The brethren also asked Abba Agathon "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" He answered "Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him. For they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – I have always loved this particular story, and often quote it to people in spiritual direction. The desert father stories tend to exist in various forms, due to the oral nature of the original tradition. The version I like of this story ends with ‘prayer is blood to the end’!
I like this because it helps clarify that there is not something terribly wrong with us if we happen to find prayer difficult, if we are reluctant to go to our time of prayer, find ourselves restless and distracted during that time of prayer, and even find a sensation of relief or easing of tension when we are leaving our time of prayer.
All of that may or may not be the case for you on any day, but all of those are common spiritual experiences, which can cause distress or feelings of guilt or discouragement to a person. The great thing about reading the desert fathers is that we find written in their experience our own experience, but reflected on from a deeply spiritual vantage point.
Prayer is blood to the end. While I have no doubt whatsoever that the devil and his legions have quite a bit to do with our struggle to pray and the kind of temptations and distractions we encounter in that, the evil spirits can gain no traction in us unless there is something in us for them to work with. And in the matter of prayer, unlike some of the other spiritual struggles that are more specific to this or that individual, we all have this weakness for them to exploit.
Namely, prayer is an action that directly counters and remedies that fundamental wound of our humanity, the basic problem out of which all our other problems arise. That is, we are alienated from God. We do not, somehow, even in light of the revelation and saving work of Christ, experience God as one who is near to us, one we can easily and readily be with, talk to, listen to, be in communion with.
Because of Jesus all of these are true and are ours, but the effects of the wound of sin in us remain, and so we do not know them to be true as we should. And so, when we come to pray, we are touching upon and experiencing the precise heart of the wound of humanity, the very place where it hurts, the ground zero of our fractured and fragmented being.
And so of course it is hard. Of course we don’t ‘want’ to pray. Of course we have to struggle to get there, find it hard to stay there, and flee from the battlefield of prayer after a time. A directee of mine likes to use the phrase ‘skittering away from God’, and that’s a pretty fair description of what many of us do. Kind of sidle up close to Him, and then skitter away, then creep a bit closer again, and then skitter away, then approach again… like a nervous horse or dodgy dog.
And yet this story also tells us that there is no more important spiritual work, nothing that is more vital to our growth in God and in virtue than prayer. And of course this all goes together. Since prayer touches the very heart of the wound of our being, of course it is only prayer that heals that wound of our being.
Only prayer, constant recourse to God, constant turning of our face to Him, constant lifting up our mind and heart to Him, finding time in our day to do this exclusively, but striving from that to do it throughout the day and whatever activity it holds—only this (and we have to be clear about it—ONLY this) provides us with the grace, the help from God, the strength that is needed for the rest of the spiritual life: mastery of the passions and the mind, and from that the keeping of the commandments, and crowning that the practice of charity and works of mercy.
Without prayer, constant prayer, none of that happens, and our condition is a woeful one. But with prayer, with that daily choice to ‘bleed’ a little bit… well, we are not the only one bleeding here, are we? Our blood shedding, our choice daily to turn to God and do this difficult work, mingles with the blood of God who chose to turn to us in this radical way and shed his blood to overcome that division, that alienation.
But you’re never going to ‘feel’ like praying, just like Jesus probably didn’t ‘feel’ like being crucified. And so in all this there is a deep and serious matter of identification with Christ and following of Him, without which it doesn’t make very much sense and our Christian religion is not terribly attractive or persuasive. But in Christ, prayer is Blood to the end, a sharing in the redemptive and saving work of love of God in the world, and that’s something worth shedding a few drops for, don’t you think?