Prayer in the Orthodox Church
“He who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne”
(St John Chrysostom, PG 48, 767).
In the Orthodox Church prayer is the elevation of the mind and the heart to God in praise, in thanksgiving, and in petition for the spiritual and material goods we need. Our Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to enter into our inner room and there pray to God the Father in secret. This inner room means the heart, the core of our being. The Apostle Paul says that we must always pray in our spirit. He commands prayer for all Christians without exception and asks us to pray unceasingly.
Orthodox Christians engage in both corporate and personal prayer. One’s individual prayer life is balanced with participation in the liturgical services of the Church where the whole community gathers for prayer and worship.
Why do we Pray?
First of all, Christ asks us to pray. He tells us in the Gospel of Luke, How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13). We pray so that God can help us to become more like Him in our actions. We also pray for our renewal and the growth of our soul. We pray to give thanks to God for all he provides for us. It is essential that we also pray to seek forgiveness for our sinfulness as humility is a prerequisite for prayer. We can also pray to seek help for others as well as ourselves. But we must not forget to pray for His help in our own spiritual growth. This is not selfish, but essential for us to better love and serve others and carry out God’s commandments. We can ask also for His help in supporting us in the various ascetic practices we choose to undertake to help purify our inner being. We are asked to pray without ceasing. Here are the Scripture references to this idea:
Pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17)
Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit (Eph 6:158) He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1) Our life is to become one of a constant prayer where we are continually in a relationship with God. This is our main task, to draw nearer to God. Saint Isaac of Syria says that it is impossible to draw near to God by any means other than unceasing prayer.
How Do We Pray?
“Prayer needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.” St. Meletius the Confessor St Isaac the Syrian says we should:• Pray with attention – so that we can have a true encounter with God
• Pray with humility – because this sort of prayer goes straight to God’s ear
• Pray with affection and tears – with joy and thanksgiving, but also with true repentance and purity.
• Pray with patience and ardour – ‘to deny oneself’ is courageously to persevere in prayer.
• Pray from the depths of the heart – even if we pray using ‘the words of another’ they should be uttered as if they are our own. St. Isaac says this is especially true of the Psalms.
• Pray with faith and absolute trust in God – because He knows our life.
A Regular Time
First, you need to establish a regular time to pray. You should have as a minimum a time in the morning and a time in the evening. With our busy lives this means you will have to make some conscious changes to make time for prayer. Pick a time that you know you can keep no matter what. Strict discipline in this is important. The length of time is something that only you can determine in consultation with your spiritual father. You prayer time should not be less than ten minutes in the morning and then again in the evening. Your time in prayer will grow as your relationship with God grows. At first you will find it a struggle to maintain what seem like a simple discipline as there are negative forces that will try and keep you from regular prayer. But, there will come a time when you can’t wait for the time to pray. Expect a struggle in the beginning to maintain a strict schedule. As the popular saying goes, “Just do it!” Think of all the other things in your life that you do routinely like getting to work of school on time, or personal hygiene acts like brushing your teeth. Surely you can also make prayer a fixed routine.
A Private Place
Next, you need to find a quiet private place where you will not be disturbed for your daily prayer. This may be a corner in the bedroom (a room divider can help make a special place), space in a walk-in closet, or, if you are fortunate to have an extra room, a special room that is only for prayer. It needs to be a place where you can be undisturbed and alone. Once you choose the place, you should set up a small home icon stand. On it place an icon of Christ, Theotokos, and your patron saint. Have an oil lamp or candle that you can light while you pray. Also an incense burner, a cross and a prayer book and Bible.
With a regular time and a special place, you are ready to begin. You begin praying by focusing your consciousness in your heart and forcibly gathering there all the powers of the soul and body. Take the time at the beginning of your prayer time to quiet your body and to concentrate your energies in your heart. Christ says, “Enter into thy closet and … shut thy door” (Matt 6:6). Remove all activities that could disrupt your inner descent. Set aside, to the best of your ability, all of your problems of the day and your worries for tomorrow. This is not a time for thinking or worrying. When you are preparing to pray, stand, sit or walk a few minutes and steady your mind to concentrate on God.
Reflect on who it is that you will be addressing. Remember, it is God Himself who you are about to talk with. Try to bring about a feeling of humility and reverent awe. Make some prostrations before you begin.
You should have a specific rule for both morning and evening. Don’t try and wing it. You are developing a discipline that is beyond what you will feel like doing. This is not a relaxation exercise but a path to be in communion with your God. You will need to have a specific set of guidelines that you follow each time with no excuses for shortcutting them. In your rule, incorporate standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, reading, and at times singing. Use prayer books and written prayers. The Orthodox prayer books are filled with prayers that have been well tested and used for hundreds of years.
Prayer does not have to be a creative activity. You must be sincere. Keep your awareness in your heart and concentrate on the words of the prayer. Once you establish a rule, always keep it. Be sure to work with your spiritual Father on this.
As you begin to pray enter into every word of the prayer. Bring the meaning of the words down into your heart. Do not rush through the prayers like you are in a hurry to get them over with. Let them slowly drop into the depths of your heart with humility and awe of God. Its like in driving a car. When you are going 90 miles per hour down the highway the driver may feel powerful and in control. But at high speeds things can go wrong fast. When driving at a speed of twenty-five miles per hour the car handles easy and if someone makes a dangerous maneuver you can easily avoid it. Well, the mind works the same way. We want to train it to slow down so we can open our heart to God’s presence. So, in prayer we say the words slowly so we can gain the meaning of them and allow them to penetrate our consciousness and to bring to our heart feelings of love and reverence for our God. Let the words drop individually into your heart like pebbles dropping into a pond. You will eventually find the right pace for yourself. Beware of the tendency to rush to complete them hurriedly. When this happens you have turned your prayer into an obligation and it is no longer true prayer. Don’t worry if you catch your self doing this. It is normal at first. Just stop and slow down and proceed asking God’s forgiveness and help.
Also, study the prayers before you use them so you know the meaning of each word. Eventually you will want to memorize them. After you begin to recite your prayers you will find that your mind will want to wander. Don’t be concerned about this as this is natural due to the forces that do not want us to pray to God. Work to learn to concentrate your attention. When you mind wanders, be gentle with yourself and go back and recite again what you said while your mind was elsewhere. Bring yourself to concentrate on the words of the prayer. Sometimes it helps to say them out loud for a while. The mind is quite adept at being able to have you do more than one thing at a time. You need to bring yourself to a single focus on God. These wanderings of the mind show you the dimensions of your busy life that you need to find ways to make quieter so you can be always mindful of God. Prayer it is not time to focus on these worldly activities, because this will only further distract you from prayer. Work to concentrate your attention more and more. Each day you will gain in your attentiveness during prayer.
When you finish your prayers, stand for a few moments. Consider to what your prayer life commits you.
Try to hold in your heart what has been given to you. Treasure it for a few moments.
Remember to make your prayer life one that is a firm rule and not something that is done occasionally or sporadically. It must be done each day morning and evening at a minimum. You need to have specific prayers that are part of your prayer rule. You need to commit to doing you rule each and every day.
Think about certain personal hygiene tasks such as brushing your teeth that you do each day out of habit . You don’t forget to do them each day. The same needs to be with your prayer rule. You need to make prayer a similar habit that you never forget. Just like the hygiene activities that we do for the health of our body, prayer is essential for the health of our soul.