“Try not to pray against anyone, so that you do not destroy what you are building, and make your prayer loathsome.” – Evagrios the Solitary
Recently, a New Testament scholar/professor/preacher friend posted this quote—without explanation—on his Facebook page. While I had never heard of Evagrios, knowing my friend as I did, I guessed correctly that he was one of those early mystics of the Church, who are known collectively as the Desert Fathers. But that wasn’t what piqued my interest. My immediate question was:
How do you pray against anyone?
What motivated my friend to post this? I cannot conceive how one would even construct such a prayer. Yes, we occasionally hear on the news that some firebrand preacher prayed for the death and destruction of someone he considered an enemy of God or the Church or the nation. And, yes, we can find examples in the Old Testament, notably King David and some of the prophets. But Jesus said,
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Before I started feeling too self-righteous about my prayer life, I reflected on my own track record. Too often I have treated God as my own personal celestial bellhop—there when I needed Him to carry out my wishes. I wrote about it in the prologue of my almost-finished book, RECLAIMING JOY.
In the Valley of the Shadow of Death
In those dark, early morning hours after Lev’s death, I found comfort in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In the month that followed, I re-read it, a few verses at a time, along with the Psalms and the Gospel of John. In those moments, I found a peace that I could not find anywhere else.
I would like to claim that my adult life has always included formal daily prayer and meditation, but it has not. I have used God too often as a celestial bellhop, calling in my orders only when my human efforts fail. I am no mystic; but in times of great stress and deep anxiety, I turn to Christian meditation—a blending of Western faith traditions with Eastern techniques. On those rare occasions, I have experienced the profound presence and peace of God.
I first practiced meditation in about 1976. My mother gave me a copy of the recently published New English Bible, a British translation; and I was captivated by the elegance of the language. I read the New Testament chapter by chapter, and in about forty days I reached Mark 11:22–24.
Have faith in God. I tell you this: if anyone says to this mountain, “Be lifted from your place and hurled into the sea”, and has no inward doubts, but believes that what he says is happening, it will be done for him. I tell you, then, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.
The changes in verb tenses in that translation—is happening…you have received it—made all the difference to me. I learned to pray with thanksgiving rather than anxiety, claiming God’s promise that He would do what He had said. After a year of thanking God daily for what He was doing, I saw my prayer answered in a very visible, public way.
God went back to being my bellhop—there for me when my parents died in the eighties—until September 1995, when Lev’s mother Helen was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer. A month later I fell while crossing the street and broke my foot. I was confined to a cast and wheelchair through the Holidays. A fog of depression settled over our house. I announced that I was canceling Christmas. When Lev came home each evening from the office, he reminded me of the cartoon character Joe Btfsplk, Li’l Abner’s friend and jinx, who always walked around Dogpatch with a dark cloud looming over his head. Lev’s grief was contagious. I sank deeper and deeper into depression.
When my cast was finally removed and I could walk and drive again, I went to the bookstore and searched the shelves of the self-help section. I bought every book on meditation that I could find. Each morning after Lev went to work, I sat at my desk, working my way through the Psalms, the Gospel of John and Philippians. I journaled for the first time. I prayed. Late each afternoon, to prepare myself for the gloom that would re-enter the house when Lev returned, I went downstairs to our shadowy living room, assumed the classic lotus position of yoga and practiced deep breathing with “Je-sus” as my mantra, while my mind conjured up images of peace and serenity. The Twenty-Third Psalm took on new meaning:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
I was transposed from a spiritual desert to a green oasis, where I could rest and where my soul was nourished. No matter that the image in my mind’s eye was the small lake at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, surrounded by the green grass of the golf course, Cheyenne Mountain reflected in the water, the silence broken by the music of the carillon wafting down from the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. There, in memory, my soul still finds peace.
Helen died in March, and less than a month later our daughter gave birth to her first child. Joy replaced gloom, and God slipped back into His role as bellhop. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, heart and lung disease began to weaken Lev. He was the eternal optimist and a fighter. He never acknowledged the prognosis. He went to the office every day. We continued to travel right up to September 2008.
On New Year’s morning 2009, I called 911, Lev was admitted to the hospital and the final battle began. One evening he had a Code Blue. ICU was full of pneumonia patients, so there was no bed there for him. The kind young hospitalist on duty advised me to spend the night in his hospital room. Alone in the room with Lev, I was inexplicably at peace. I knew, as surely as if I had seen a spirit walk through the door, that God had sent His Comforter to us.
As I reclined in the big chair beside Lev’s bed, listening to the sounds of his breathing, the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm again flitted into my consciousness. This time, though, different verses spoke to my heart:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
I knew then with calm certainty that we were entering the valley of the shadow of death and that God had sent the Comforter to walk beside us on this journey. I had always interpreted King David’s psalm to refer to his own near-death encounters. Now it spoke to me too. I would walk through this valley. I had to enter it with Lev, but I would come out the other end without him, for his journey would take him to a different place. I would be irreversibly changed, but I had a sure confidence that I would survive.
Today, I don’t ask God for much…mainly for His forgiveness, mercy and blessings—for myself, for those I love, for those who suffer, for my church, for my country. Most often I simply say, Thank you.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Photo by Andrew Coelho for StockSnap.io.