Prayer can come in many forms, but what is important is to realize, when we engage private prayer with God, it is often best to be simple and straightforward. We don’t need to use many words, as Jesus explained: “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7 RSV). Indeed, we just need to reach out and simply ask for God’s help. We don’t need to go into details, as St. Macarius explained:
Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hand and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer say, “Lord, help!” He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.’
Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, Lord help! That is all we need. At any time, at any place, whenever we feel the need for God’s help in our life, we can and should just ask for it. We don’t need to lecture God. We don’t need to go into details, explaining why we need such help, thinking by doing so, we will more likely get it. We don’t need to go to God in prayer as if we are making a bargain with him, telling us that if he helps us with what we want now, we will do something for him in the future. God knows what we need. If we ask for his help, he is willing to give it.
But, some might ask, if God knows what we need, why does he need us to pray to him at all? Why doesn’t he just give us what we need when we need it? He often does give us what we need, when we need it, even when we do not ask for it; God’s providence is looking after us and our own good. But he has also makes room for us, so we can have some role in how he works with and interacts with us. He has given us free will. If everything is given to us, without our asking, then our own freedom will be undermined. He has given us a space to act, a space to make of ourselves what we will, and he will not invade that space. He will give us help, if we ask it, but he will not force himself upon us; he will not override that freedom. If what he would do would completely override that freedom, he will not do it.
Nonetheless, Macarius, in our passage here, is speaking especially to his fellow monks, to those whom he guides as a father, looking for their own spiritual development. He used his wisdom to help those who, like him, came to the desert, came to fight against their own inner demons, their own wickedness and evil inclinations. They were interested in knowing how they should address God in their struggles. On the one hand, they wanted to attain some sort of victory for themselves, and they wanted to do it as much as possible by their own efforts, but on the other hand, they realized they could not do it all by themselves. Their struggles would be too much without God’s help, but too much help, and it would no longer be their work, their effort, but solely the work of God. That would mean, they would not have attained any victory, and if God’s aid was removed from them, they would find all their demons come back at them, overcoming them and turning them away from the victory they thought they had attained.
God wants us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, that is, he wants us to cooperate with and work with him, so that our own agency is involved in our own salvation. He does not want to do all things for us, but he is willing to help us when we cannot accomplish things ourselves. He also wants us to know ourselves, to know what we can do by ourselves and what we cannot. Then, when we have ascertained our weaknesses, we can properly ask God for help, making sure we do not ask for too much or too little. If he always helped us without waiting for us to ask him for it, we would never be able to know ourselves properly, that is, we would not know the limits of what we can or cannot do. Only when we realize our weakness, only when we recognize the full extent of our abilities, will we then be able to know and appreciate ourselves properly (and then better appreciate the grace and aid God has given us in our lives).
Most of us are not called to a religious (ascetic) vocation. Nonetheless, we are all called to struggle daily against temptation, to come to realize who we are, and to realize our own spiritual needs. Like the desert fathers, we need to have the space which God gives us to realize what we can do for ourselves and when we need his help in our lives. We might not be fighting the internal spiritual battle to the same extent as the desert fathers, but it would be impossible for us to live in the world without finding ourselves in the midst of various struggles. Every day we find new struggles, and so every day we are being tested and proved as to what we are like. Thus, James tells us, we should consider our trials, no matter how hard and difficult they might be, as something good, as something we can find joy in because in and through them, not only are we are made better, they help us realize our potential:
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord (Jas. 1:2-8 RSV).
We should desire to be the best we can be. We should seek to fulfil our potential. If we were to rely upon God as a crutch, to do all things for ourselves, that would not be possible. On the other hand, because our potential, however great it is, is limited, when we realize what that potential is, we will better understand what help we need from God and will call him, not when we do not need it, but when we do. Then, when he helps us, it will not be as a crutch, preventing us from attaining our potential; rather, we through it, we will transcend our potential, being lifted up by God to do more than what we could do by ourselves. This is what we must keep in mind. God loves us He wants us to be our best, and he realizes that requires us to do our part. It’s what shapes us and makes us who we can be. Nonetheless, we are not perfect, and the struggles we face will not be easy. When we are going through any difficult time, we must realize, God is there, and all we need to do is say, Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy, and he will act in the way he knows is best.
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 131 [Macarius Saying 19].
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