One aspect of prayer that does come up frequently in the Orthodox spiritual literature is the effects of sin and the Fall on us all.
“According to the Fathers, the fall impaired the capacity of creatures to see the divine light, but did not destroy it. The universal aspiration towards God has, it is true, become a ‘groaning’, a ‘sigh of creation’, but it is still prayer, which is the essential activity of all created things. ‘Everything that exists prays to thee’.” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 27)
All of creation was designed to give praise to God the Creator, and humans were to be the ones to serve as the conductors of this chorus of praise. But through our sin, we lost our role as the conductors guiding creation in praise of the Creator. Instead of songs of praise, there are now only groans of pain from creation because of us. We’ve already encountered this idea:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18-24)
Truly we were created each to be priests of God celebrating a daily liturgy and offering praise in the created world which was intended to be God’s real temple (Many ancient writers and modern scholars believe Genesis 1 is really about God creating His temple in which we were to worship Him).
But our sins have led God in His Holiness to distance Himself from the temple He created. Yet He has not abandoned us but has continued to speak to us through the prophets, the scriptures and through His Son, the incarnate Word. And He has continued to listen to our groans, lamentations and prayers.
So prayer, instead of being our natural and normal way of being, becomes something we must consciously choose to do. We have to will to pray. We have to choose to conform our will to God’s.
“Without inner spiritual prayer there is no prayer at all, for this alone is real prayer, pleasing to God. It is the soul within the words of prayer that matters, whether the prayer is at home or in church, and if inner prayer is absent, then the words have only the appearance and not the reality of prayer.
What then is prayer? Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical. The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God. The mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to pour itself out before Him. This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature. External prayer, whether at home or in church, is only prayer’s verbal expression and shape; the essence or the soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.” (St. Theophan – d. 1894AD – in THE ART OF PRAYER, p 53)
Prayer is a conscious activity of fallen humans, but it is not merely a technique.
“The mystery of prayer is not consummated at a certain specific time or place. For if you restrict prayer to particular times or places, you will waste the rest of the time in vain pursuits. Prayer may be defined as the intellect’s unceasing intercourse with God. Its task is to engage the soul totally in things divine, its fulfillment – to adapt the words of St. Paul (cf 1 Cor 6:17) – lies in so wedding the mind to God that it becomes one spirit with Him.” (Nikitas Stithatos – d. 1090AD, THE PHILOKALIA Vol 4, pp 128-129)
We can note in the quotes above, some difference in understanding of what prayer is. But whether a church father or mother places more or less emphasis on technique, they do agree that ultimately prayer has everything to do with being in God’s presence.
Next: What is Prayer? (VI)