“The brethren also asked [Abba Agathon], ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?’ He answered, ‘Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a [person] wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a [person] undertakes, if [she] perseveres in it, [she] will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.'” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 21-22.
I’m not sure that prayer is always so intense, but it can be and there is a great deal to learn from what Abba Agathon says in this story. Too often, we underestimate the difficulty of prayer, and we find ourselves discouraged by the many distractions and temptations that in fact beset us, when we try to give more of our attention to God. Metaphors of vigilance and warfare are found in the Bible. “Could you not keep watch one hour?” Jesus asks his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood,” says the author of Hebrews.
And yet, this vigilance, this “warfare to the last breath” is only part of the story. Our fundamental choice, empowered by the ever present Holy Spirit, is whether or not to turn our faces toward the Author of Life. Letting go is among the easiest and the hardest things we ever do. The demons Abba Agathon is talking about are far more powerful than we. I’m not one for complete reductionism here, but often language about the demonic points to self-destructive parts of ourselves. (It can also signify overwhelming social forces.) God may require our cooperation to win the battle, but the battle does belong to the Lord. Agathon is filled with insight when he notes that the demons would like nothing more than to keep us from prayer. For ultimately, only the living God–only the strange, weak power of Christ Crucified–can disarm these powers and bring us out of the house of bondage and into the promised land.
And so, we keep our eyes turned to the Divine Mercy as we persevere in prayer. May we do so to our last breath.