When Prayer Is a Problem

Ranks of lit beeswax candles in a church

Editor’s note: Today’s blog entry is from a friend who is baring her heartfelt struggles with prayer. We’re presenting her piece because we know that almost everyone has gone through rocky periods in their relationship with God. Or if you haven’t yet, you might some day.


We are instructed to pray daily, preferably morning and evening--and all the time, if possible.  I was born into an Orthodox family and was baptized as an infant. I am a lifelong churchgoer and graduated with a master’s degree from a seminary. And yet I have always had a hard time with this practice. I find taking even 5 to 15 minutes of formal prayer terribly difficult.  Almost insurmountable.

In struggling with this lack in my life, I have tried to approach it in my usual way: through reading.  Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who wrote brilliantly on the subject, helps me to see several of the difficulties I experience. For one, he says at the start of his book Beginning to Pray, that there are times when prayer may come easily: “When God breaks through to us … in certain exceptional circumstances, either because things suddenly disclose themselves with a depth we have never before perceived or when we suddenly discover in ourselves a depth where prayer abides and out of which it can gush forth, there is no problem with prayer. When we are aware of God, we stand before Him, worship Him, speak to Him.” But on the other hand, there is “…one very important problem: the situation of one for whom God seems to be absent.”

That last sentence sums up one of my difficulties with prayer—when I find it hard to connect with God’s actual presence.  Adding to that, Metropolitan Anthony speaks about our needing to develop a “relationship with God.” To have a relationship with anybody, you must open your heart and mind to the other.  Lower your walls and defenses, invite the other to share your deepest thoughts and feelings.  So that is another problem for me.  I can’t remember a time when I have ever let down my guard, before anyone. I feel as though I hide behind a variety of masks and facades.  Even within my own family I am inevitably “daughter,” “wife,” “mother,” or “cousin.” All those identities bring expectations to fulfill.  Outside of the family, I feel that I must present a perfect front. But that’s not something that works with God.  I am well aware that He sees into the depths of my being. He’s my creator and the One who holds my life in His hand: He can see through falseness.

Another difficulty I have with prayer is that I am lazy, undisciplined, and impatient.  I want an instant response! In dealing with the rest of the world, I can put up with the chatter and get through a few minutes of necessary interchange, relying on my “social” face. But how do I address God when He seems to be absent, and I find myself standing guilty before the place He should be?

I could turn to the usual prayer books. They seem to work for other people. But I run into problems with the standard formal language of Orthodox prayers.  All the “art’s,” “thou’s,” and “abide’s.” Is there anyone who still speaks that way? Those standard archaisms do not reflect an authentic way of speaking for me. Rhetorical hyperbole just doesn’t work in the 21st century.

Besides: although I recognize that I fall short all the time--that I am a sinner--the language of the prayer books, that constantly begs God to not be angry at me, is (to me) all wrong.  Set prayers, then, are difficult.  I can’t speak of “my unworthy mouth,” and even worse, “behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

I can’t even honestly confess that “I have never done anything good in Thy sight.” I know that because of His Love and Grace and through the help of my Angels and prayers of my parents, I have done some good things (recognizing that was never by myself, for all Christians work in community).  God, I completely believe is LOVE, all merciful, all knowing, all forgiving.  I don’t believe that He gets angry with me.  He most likely will send an Angel to kick me in the butt every now and then. He will allow my lazy behavior to catch up with me. He will let me suffer the illness and problematic situations brought on by my poor choices. But every day I see His mercy and love towards me. They appear in so many kindnesses that come my way, totally undeserved, totally not earned. Pure Grace. 


Even without a regular, set prayer rule, I recognize that I do find scattered ways to connect with God. In the presence of overwhelming God-created beauty or totally alone with my thoughts (often when doing long-distance driving), I have been overtaken by God and feel a sense of tremendous gratitude and awe.  I receive moments of grace during Liturgy or Vespers when the words of prayers take on amazing depth and beauty and importance and my heart melts into the service. But these are rare gifts. 

I have “fallen prostrate in despair” from time to time, and have struggled with depression throughout my life. I do know that everything is temporary and, again, recognize God’s helping hand. 

But I continue the struggle. I have a habit of mentally asking for God’s mercy, or forgiveness, or thanksgiving – brief shots into the silent void.  I occasionally manage a short season praying Psalms (whose poetic beauty overcomes my condemnation of archaic language!). I sometimes hear the Lord and his answers in books. My struggle to pray must continue and--with God’s help--improve. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Tatiana (Tanya) Penkrat is a graduate of Skidmore with a BA in English literature and an MDiv from St. Vladimir's Seminary.  She has done many things throughout her life: working for Radio Liberty, doing graphic design, remodeling an old stable in Tuxedo Park, gardening, owning and running a flower shop, and coordinating events for SVS.  She has 4 children and 6 grandchildren.  Walking and hiking in woodlands and reading are her two favorite pastimes, as well as attending concerts and opera at Lincoln Center.

Tanya Penkrat