We heard in the Epistle this morning: “Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.” (Acts 12:5) We listened to the story of how Herod bound Apostle Peter in chains and locked him up in prison, and then a miracle happened. The prayers of the church were answered.
How does that happen or how do we as a church offer our prayers in a productive way? We read in the first letter to the Thessalonians, “be praying unceasingly.”[1 Thess. 5:17] Please listen to the wisdom of the fathers: You should not make long prayer, for it is better to pray little but often. Superfluous (soo͝-pûr′floo͞-əs) words are idle talk. (St. Theophylact) Pray Simply. Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer. Consider yourself unworthy of it-then you will find peace. Use the empty, cold dryness of your prayer as food for your humility. Repeat constantly: “I am not worthy, Lord, I am not worthy!” But say it calmly, without agitation. This humble prayer will be acceptable to God. (Elder Macarius of Optina)
The practice of the Orthodox faith is weighted heavily in prayer, and this is for good reason! St. Tikhon of Zadonsk writes: “As a bird without wings, as a soldier without arms, so is a Christian without prayer.” What then, is prayer? Ephesians 5:19 instructs us to be: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” St. Theophan the Recluse defines it this way: “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical. Prayers are spiritual because they are originally born in the (human) spirit and ripen there by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. In their origin they (i.e. prayers, psalms, hymns, etc.) were purely spiritual and only afterwards came to be clothed in words and so assumed an oral form.”
Many folks often tell me that they struggle to pray, or can’t find time to pray. Abba Agathon of the Dessert Fathers tells us: "I consider no other labor as difficult as prayer. When we are ready to pray, our spiritual enemies interfere. They understand it is only by making it difficult for us to pray that they can harm us. Other things will meet with success if we keep at it, but laboring at prayer is a war that will continue until we die." And then he goes on to say: “In order to pray a man must struggle to his last breath. If we do not find prayer difficult, perhaps it is because we have not really started to pray.”
So does anything ever change that I pray about? And people will also sometimes feel like their prayer life is dry on unproductive. Hear the answer from St. John of Kronstadt:"Remember that not a single word is lost during prayer, if you say it from your heart; God hears each word, and weighs it in a balance. Sometimes it seems to us that our words only strike the air in vain, and sound as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. No, no; it is not so! ...The Lord responds to every desire of the heart, expressed in words or unexpressed." (My Life in Christ: Part 1; Holy Trinity Monastery pgs 85-86) St. Nilus of Sinai reminds us: “How many times have I prayed for what seemed a good thing for me and not leaving it to God to do as He knows best But having obtained what I begged for, I found myself in distress because I had not asked for it to be, rather, according to God’s will.”
And by all means, ask the saints of the church for help! "When we call upon the Saints in prayer, if we pronounce their names from the heart, it already means that we bring them near our heart itself. Therefore ask their prayers and intercession undoubtingly for yourself. They will hear you, and will speedily lay your prayers before the Lord, in the twinkling of an eye, for He is omnipresent and omniscient." (St. John of Kronstadt: My Life in Christ: Part 1, Holy Trinity Monastery pg. 126)
You need to make a list of your church family and remember them all in your prayers. We do not always know what struggles are going on in their life. And your charity, please remember your sinful priest in your prayers as well! “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”