Learning To Pray

“Teach me to pray.”

It seems like a simple request, since everyone says they pray. And yet, the disciples of our Lord knew that prayer wasn’t so easy. They watched Jesus pray all night long. Certain illnesses they couldn’t cure because Jesus said to them they needed to “pray and fast” more. John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray, and Jesus’ disciples wanted to learn as well. Of course, as Jews, the disciples knew about prayer. All Jews prayed to God. They went to their local synagogues and prayed. When they had the opportunity, they went to the temple in Jerusalem and offered prayers. They had a rich historical tradition with many magnificent prayers – the psalms of King David being among the most beautiful prayers ever written.

And yet, the disciples watched Jesus pray, and wanted to learn more. “Teach me to pray.” The disciples understood that prayer, as simple as it may seem, was in fact a difficult spiritual exercise, and they wanted to learn how more about it.

Once, some desert monks asked Abba Agathon, “Among all our different activities, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?”  To which he answered quite clearly, “There is no labor greater than praying to God. For every time a person wants to pray, the demons try to prevent him; for they know that nothing obstructs them so much as prayer to God.  In everything else that a person undertakes, if he perseveres, he will attain rest.  But in order to pray, a person must struggle to his last breath.”

Sincere prayer is a moment when we connect with God, and the last thing the devil wants us to do is connect with our Creator. Prayer is the most intimate, personal contact we can have with our Lord. In pure and sincere prayer, we commune with God in the most dynamic and authentic way. And not only do we connect and commune with Him, but we open up our hearts to receive His Spirit and become one with Him in eternity. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian wrote, “We need to pray even more than we need to breathe.” Prayer is the very air we breathe when we walk with God.

Now, prayer may seem simple as we teach our children to pray. And yet, prayer is also a science and art that we need to practice and practice more as we mature and grow in our spiritual lives. No one can ever say they’ve reached perfection in the art of prayer. The more we pray, and the more pure we pray, the more we open up our hearts to the infinite grace of our eternal Creator. Thus, the deeper and more pure our prayer can become.

So then, how do we pray? In today’s gospel reading, we learn both an essential lesson on how to pray, and also on how not to pray. You recall the story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. A Pharisee was a well respected religious leader of the Jews who supposedly knew all about prayer. In fact, he prayed daily. He followed every detail of the Mosaic law. He generously gave 10% of his possessions to the Temple. He fasted twice a week. He stayed away from evil acts and obeyed God’s law. From an external perspective, the Pharisee was a model faithful Jew.

Yet in this story, when the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, he stands in the front of the temple with hands lifted high, offering a prayer filled with pride. “I thank you that I am not like other men,” he prays. “Not like extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax-collector.” The arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee poisons and corrupts any effort of sincere prayer. He forgets that he stands before His Creator who already knows everything, and before whom no one can stand as righteous. Who are we and what is anything we do compared to God Himself? And yet, so often in our prayers, whether our private prayers at home, or in our communal prayers here at Church, we forget that we actually stand in the presence of the Almighty One, the Creator of heaven and earth. We forget the deep reverence, awe and respect we must have when we stand before our Maker. Any sense of pride or self-righteousness is a cancer to our prayers.

The Tax-Collector, on the other hand, isn’t simply speaking about himself, as the Pharisee does. The tax-collector understands that he is a sinful man, who has done disgraceful things in his life. He has stolen from others, and has acted in a dishonest and dishonorable way. He wasn’t someone who fasted and gave to the poor. He rarely, if ever, went to the temple to pray. And yet, on this particular day, the Spirit of God moved this tax collector to go into the temple and offer a simple prayer. He falls on the ground and offers the humble prayer “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

And Jesus says that the humility of his prayer and the sincerity of his offering are received by God!

Authentic prayer is all about humbly understanding that we stand before our Maker, and we have nothing to offer Him but our own sinful self. What can we offer to God that He hasn’t already given us? How have we lived up to the potential God that has already given us? Other people may look at us and think that we are something special, but God knows exactly who we are, what He has given us, and what our potential is. No one should dare think that they have fully lived up to the potential that God has given them, and thus no one should stand with pride and self assurance before the throne of God.

The tax collector understood that when we enter the presence of our Lord and come before Him in prayer, the most powerful prayer we can offer Him is one of humility, one which simply says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.”

St. Kosmas Aitolos understood this when he advised that “the two wings needed to fly to paradise are humility and love.” Without such humility and sincere love, our prayers end up as empty words.

I began this sermon with the words “Teach me to pray.” Of course, there are many lessons that we may learn about prayer. As we begin our journey preparing for Great Lent, which begins in three weeks, we hear our first lesson. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that we must struggle to practice and master over our lifetime, yet today, we hear the most basic and fundamental beginning. Whenever we come before God in prayer – whether for our morning prayers, or our prayers before we go to sleep, or prayers before any meal or at any other time throughout the day, let us remember to offer our prayers with humility of heart and a humble spirit.

“O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

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