pray without ceasing".  The old man asked them if they did not eat, and they replied that they did.  So he said to them:  "When you are eating, who prays for you then?"  Again he asked them if they did not sleep, but they replied that they did.  And he said to them: "When you are asleep, who prays for you then?"  They could not find any answer to give him.  He said to them: "Forgive me, but you do not act as you speak.  I will show you how, while doing manual work, I pray without interruption.  I sit down with God, soaking my reeds and plaiting my ropes, and I say: 'God, have mercy on me; according to your great goodness and according to the multitude of your mercies, save me from my sins'."  So he asked them if this were not prayer, and they replied that it was.  Then he said to them: "So when I have spent the whole day working and praying, making thirteen pieces of money more or less, I put two pieces of money outside the door and pay for my food with the rest of the money.  The one who takes the two pieces of money prays for me when I am eating and when I am sleeping.  Thus, by the grace of God, I fulfill the precept to pray withut ceasing."

Nevertheless, just as the desert was a commitment to a counter-cultural way of life, so too prayer is the realization that what matters most is not the success or the achievement or the productivity encouraged by society.  Prayer is acceptance of frailty and failure -- first within ourselves, and then in the world around us.  When we are able to accept our brokenness, without any pretense and without any pretexts, then we are also able to embrace the brokenness of others, valuing everyone else without exception.  Prayer is learning to live, without expecting to see results; it is learning to love, without hoping to see a return; it is learning to be, without demanding to have.  We cannnot live and love and simply be, unless we are consumed by a total commitment to detachment.

Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot: "You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire."

We might do well to read "human being" where Abba Joseph says "monk."  It must be remembered that the monastic way of life is merely "the life according to the Gospel."  All people are called to respond to Christ's call to salvation.  The circumstances of the response may vary externally, but the path is essentially one.  In the spiritual life there is no sharp distinction between the monastic and the non-monastic; the monastic life is simply the Christian life, lived in a particular way.  Nonetheless, every once in a while, fiery glimpses and illuminating insights reveal the line of distinction between the monastic and ourselves; every once in a while, the differences will rise to the surface in order to remind us that the monastic is a prophetic fugure.  Then we remember that the ways of the Desert Fathers and Mothers are not the ways of the world, even if they lived in the world.  The fire described by Abba Joseph consumed the desert elders; it is what attracted them there in the first place.

A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius at Scetis.  Waiting outside the door, he saw the old man entirely like a flame.  (The brother was clearly worthy of this sight.)  When he knocked, the old man came out and saw the brother marveling.  He asked him:  "Have you been knocking long?  Did you see anything here?"  The other answered:  "No."  So then they talked, and he sent the brother away.

Their prayer is not always ecstatic; but it is always the fruit of long hours.

Abba Isidore said:  "When I was younger and remained in my cell, I set no limit to prayer.  The whole night was for me as much the time of prayer as the day."

Yet, when it comes to advising others on how to pray, the Desert Fathers and Mothers are simple and practical.  Their counsel is: just pray!

Abba Macarius was asked: "How should one pray?"  The old man replied: "There is no need at all to make long discourses.  It is enough to stretch out one's hands and to say: 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.'  And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: 'Lord, help!'  He knows very well what we need and he shows us His mercy."

A brother said to Abba Antony: "Pray for me."  The old man said to him: "I will have no mercy on you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make any effort and if you do not pray to God."

Indeed, the same Antony is almost entirely undemanding when it comes to the ascetic or spiritual expectations of those who visit him.  His advice could be summarized thus: do your best at what you are supposed to be doing!

The brothers came to Abba Antony and said to him: "Speak a word; how are we to be saved?"  The old man said to them: "You have heard the Scriptures.  That should teach you how."  But they said, "Yes, but we want to hear from you too, Father."  Then the old man said to them: "The Gospel says, 'If any strike you on one cheek, turn to them the other also,'  "They said: "We cannot do that."  The old man said: "Well, if you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck."  They replied: "We cannot do that either."  So he said, "If you are not able to do that, then do not return evil for evil."  They said: "We cannot do that either."  Then the old man said to his disciple:  "Prepare a little soup of corn for these people, for they are totally incapable of doing anything.  If you cannot do this and cannot do that, then what can I do for you anyway?  What you need is prayers."

The aim is to make an effort, simply to say one's prayers.  And, by saying prayers -- some of the time or even much more of the time -- the result is that one becomes identified with prayer all of the time.  The word "pray-er" implies a living human being in the act of prayer.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers themselves became like living candles of prayer.

It was said of Abba Tithoes, that when he stood up to pray, if he did not quickly lower his hands, his spirit was rapt to heaven.  So if it happened that some brothers were praying with him, he hastened to lower his hands, so that his spirit would not be rapt and so that he would not pray for too long.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him: "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and, again as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?"  Then, the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him: "If you really want, you can become all flame."