>Beginning to Pray

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Most mornings I try to stand in my icon corner and pray. I say “try” because sometimes I just stand there and say the words mindlessly and wonder if they make it past the ceiling. And some mornings I don’t even go there, because, well, I’m lazy, and also because prayer is hard. Especially if you’re all about wanting God’s gifts and not really wanting God.

I was reminded of that this morning as I began to re-read a book that blessed me when I first read it about fifteen years ago. Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Met. Anthony was a Russian émigré who lived many places, but ended up becoming a French citizen in 1937. He was a physician, a monk, a priest, and a Metropolitan. But mostly he was a humble man and a wonderful teacher. He still teaches today… through his books, like this one.

The Introduction is really an interview with Met. Anthony. One thing that struck me about it this morning was the respect and love he had for his father, who said to him when he had been out of touch for a while:

“I worried about you.”

Anthony said, “Did you think I’d had an accident?”

His father answered, “That would have meant nothing, even if you had been killed. I thought you had lost your integrity.”

On another occasion his father said to him, “Always remember that whether you are alive or dead matters nothing. What matters is what you live for and what you are prepared to die for.”

What struck me about these passages is how I felt in 2003 when my oldest son was in Iraq. People would ask me, especially other mothers, “How can you stand it? Watching the war on TV and knowing he’s in danger all the time?’

They were often surprised by my response, which usually went something like this, “He is in just as much danger when he lives in the U.S. and faces the trials and temptations of young people today. And of course my heart falls into my stomach everytime I hear the words, ‘another Blackhawk was shot down.’ I love my son and pray for his safety, but I am more concerned that his heart is in the right place.”

Jon will go back to Iraq in January, so I’ll have another opportunity to learn to pray. To try to hold this tension, as Met. Anthony says in another place in the book:

As Christians we are always in tension—in anguish and at the same time in bliss. This is mad, ridiculous. But it is true—accepting the dark night just as we accept the brilliance of the day. We have to make an act of surrender—if I am in Christ, there are moments when I must share the cry of the Lord on the cross and the anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. There is a way of being defeated, even in our faith—and this is a way of sharing the anguish of the Lord. I don’t believe that we should ever say, ‘This cannot happen to you.” If we are Christians we should go through this life, accepting the life and the world, not trying to create a falsified world.

So as I stood there this morning, beginning again to pray, I looked at my 2007 Daily Lives, Miracles, and Wisdom of the Saints Calendar and read the short paragraph about the saints being commemorated today. One is Anna, Martyr for the Holy Icons. She was from a noble family in eighth-century Constantinople and was a spiritual daughter of St. Stephen the New, also commemorated today. When her husband died, she became a nun. Emperor Copronymus was one of several iconoclast emperors. He urged Anna to slander her spiritual father. She refused and was flogged and thrown into prison, where she died. The story reminded me of how little is asked of me, in comparison to Anna and so many other saints, and yet how easily I run to, as Met. Bloom said, “create a falsified world” when I think the real world is too difficult to accept. Anna died for the holy icons. I struggle to paint them because of my pride and anger. Sigh.

And then I read the “quote of the day” at the bottom of the page, this one by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem. An excerpt:

The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as His only is. Take heed, therefore, les for the slight and trivial sins against you, you shut out for yourselves forgiveness from God for your very grievous sins.

These words reminded me of something my own spiritual father, Father John Troy, said recently:

“The King and Prophet David should have more effect on your life than any other writer. He wrote, among other things, Psalm 50, which, as Orthodox Christians, we read about four times a day with our prayers.”

It’s the Psalm we read just before the Sacrament of Confession, too. The one that begins, “Have mercy on me, O God… Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity….”

And then it says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

And I love this part, “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation.”

As this season of the Nativity Fast continues, may God restore to us the joy of His salvation. May he grant us all a spirit of humility and forgiveness. And may it begin with me.

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