What is the relationship between prayer and conversion?
Part I: Before Conversion
Whoever knows himself to be in the depths [that is lost in sin] cries out with groans and sighs until he is delivered from the depths..until [God’s] own image, that image which is man, is freed by God. Unless he is made anew and aright by God, he will remain in the depths… In order that men might not live even worse off through despair, God promised a safe harbor of forgiveness. Further, that they might not live the worse from hope of pardon, God made man’s date with death uncertain.
from St. Augustine Answers 101 Questions on Prayer by Fr. Ermatinger.
The life of man before he has found God can be described as one drowned in sin; he has imbibed deeply of the waters of death, filled his lungs, and forced out the breath of God. Such a sorry state of man is typical of Augustinian pessimism, but it is not one to be taken as despair of the condition of man, a so-called state of depravity as latter false commentators would do. Rather, it must be balanced by Augustine’s understanding of man as image of God – that even in the depths of sin, and fully submerged, that this image, impressed upon him at his creation, remains. It is this impression that cries out from the very heart of man that he is drowned; that this state is not what should be, nor what might last forever. It is from this lame cry that utters forth, that man begins to seek not just his Creator, but his Savior. Man’s desire, that longing in his heart, is not just to see the face of the One who made him, but to be made aright, made anew, to throw off the old man, to resuscitate the drowned man. For it is only in being saved from sin, from himself, from the abyss that is between himself and the air of the Spirit, that man will be able to have the Spirit dwell within him, be wed to the Son, and see the face of the Father.
Man cannot save himself; he cannot fill his waterlogged lungs with air any more than he could inflate his lungs and create himself. Only God can do this, yet man can cry out to Him, for the image of God cries out as like to like. The image retains the promise that God created man in love; to know, love, and serve him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next. This is the hope of the possibility of forgiveness, that man might breathe the breath of the Spirit again, and a bulwark against despair driving his actions to further depths. Yet the fulfillment of this hope is conditioned on man turning to God and living the life of the Spirit. God may give all things to man, but man is still free to remain in the depths and fill his lungs anew. This is why the hour of his death is uncertain. The time for accounting will come and it will be known if man lived his life, in the depths, or lived the life of God, breathing freely.
Adieu!, Alfred Guillou, 1892