Of all the Christian spiritual disciplines, prayer is the most difficult for me, at least as I have come to understand the practice. We are commanded to pray, and taught to pray by the Scriptures, most notably by Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Our Father..."
And our pastors and leaders exhort us, telling us to pray, and from time to time they even give us a glimpse of what prayer looks like, earnest and transparent before the throne of God, offering praise, asking for divine help, confessing sin.
But still, prayer remains difficult. Is God listening? Is his ear inclined to my prayers? Are my prayers, in effect, answered? Are "no," "yes," and "wait" the full range of responses God may offer? Could it be that the conversation is the end, and not the outcome or the result? Might it be that simply entering God's presence is enough? Could it be that prayer has other outcomes, other purposes, other transformative ends in the life of the faithful person, beyond the thrills of a spiritual experience, beyond the chiseling of character, or the witnessing of God's sovereign acts in accordance with our supplications? Or could it be that prayer is all of these, and more? That the facets, the effects of prayer are beyond our imagining? The privilege itself is ineffable.
Here is a story that may capture one meaning, one end of prayer.
I once heard a wise elder relay a story of a young monk who had become frustrated by the practice of prayer. He approached an older monk, his spiritual mentor, and asked, "What does prayer do? I am tired of praying! Prayer doesn't accomplish anything!"
Instead of offering a theological rebuttal, the older monk simply said, "Here is my basket, woven together and made of straw. Please, take this down to the river and fill it with water, and return it to me."
Again and again, the young monk filled the basket. And time after time, the basket slowly drained as he made his way back to the monastery. Finally, the young monk returned to his master, basket in hand.
"Each time I attempted to return, the water ran through the basket. I attempted to do as you had asked, but to no avail," said the young monk.
"Look inside the basket," the older monk offered. "What do you see?"
The younger monk replied, "When I began, the basket was lined with dirt and a trace of filth, but now, the dirt has been removed. It is clean."
The older monk then said, "This is what prayer does. It cleans."
As you pray, remember, God may be at work exposing dirt and rinsing it away. The work may be slow and tedious and gradual. Your patience may wear thin. But take heart. Return again and again to the Water of Life.
Let him cleanse you.