Whenever I get into a conversation about prayer, ultimately the question arises, “Do you really think we can change God’s mind?” As mortals, it does seem supremely arrogant to entertain the thought that our wishes and desires move the hand of our omniscient God. We are instructed to pray “Thy will be done” but also to give our petitions to Him, as he loves us and desires to hear from us. (St. Matthew 6)
I don’t have all the answers about the incredible mystery of prayer, but what I have discovered are dimensions to prayer, like a multifaceted diamond. It's not as linear and simple as I used to think.
One of those dimensions involves the heart of the person praying: “The prayers of the righteous avail much.” (James 5) speaks to that aspect. But what has been driven home for me lately is the facet of obedience as related to our prayer life.
It’s not just a matter of praying for someone or a situation; it’s the obedience of praying. It’s the praying when we don’t feel like it, when we feel dry and distant from God. It’s the act of praying, that communion and worship of God that is both healing and cleansing to us.
I read a story recently, in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, that illustrates my point [paraphrased] :
One of the monks came to his abba and asked him saying, "Abba, I feel nothing when I read the Bible or pray." So he told the monk to go to his cell and read the Bible and pray for 40 days. The monk returned after the 40 days and said, “I feel nothing”. So abba told him to read & pray for another 40 days. After 40 days, the monk returned and said again, “I do not feel anything”. Then abba said to take a basket, fill it up with water and return it to him. However, because of the weave, the water would not stay in, but drain through the bottom.
The monk tried many times to fill the basket with water but it would empty completely before reaching his destination. So he came to his abba saying, "I could not get the water to stay in the basket." So abba asked him saying, "Was there a difference in the basket before you put in the water and after?” And the monk replied, “Every time I put the water in, and it would drain, the basket gets washed and becomes whiter.”
So the abba said, "This is right, every time we pray, without noticing, our souls are being cleaned and when we read the Bible, even if we do not understand it at the time, it is purifying us without realizing it."