A brother asked Abba Poemen, saying, ‘Is it good to pray?’ The old man said that Abba Anthony said, ‘This word comes from the mouth of the Lord, who said, “Comfort, comfort my people.”’
It is a question which is often asked, in one form or another: what good is there in prayer? Why, exactly do we pray? It is not as if God needs us to pray to know our wants and needs, so why does he make us pray? Likewise, when we pray and do not get what ask, it often seems as our time in prayer was useless What good, then, is there to be had in prayer when God does not need us to pray and it seems as if we get nothing from it when we pray? We end up disappointed. From that disappointment we risk falling into accidie, so that someone who might have started with good intentions finds themselves turning away from prayer.
Abba Poemen, when asked about prayer, answered with Anthony’s quotation from Scripture: “Comfort, comfort my people” (cf. Isa. 40:1). By these words it is implied that prayer is, in some fashion or another, for our comfort.
What comfort do we receive in prayer?
First, we are able to enter into the presence of God. Here, God is able to provide himself as the source and foundation of all that is good, including our comfort, so long as we open up to him and receive him and his blessing in our lives. Prayer is a means by which we do this. God opens a space for us so we can encounter him person to person; in that space, God is there, opening himself to us, not only listening to us, but desiring to hear from us all our heart’s desire, because he loves us and wants us to reveal all who we are to him in that conversation. The more we speak, the more we reveal, the more we open ourselves up to him and find ourselves able to receive his comforting presence in our life. We speak, then we should pause and be silent, engaging God in that silence, finding him in that silence, so that we can be comforted by him as we engage him in a bond which is beyond all words.
Prayer is a means of comfort, then, because it brings is into conversation with God, bringing us into his presence with the realization that he wants to hear from us speaking to him from the depths of our heart. In opening up to God in this fashion, we open ourselves up to God, allowing us to find that his presence not only as something external to us, but as something which comes within our very being, dwelling in us, within our very heart, in relation to how much room we made for him in and through our prayer. Even as he opens up space for us, we are to open up space within for him so that when we speak, we can reveal our true self, our true desires, opening our hearts to him. Then he comes to us as the beloved, listening to us, uniting with us; then, it is said, we participate in the divine nature with its uncontestable beatitude.
Nonetheless, the comfort which is suggested by Scripture is not to be seen individualistically, but aimed at the people of God as a whole. While our prayer is personal, it should not be done for selfish gain. The comfort we receive should inspire us to take the grace which we have been given and share it with others, helping them experience the comfort which we have received. Likewise, we pray for them, for their own comfort, for their own aid; we lift it up to God, and in response, he often inspires us to be the vessel of his response, to his hands and arms in the world, bringing to others receive the comfort which they need. By opening up to God, we find ourselves uniting to him and his purpose for the world. We receive the means from God, the grace, which we need to help others. Strengthened by our contact with God, so we can go out in the world and bring his comfort to all the peoples of the world. We are called to become imitators of Christ, to take the presence of God. This is a way in which we help him heal the damage sin has caused in the world. We become instruments of healing grace; obviously, inasmuch as we are human with limitations, there will be limits to what we can and will do, but this should not stop us from taking the fruit of our prayer into the world, working with the poor, the wounded, the oppressed, finding a way to bring them the love which they have lacked in their lives so that they can receive some element of comfort as a result. We pray, we encounter God, and this makes us ready to bring his comfort to the world. Without such grace, we might still be able to do so, but we will find what we do is limited; with the comfort of God’s presence in our lives, we will find more of the strength which we need to push on, bringing more and greater comfort to all because we will find ourselves filled with the peace of God within our lives.
Prayer is not for some private, quietest good, but for the sake of all. Certainly, we will need time for ourselves; we need rest; once we have attained it, we should not become spiritual gluttons, taking it all in without sharing it with others. We should always act in love, thinking of our neighbor, working to bring them comfort by sharing the comfort which we have received; when we grow spiritually weak and poor, we will need to focus on our prayer once again, but once we have received our fill, we shall share it again with others. In this fashion, we will find ourselves growing greater, for the more we give out the better we will become in receiving. We will find ourselves establishing a communion of love that brings an overabundance of graces in the world.
The good of prayer, therefore, is found in the presence and union with God which is achieved in meditational silence. It is the comfort and grace of God which enters into us and spreads throughout the world, giving comfort to God’s people. If we stop this by our selfishness, our prayer itself will not be true prayer, and truly, the good of such prayer can be questioned.
[Image=Friar in Prayer by Francis Bourgeois [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 179.
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