When Lent comes around, I seem to do okay with fasting and the extra church services. But I never seem to get hold of meaningful, personal prayer. Can you help me?

I don't know if I can help you fully with your problem because I, too, have struggled with personal prayer all my life. However, I take comfort in the fact that even the greatest mystics experienced periods of dryness and alienation from God. Nevertheless, their advice is to hang on to prayer like a drowning person would hang on to a rope. God's grace eventually, somehow, dispels the darkness, and sunshine returns. That is, at least until the next bout in the ups and downs of life, as we hopefully grow and mature. Early in seminary life, I came across a brief work that struck me as an instant analysis of the Christian life, the larger context of prayer. Prayer must be seen as an integral part of our entire existence, because just as prayer affects how we live, how we live affects our prayer. The title of the work is "Letter to Nicholas," authored by St. Mark the Hermit (fifth century). It may be found in "The Philokalia," Vol. I, edited by G.E.H. Palmer and others (Faber and Faber, 1979).

Three key words in particular grabbed my attention in the "Letter to Nicholas." They were ignorance (agnoia), forgetfulness (lethe), and laziness (rathymia). These words somehow reflected my own difficulties with the spiritual life and prayer. But what could I do to overcome them?

St. Mark taught that these three evil "giants" that kill the soul must be conquered with knowledge, remembrance of God, and inner fervor--all possible only with complete reliance on the grace of God. I soon set about applying the lessons to my struggles with prayer.

Jesus said: "Know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Eager to dispel ignorance and to find freedom in the ways of prayer, I began to read books and essays, both ancient and contemporary, about prayer and the spiritual life. To come to know the meaning and purpose of prayer is to come to value and embrace the way of prayer.

Two things particularly stand out. One is that our thoughts and actions in daily life must be consistent with the essence of prayer, which is the seeking of personal intimacy with God. For example, one cannot be given to gossip, exploitative acts, or immoral imaginations and expect to make any progress in prayer.

The other thing is that prayer, by its very nature as a personal encounter with God, is a wrestling with self as much as it is with the mystery of God. The experience is both thrilling and scary because it carries with it tremendous implications for change. Seeking to grasp God, you find out after a while that God has grasped you. I am convinced that one of the biggest difficulties with prayer is the human fear and resistance to being grasped and changed by God, even as we believe that God is love.

What about forgetfulness? How often have I been inspired by a sermon, or an act of worship, or by the example of a Christian friend, only to find that a few hours later no trace of that inspiration can be found in my soul. How many times over my long life have I had special, transforming moments and days with God, then at other times feel totally estranged from God! Human beings are weak, distracted, negligent, forgetful--yes, sinful. The antidote is the practice of "the remembrance of God." The saints teach that to remember God is to carry God in our hearts. We remember God by sharing in the life of the church. We remember God by acts of kindness to others. We remember God by taking moments throughout the day to lift up our minds in thanksgiving and adoration.

The daily remembrance of God nurtures spiritual alertness and strengthens us in the set times of prayer.

And finally, there is the matter with laziness to be countered with fervor and work. How blessed are those souls who spontaneously run after God! Frankly, I am not one of them. I love God, but I can come up with myriad excuses not to pray or to pray hastily and get on with other things. St. Mark the Hermit praises zeal, but whatever little fire I have experienced has come after hard work at prayer. Did not St. Paul himself, that great apostle of faith and grace, speak about strenuous training and disciplining of the body (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)?

That means, in part, blocking out daily times for prayer and keeping them with firm resolve. That means studying and using a helpful prayer book as a practical guide. It means the ongoing reading of scripture and other meditative books. It means faith, commitment, concentration, willingness to forgive others in prayer, and above all readiness to risk being grasped and changed by the presence and power of a loving God.

It is through hard work and learned practice, at least for most of us, that prayer becomes a personal sacrament of grace. Then we can catch a glimpse of what the saints called prayer as "spiritual breathing," "being alive to God," "joy of the soul," "light of the mind," "heaven in the heart." It is then the life itself seems to become a prayer.

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