It strikes me that many people in the Coptic tradition spend a lot of their lives being discontented with their prayer life. “I don’t pray enough”; “I don’t focus”; “I don’t feel much”.
Now there’s nothing wrong with desiring a deeper, more genuine dialogue with God. What is more important to our being than this? But it is also true that human nature is to shy away from things with which we are discontented. They make us feel bad, and so we avoid them if we can. Hence the struggle that many face to pray. It is not that they do not wish to be with God – it is that in their minds, prayer has become solidly attached to an uncomfortable feeling of failure or guilt or vague restlessness, a tone that makes them avoid prayer whenever possible.
This has to be one of the cleverer tricks of the devil to keep those who sincerely desire the presence of God away from experiencing it. Imagine the opposite. Imagine if prayer were instead attached to feelings of joy, peace and love. Who in their right minds would avoid that?
The question then becomes how one is to rescue prayer from the muddy negative attitudes that so easily encrust it and hide its true beauty. Here are some musings from a fellow struggler…
- Don’t think of prayer as a duty. Duties are things we just have to do, whether we like it or not. Prayer just shouldn’t be like that in a relationship of love. Imagine how a wife would feel if her husband felt that spending time with her was a duty.
- Don’t watch the clock. Don’t count the words. Let it be a natural thing. Here I am, and here is God. Let us meet. He is in me and surrounds me. God is here. Who needs a clock?
- Enjoy your prayers. Sweeten them with your favourite tunes. Pray with a smile on your face. Rejoice that you have the opportunity to connect with your Creator.
- Focus on God, not yourself. Who do you think about when praying? It is so easy to be focused on oneself – God help ME. God forgive ME. God change ME. These are not bad prayers, it’s just that if these are the only prayers you pray, that’s a pretty one-sided relationship. Try to forget the ME sometimes and just focus on HIM. It is in losing ourselves that we find our true selves. The best way to see yourself is reflected in the loving eyes of Christ.
- Don’t get bogged down in repeating the same things mechanically every day. Sure, there are some things we need to share with God every day, like expressing our gratitude and confessing our sins. But every day brings new things to be grateful for, and new sins to confess. Your own inner life is constantly changing every day, so share that dynamic life with Him who never changes. He is your rock, your immovable point of reference in a confusingly liquid world.
- Study the formal prayers. Many people go through their whole life having only ever encountered the formal prayers like the tasbeha, the Agbia and the liturgy in “quick mode”. In other words, they only ever use their words in praying them at normal speed. But you can’t really get into the deep meaning of those prayers at this speed. You remember your English lessons at school (with at least some fondness, I hope)? Reading a poem the first time often only gave you a vague sense of what it was about, but it was only when you read through again more carefully, stopped to think about individual phrases and how the whole thing hangs together, discussed it with teacher and classmates, and wrote your interpretations of it that your really discovered its profound meaning and beauty. Formal prayers are no different. If you want to enjoy them, then study them, think about them, discuss them and write about them. Then every time you pray them at normal speed, they will mean so much more.
- Every thought is a prayer. Remember that God is He “in whom we live and move and have our being”. Every thought you think is visible before God, and therefore every thought you think is a kind of prayer, if only you realised it. Realise it! The person who constantly shares their inner life with God throughout the day finds it so much easier to pray when they shut off all distractions to focus solely on that dialogue with God. Indeed, prayer becomes something you crave, for you find the distractions annoying and rejoice when you can escape them and be focused. (Of course, that may just be my male brain talking – women are so much better at multi-tasking!)
I genuinely believe that there is nothing sweeter in this life than those times when we connect with the Infinite, Eternal, All-loving I AM; the sole and perfect Truth from which all reality flows. Or on another level, we connect with the loving Father who cares for us with such minute care that He even counts the hairs of our heads. How could we ever allow negative feelings attach to such a beautiful experience?