The brethren also asked Abba Agathon, “Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?” He answered, “Forgive me, but 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.”
- From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
One experience the spiritual life has repeatedly presented me, is the opportunity to have to start all over. This is true especially when it comes to prayer. Whenever life interrupts my feeble impersonation of a prayer life, I abandon the prayer life in favor of the interruption every time. I do not have the will to keep to a life of prayer. (And, this may be my problem – I usually rely on myself to do everything spiritual and leave God out of it altogether.) Sleep usually wins out over prayer, as does dealing with children, balancing the checkbook, ironing clothes or any number of other daily tasks. Then of course there are the out of the ordinary interruptions, like travel, having company come to visit, having to work late or leave early. Each time I start over in prayer, I make a vow to do better this next time. But, inevitably I just have to start over, again.
What I have noticed about this experience that is especially frustrating is that when my regular routine of spiritual devotion is interrupted - I can’t just pick back up where I left off. It takes awhile. It is sort of like putting down a book and not touching it for several days. When you pick it up again, it takes a few moments to get your bearings again. You have to remember what the story line was, who the characters are and where you were in the story. And, when I start again in prayer, eventually I remember what I am there for, and how to do it, but for several days at least prayer is nothing but awkwardness and difficulty.
Some people have the amazing ability to stick with a book all the way through, from cover to cover, completely undistracted. They plow through it with determination, from start to finish, until it is completed. I wonder if they can pray the same way. I have never been able to read like that. I am always stopping and starting. I get bored, and I put it down and pick up something I think will be more interesting. It usually isn’t and then I go back. I don’t know why I should expect to approach prayer any different, but I wish it was. I guess that is why I hate the modern catch phrase, “Prayer Warrior”. I have a strong suspicion that anyone who uses that phrase to describe someone, and especially if they use it to describe themselves, doesn’t have the faintest idea of what real prayer is like. The Desert Fathers described prayer as a struggle until our dying breath. I think they knew what they were talking about.
I don’t know if other people experience the life of prayer the same way I do. I suspect that my experience is not unique. But, in the end, all we can do is commit ourselves to begin again, again and again. And, I suppose that it is in this constant state of starting over that the true spirit of prayer is found.