"All I Can Do Is Pray"
“All I can do now is pray.”
How many times have we heard this from others and also said it ourselves? It is
true: ALL we can do is pray...but that is not how this is usually
Usually, there is a sigh, a shrug of the shoulders and then, “Well, all I can do
now is pray” after we have turned to every worldly solution which man has
to offer for whatever problem may be facing us: troubled marriage, illness, rebellious
children, trouble at work or school, misunderstandings between friends or family,
etc. Although it is not the intention of the one who uses this expression, it comes
across as, “Well, I, in my great knowledge, vast abilities
and wisdom, have done everything possible to solve this and nothing has worked;
so, Lord, maybe, just maybe, You can do something. I have exhausted all my resources
and now have no where else to turn.”
The truth is that ALL we can do is pray. It is the most powerful
thing that we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world. If we
keep God before ourselves at all times and turn to Him immediately in all situations,
we are truly keeping the right order. It, however, does not mean that we just sit
back and do nothing. No. We have to enter into that synergy with God—man reaching
up from earth and God leaning down from heaven. We definitely have to do our part,
but we need to turn our “check list” of how to handle situations around: first turn
to God, then, with Him ever in our hearts and on our lips, seek help from the means
that He has given us. The hard part is to put it all in God’s hands first and then
work with Him.
One example of this is something that is seen in Orthodox countries, particularly
in churches that have the full relics of one of the saints. Students come into the
church very early in the morning before classes to venerate the relics and pray
before them, especially on the day of a difficult exam. Surely, the student has
studied hard for the exam, but he/she knows that without the Lord’s help, it is
in vain. Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it: except
the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain (Ps. 128:1).
Elder Cleopa always counseled people, “When your mother, your child, your husband,
anyone, is sick, first call the priest, not the doctor!” The Church has prayers
for everything imaginable, and those prayers are very effectual. Turn to those prayers
first, then proceed. If you are building a house there is a prayer for beginning
this project; traveling—there are prayers; studying—there are prayers... One way
in which we witness the benefit of those prayers right here at the Monastery involves
our flock of free-range chickens: many of the people who live nearby ask us why
the chickens have not fallen prey to these the many predators that roam the surrounding
forest. The answer: every year, on the feast of St. Blaise, protector of domestic
animals, we process to the henhouse with the priest, singing the troparion of the
hieromartyr, and the flock is blessed. If, at some point a hen or two “disappear”
(which has happened about three times in six years), we keep the rest of the flock
locked in their pen for a few weeks, while we continue to pray to St. Blaise to
again protect them.
Pray first, then employ other means, but while keeping your main focus on God.
Actual prayer is one part of a “little holy trinity”; it is not isolated into only
asking (often telling) God to fulfill our request. The other two members
of this small trinity are fasting and giving alms. In traditionally Orthodox countries,
it is very common to encounter someone who either makes an offering to a church
or to a person in need, even someone unknown on the street, saying “Please accept
this; my husband/mother/sister/son, is ill/in need of God’s mercy.” Interestingly,
the answer from the recipient is not “thank you”, but rather, “May God receive.”
This is very definitely a part of prayer to God to have mercy on the loved one.
That offering is a sacrifice and is the second part of the “ALL I can do is pray.”
Offering a sacrifice, both in thanksgiving, as well as in petition in prayer is
most certainly Biblical. In the Old Testament, the sacrifice was always a young
animal which was purely spotless. What more precious sacrifice has there ever been
in all the history of man than the Lord Himself sacrificing Himself upon the Cross
for our salvation? When we pray from our hearts to God, asking Him to help either
ourselves or a loved one, we must also offer whatever sacrifice we can. This is
a pouring out of oneself, which the Lord certainly accepts. Whatever that sacrifice
of alms consists of (financial, material, labor, etc), it must be something that
is truly a sacrifice, and not simply from our surplus.
The third part of that “small trinity” is fasting. When we or a loved one are in
great need of God’s mercy, we pray, sacrifice, and in addition to the regularly
prescribed fasting days and season, we add an additional fast. Many monastic elders
counsel people who are in such need to add Mondays as a fasting day, or to fast
totally each day until noon.
This fasting and almsgiving, together with prayer, also helps us to be more aware
of our own sins. The holy fathers tell us that misfortune, trials, illness, etc.
befall us for one of three reasons: either from the devil to lead us away from God;
from God Himself to wake us up and redirect us where we belong; or from our own
sins. We have lost the notion in our modem society to ever believe that something
has happened to us because of our own doing or fault; it is always someone else’s
fault, never our own. The truth is that not only do our sins bring trials upon ourselves,
but they also can cause others to suffer. All of creation fell and suffered, and
continues to suffer, because of our sins. Our sins have eternal and temporal consequences,
but we also know that through true repentance and confession, these consequences
are lessened and often eliminated.
So, in the midst of trials, need, tribulations, let us first pray, give alms of
sacrifice, and fast, looking at our own sins, as we beseech God to grant what is
good and needful for our own souls, for our loved ones, for the world. God does
indeed answer these prayers... but not always the way that we want. His ways are
certainly not our ways, and our understanding cannot begin to fathom or comprehend
God’s judgments. When His answer to our petitions is not what we want it to be,
we must still trust in His mercy and judgment, giving thanks always. If we but look
back in our own lives and see those times when it seemed that God did not
answer our prayer as we wanted, we can almost always see that He did indeed answer
it as we needed for our salvation.
A broken and contrite heart, God will not despise. When we turn to God
first and keep Him before ourselves throughout our lives, especially in
times of trial, in humility acknowledging that without Him we can do nothing,
then He truly does not abandon us. Indeed, let us remember that ALL
we can do is pray: before, during and after a task; before, during and
after a trial; all our life long, putting our full trust in God.
So let us continue in that synergy reaching up toward God, beseeching His mercy,
help and guidance, as He leans down to take our outstretched hand and lead us along
the path of peace.
From The Veil, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Great Lent/Pascha, 2006). The Veil
is a publication of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Monastery. Free subscriptions
to The Veil are available by writing or calling the convent: 2343 County
Road 403, Lake George, CO 80827; 719-748-3999. Posted on 1/2/2007 with the permission
of the convent.