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Prayer in the Orthodox Christian Spiritual Life

Prayer is one’s communion with God, and communion with God is a state of unceasing prayer. We saw in the article on faith and works that salvation is not merely to be pardoned or acquitted of sin, but to be healed of it and thereby restored to the ability to live in communion with God. Thus, if prayer is one’s communion with God, then one is saved to the extent that he prays, in the Spirit and in truth. To be saved is to be made able to pray, and to progress in the zeal and piety of one’s rule of prayer. The Fathers of the Church, therefore, have defined prayer not merely as something a Christian does, but as something a Christian becomes: as he progresses toward sainthood, a Christian’s every thought, word, and deed becomes prayer, and a manifestation of his communion with God.

Prayer as Communal Worship

The first thing that one who seeks God must understand about prayer is that he does not yet know how to pray. He must learn to do it, patiently and over many years. If prayer is one’s communion with God, and if sin is the inability to commune with God, then we see that true prayer is precisely that which we sinners have been unable to do and have never known. With the blossoming of repentance in the heart of the Christian and his first steps in the spiritual life, then, he must approach prayer as a skill and an art to be learned. By practicing and cultivating this art he will progressively receive true prayer of the heart, as a gift by the grace of God the Holy Spirit. The gift of prayer is the fruit born by our progress in theosis, the journey through which we become more and more Christ-like.

It is in the communal worship of the Liturgy and the other services of the Church that the art of prayer is learned. Why has the Church repeated the same Liturgy, the same hymns, the same Scripture readings, the same prayers, endlessly across two millennia? Certainly not because God needs to be reminded of our petitions on a weekly basis! Rather, the Spirit of God has preserved these prayers in the liturgical life of the Church because they represent the timeless, eternal worship of the Communion of the Saints, and the Way of theosis. They constitute true prayer and our path to the likeness of Christ, where errant and misguided prayers do not — he who seeks communion with God must avoid making an idol out of his own ideas and desires, and seek instead to enter into the true prayer of the Church.

To participate in the Liturgy, the seeker of God must quiet his own thoughts and put the mind of the Church in their place. He must open his mind and heart to God in a spirit of warmth, gratitude, humility, and joy, and in this state of repentance put the words and ideas of the Church’s liturgical prayers in place of the words and ideas that normally occupy his thoughts. This meditative participation in the eternal prayer that unites the Communion of the Saints with God will draw one’s heart near to Him, establishing the spiritual conditions that allow for an experience of the Divine. For it is with the heart that we approach and experience God, Who is infinitely beyond our ideas and reasoning. The human mind cannot apprehend God; but by the grace of the Spirit, the heart can. Prayer is a movement of the heart toward God. The words and ideas of the Church’s canonical prayers serve to guide that movement in the right direction.

Personal Prayer as the Inner Spiritual Life

Keeping a Prayer Rule

Apart from the communal prayer of the Liturgy, the Christian keeps a personal rule of prayer that is modeled on liturgical prayer, and that serves to make the whole of one’s life into an extension of the Liturgy. This rule of prayer is devised according to each Christian’s unique worldly and spiritual circumstances in consultation with his spiritual father (usually one’s priest, though many Orthodox laity establish this relationship with a monk or nun, to whose monastery they make yearly pilgrimages), and is kept in obedience to him. Morning and evening prayers are typically the pillars of a rule of prayer. Then there are the Hours of Prayer: Orthros at 6am (or at sunrise), the First Hour at 7am, the Third Hour at 9am, the Sixth Hour at noon, the Ninth Hour at 3pm, and Vespers at 6pm (or at sunset). If the circumstances of a Christian’s life allow it, his rule of prayer might prescribe the observance of the full canonical prayers for certain of these Hours; if he lacks sufficient time for this, his rule might be to take a only few minutes away from his work to offer a single prayer during each of the Hours, to addresses their particular themes. (At the First Hour with thank God for the physical and spiritual light He provides us. We commemorate the hour of Pentecost at the time it took place, the Third Hour, invoking the Spirit to abide in us throughout the day. Likewise we remember Jesus’ crucifixion each day at the time it occurred — noon, the Sixth Hour — and His death on the cross three hours later, at the Ninth Hour. At Vespers, the Twelfth Hour, we give thanks to Him who came to be a “light unto the Gentiles.”) Through the observance of the Hours we experience these events in the present-tense. Prayer immerses us into each of them as timeless realities — not merely historical facts.

In addition these canonical prayers for fixed times of the day, the Christian seeks to sanctify the “secular” parts of his day through prayer, as well. Orthodox prayerbooks contain prayers to be offered before and after meals, as one begins his daily work and other tasks, and so forth. Social interaction and recreation too should be offered to God in prayer, and kept according to His will. The Christian thus develops his rule of prayer into a continual “conversation” with God: an unceasing movement of the heart toward Him and an offering of each and every aspect of one’s life to Him.

To the spiritual novice, the Christian rule of prayer can seem daunting, if not impossible. Many insist that since they aren’t monks, and because they must address the challenges of working jobs and raising children, they simply don’t have time for it. But the Christian should be praying while he works his job and raises his children, and it is precisely this prayer during the mundane, “secular” parts of his day that keeps him Christ-like in thought, word, and deed as he goes about them. As for canonical prayer at specific times of the day, consider that American Christians could certainly pray as often as they check their e-mail and Facebook accounts, and that if they did so they would have more than enough time to offer all of the prayers described above. If the average American dedicated only a small fraction of the time he spends plugged-in to his television, stereo, and computer to his rule of prayer, that rule would be robust and consistent — God would never be far from his mind and heart. The dedicated Christian ought to have a good many prayers memorized, as well, so that he can offer them in the midst of his daily work, even if he cannot step away from his desk for ten minutes to open a prayerbook. Indeed, the memorization of prayers is essential in making prayer into a part of oneself, in drawing one’s prayer down into the heart, in striving to become prayer. My Daily Orthodox Prayer Book, a compilation by Fr. Anthony Coniaris, contains excellent lists of brief, easily memorized canonical prayers for each of the Hours, and for almost any imaginable part of a Christian’s day. So we mustn’t make excuses! The Christian rule of prayer is well within every person’s wherewithal. As it is kept throughout one’s life, the Spirit of God will raise him ever closer to the obedience of St. Paul’s commandment, that we “pray without ceasing.”

The Jesus Prayer

Essential as well to this ceaseless prayer is what the Orthodox call, “The Jesus Prayer.” Any number of books and articles have been written on this cornerstone of the Orthodox spiritual life, so that we needn’t dwell at length on it here. Briefly, though, the prayer is simply, “Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or one of several variations such as, “Lord Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, bless me, the sinner,” or the simple Greek prayer “Kyrie eleison,” which is most directly translated, “Lord, bless me.” (The Greek word eleison refers to anointing with oil as a means of blessing.) The Jesus Prayer is offered silently and repeatedly, when it isn’t time for prayers at specific times and events. As with all prayer but particularly when it comes to repetition of The Jesus Prayer, the purpose is to inspire an unceasing movement of the heart towards God in joy and gratitude. It is perhaps the single most important tool we have to keep from falling away from communion with God through the course of each day, and to make every thought, word, and deed into sacramental manifestations of that communion.

Prayers of Preparation and Thanksgiving for the Eucharist 

One’s personal rule of prayer should be centered around the Eucharist. The continual cycle of preparation and then thanksgiving for this Sacrament is the basis of the Orthodox spiritual life. Fr. Alexander Schmemann has suggested that prayers of thanksgiving after receiving the Eucharist should be offered for the three days following the Sunday Liturgy — Monday through Wednesday — and then prayers of preparation to receive the Eucharist should be at the center of one’s prayers on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The Orthodox prayerbooks feature collections of these Eucharistic prayers. (For a particularly good such collection, look for An Anthology of Patristic Prayers, edited by Hatzinikolaou.) They are amongst the most poetic, theologically substantive, beautiful prayers in all Christianity.

Prayer as Confronting and Controlling Thoughts

To conclude this introduction to prayer in the Orthodox Christian spiritual life, we must also address what Fr. Anthony Coniaris calls “confronting and controlling thoughts.” Many committed Christians come relatively quickly to a firm (even if not infallible) control over their behavior, and develop the strength of spirit to abstain, more and more successfully, from sinful words and deeds. The next step in the spiritual life, then, and the great arena of Christian spiritual warfare, is to confront sin in one’s thoughts. The Serbian saint Bishop Nicolai Velamirovich explained it as follows.

When the Lord found it right to reprimand the Pharisees and Scribes, they had not at that time killed or deceived or robbed anyone. Not only that: at that time they had offended no one, even by words. Why, then, did He upbraid them, when they had committed no offence either in deed or in word? Because they thought evil thoughts.

And evil thoughts are sin. This is another of those great tidings that Christ brings to the world. It is precisely evil thoughts that are the origin of all sin, for before a man speaks or acts sinfully, he thinks sinfully. Thought is the causative sin; other sins are only resultant sins. He who wishes to exterminate the latter must uproot the former. He who wishes to stop a flow of water must first drain the source.

Let no one, then, justify himself by saying, “I am not a sinner, for I have never killed nor robbed nor profaned nor lied.” For lo, we are all full of murderous, plundering, blasphemous, and deceitful thoughts. If we have not sinned in deed, that is simply a matter of the mercy of God, and external circumstance. Had God slackened His hold and the opportunity presented itself, we would have committed all the sins that were in our thoughts. A snake is not poisonous only when it bites, but also when it does not bite; it carries the poison in itself. So not only is the thought evil; it is the source of sin, the beginning of sin, the seed and root of sin. This is why the all-seeing and all-knowing Lord thus reprimanded those who thought evil: “Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?”

The struggle against sin in one’s thoughts is immensely difficult, especially at the outset. We tend to be fiercely possessive and protective of the private inner worlds of our minds, and are eager to follow our free-associated trains of thought wherever they take us. But such spiritually undisciplined thinking renders one utterly vulnerable to demonic suggestion, and makes the mind into nothing less than the devil’s playground (to make use of the colorful cliché). This is particularly significant for Americans, who have been taught to value individualistic liberty and freedom of choice above all else. Nothing could represent greater defiance of this cultural doctrine than the notion that we must be obedient and submissive even in our private thoughts. It demands far-reaching repentance, meekness, and humility to make oneself accountable unto God and to one’s spiritual father for them.

Never forget Christ’s teaching. “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you […] that whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” “I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Jesus made it clear that sin is committed in one’s thoughts, then, regardless of whether those thoughts are acted upon. So we must be vigilant to keep watch over our thoughts. The Christian ascetic speaks little and avoids noise and distraction, practicing silence so that with sober mind he may be watchful, and observe where his thoughts are led.

We counter sinful thoughts with their Christ-like opposites — this practice is fundamental to the inner, spiritual life. If you find yourself thinking of another, “You fool,” remind yourself that God creates your neighbor in His own image and likeness, and that we love God only as much as we love our enemies. If you catch yourself lusting after another, begin silently to recite the Jesus Prayer, redirect your heart toward God, and remember that Christians are called to love other people, not to use them as objects for their own self-gratification. The opposite of lust is purity of heart and mind, so the Christian who lapses into lustful thoughts must confess this sin and beseech God for purity. Contempt and lust are of course only two examples of many. As we cultivate a personal rule of prayer, growing in theosis and the likeness of Christ, the Christ-like opposites of sinful thoughts become ever more firmly established in our minds. They become a bulwark, firm and immovable even in the face of temptations and suggestions of evil thoughts, and a tangible measure of a person’s progress in becoming prayer, in praying without ceasing.

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