Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Abba Makarios

The youngest brothers of the skete surrounded Saint Makarios one day and asked him to teach them how to pray.

“The greatest mistake we make in praying,” he replied, “is verbosity. It is sufficient for a man to learn to elevate his mind to the heavenly and to say with all of his soul, ‘Lord, have mercy, as you know and as you will.’ This is prayer.

“Again, when he feels the attack of the devil strongly upon him, or the rebellion of the lower passions, let him run with faith to the Heavenly Father and let him cry to Him, not with his mouth, but with his heart: ‘Lord, help me.’ He knows the way to help a soul which draws near to Him with trust.”

This Saying really hits home with me.  Have you ever been in a group in which extemporaneous prayer is invited? I did not know such groups existed until I was an adult. I was raised Roman Catholic but no part of my spiritual formation included extemporaneous prayer, just private prayer, and prayer during the liturgy of the Mass.

When I encountered prayer groups where people prayed out loud for their deepest concerns, I was uncomfortable for two reasons. The first one was that people were praying out loud for that which I had always been taught should be prayed for in private, if not secrecy to be known only to God. Or Mary, as the case might be. I used to pray assiduously to Mary to protect me from nightmares.

The second thing about extemporaneous prayer that made me uncomfortable was the length of time one person would pray and the sheer number of words used with the word “just” repeated as if it were a command to God to obey. At least, that’s how it struck me and I could certainly be incorrect in my interpretation.

Thing is, I had been raised in a faith tradition that approached prayer as Abba Makarios. Short and to the point. I am now an Episcopalian and the Book of Common Prayer is loaded with prayers that are short and to the point.  When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, it was short and to the point. When Jesus told His disciples the parable of the Pharisee and the publican at prayer, Jesus preferred the prayer of the publican because it was humble and short and to the point.

God knows what we are going to pray long before we ever pray it. When I want to pray in an intercessory manner for someone, I figure God knows everything person needs much better than I, so I hold that person in my mind and heart and take that person with me into the Presence and just hold God and that person together in my heart and mind. Although, sometimes I do pray very specifically because I need to do that for my own comfort or to get something straight in my own mind.

Oh yes, there was a third thing that bothered me about extemporaneous prayer.  It was as if the person praying believed they could change God’s mind, as it were, about another person or an event. That always struck me as futile. God is God, God creates, we are the creatures that have been created. It is not given to us to change God’s mind. But if we approach prayer with the idea that prayer changes us, something is accomplished because when we pray, we invite the Holy Spirit to illumine out minds and soften our hearts.

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