"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 said.
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 Gods 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 Lords 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 (Feb. 11), 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 elses 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 Gods 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.