I pointed out that if I only wrote when I was in the mood, I wouldn’t get my blog post up by deadline, nor would my editor have the finished manuscript on her desk, and the next book wouldn’t be 33,000 words or so toward completion. Being a career writer means that you sit down and write every day until the job is done, regardless of how you feel about it. “The mood” doesn’t matter because if it does, what you have isn’t a career, it’s a collection of half-finished books.
Then I ran across this: “If you want to pray properly,” said Abba Nilus, “do not let yourself be upset, or you will run in vain.”
That can’t be right. That sounds as if he’s saying you only pray when you’re in the mood. I read further, and found out that Evagrios the Solitary agrees with him: “If then, you wish to behold and commune with Him who is beyond sense-perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassioned thought.” Bishop Theophan the Recluse underlined those words: “If the practice of prayer is to proceed successfully, it is always essential at the outset to lay everything else aside, so that the heart is completely free of distraction. Nothing should obtrude on the mind: neither face, nor activity, nor object.”
I’m in real trouble here, because most of the time, it’s a battle to get from “Our Father” to “who art in Heaven” without thinking of fifteen different chores, ten things we need from the store, and eight things I have to talk to four different people about. And it’s getting worse, because St. John of Kronstadt also said: “the Christian, approaching God with a prayer to Him, . . . ought to try to resemble as far as possible the Lord Himself . . . In this lies the secret of drawing near to God, and of His speedily hearing our prayers.” Maybe I ought to give up right now, because I can think of about three times in the last ten years that I’ve been able to pray for even a moment the way these fathers say I should.
Yet, if I think about it, I realize that it took me 20 years of writing for hours every day to hone my skills well enough to have a publisher accept my first book. I’m a career writer only because I finish what I start. I stick to it no matter how many false starts I make, no matter how many words I delete, how much I’d rather be walking in the bright sunshine, reading somebody else's book, having coffee with a friend, or shopping for those eight items I thought of in prayers this morning. This is my job. But my job, too, is praying. It’s part of my work as an Orthodox Christian. Yet I’ve been praying longer than I’ve been writing, so why am I still so bad at it?
In my research for that new book, I learned that St. Antony, the ‘father’ of monasticism, disappeared for 20 years in order to practice his prayers, and he prayed for hours every day. Not twenty minutes or half an hour once or twice a day. Hours. That’s the same amount of time I spent honing my writing skills. No wonder he’s a giant among monks! But when I read it, I thought of what a monastic had once told me: that people became monastics because they loved to pray and wanted to do more of it. So I bet it was easy for St. Antony.
Then I ran across St. Macrius the Great – another giant among the desert fathers: “One must force himself to prayer when he has not spiritual prayer and thus God, beholding him striving . . . in spite of an unwilling heart, gives him the true Spirit of prayer.” Force himself to prayer? But this is a monk – somebody who becomes a monastic because they like to pray, yet it sounds as though he’s talking from experience. And St. Ambrose of Optina said that “if you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. . . . prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself.”
If that’s true, my prayers must be right up there with St. Antony’s! More to the point, these sayings tell us that they didn’t have any easier a time of it than we do. They had to stand in their icon corners, wishing they could do the monastic equivalent of have another cup of coffee, or watch TV. They wanted to go make some baskets or visit with a brother instead of reciting the prayers and saying the words. But they stuck with it, because they knew that was the only way to get “better” at it – to draw closer to God, to learn to submit their wills to God’s. “Force yourself.” The mood doesn’t matter, only the work.
Prayer is as much a discipline and a skill as learning to write well. Or learning to play a musical instrument, or raise children, or dance, or paint, or work on car engines or decorate homes, or any complex, multilayered skill. It takes dedication and practice and the “mood” I’m in doesn’t matter. What matters is that I keep at it, day after day, week after week, year after year.
The saints and the monks had to force themselves to pray day after day, week after week, year after year too, and look where they ended up! We may not become the spiritual equivalent of these “best selling” giants (to stretch the metaphor until it squeaks) but there’s nothing wrong with being one of the “midlist” saints who stuck to it and practised their craft every single day and nobody but God ever knew it. And if one of the desert fathers, who had angels visit and talk to him, could say on his deathbed that he “has just begun to be a monk,” then I figure I’ll be getting somewhere if I can pray to “art in heaven” without thinking about the next mug of coffee.