Have you ever looked at your prayer book with the distinct feeling of ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you?’ Have you felt totally useless spiritually, unable to move forward for one tiny step? Do you, in fact, feel that you are going backwards, rather than advancing in any way; that your prayer life is worse today than yesterday, and definitely worse than a year ago? Well, in that case, rejoice, for this is the sure sign that your prayer is working.
I’ve met so many people this weekend… each with their personal story, personal challenges, personal sources of happyness and pain. Everywhere though, questions and worries concerning prayer take over the conversation in a matter of minutes. The basic thing people seem not to understand is that the point of prayer is not happiness – the reason we pray is not so that we feel happy and fulfilled.
By prayer, our saints say, we get closer to God; unfortunately, getting closer to God means we have to get closer to ourselves first, closer to our own hearts, because that is where Christ reveals Himself – and getting to know one’s own heart is nasty business; getting to know who you really are is never fun, never a fulfilling or comforting experience.
When your prayer kills you on the inside, let it. And give thanks. When your prayer exposes the small person that you are in front of your own conscience, let it. And give thanks. These years of pain, these years of staring at one’s prayer book and wondering how did one get so low and miserable, so utterly unable to control one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, one’s attention, one’s passions, these years when you go down in your own personal hell and you discover that this is where you belong, that there is nothing alive in you, nothing holy in you – these years are the years your prayer IS working. This is the time you’re keeping yourself open for God to strat re-creating you, re-shaping you into who you really are.
These are painful years, when nothing good seems to live in us, but these years will teach you so many things about yourself, things you would never learn otherwise. You learn your limitations, you learn humility, you learn repentance, you learn obedience, you learn not to judge, not to condemn – for, how could you judge and condemn anyone, when you yourself are spiritually dead and surviving only out of God’s love and mercy?
These years are the foundation for all your future years. I think about these years as the foundation to a house – my life. Make sure, make absolutely sure that you have a strong, healthy foundation; otherwise, no matter what you build on top of it, it will crumble sooner or later.
This prayer is just a stage, of course. When God sees that the foundation is ready, you will break through, and things will be different. Don’t despair and don’t give up – for now, just rejoice because you know your prayer is working. You’re gradually learning the truth about yourself, you’re gradually leaving behind the idolatric images of your self that you or those around you have built for years. As you leave these fake images behind, you’re getting closer to your real self, you gain knowledge about who you really are and, in time, this self-knowledge will be the foundation for knowledge and love for God.
Let this prayer kill you. It’s not you who’s dying, not your real self, but the fake and prideful self you’ve learnt to mistake for who you really are. Let this prayer kill this fake self, let this prayer help you discover your real name, your real personhood. Don’t get down from the cross of this prayer. Remember that after the Cross – and only after – Christ’s Resurrection awaits you: You, the real one.