And the Lord Jesus taught: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
Interestingly, fairly early on in the Orthodox tradition, the interpretation of Matthew 6:5-6 which unfolded in the monastic tradition moved away from a literal reading of this text, and began to see the text as speaking about going spiritually inward – into our hearts – rather than as to referring to physically closing ourselves into some private room or a closet. This is the interpretation that became common among the men and women who devoted their lives to prayer as monks and nuns. Those who spent the most time in prayer came to think Jesus was talking about entering into our hearts and then closing the doors of the heart to all sins and distractions.
“Before all things we ought most carefully to observe the gospel precept, which tells us to enter into our chamber and shut the door and pray to our Father. This may be fulfilled by us as follows: We pray within our chamber when, removing our hearts inwardly from the din of all thoughts and anxieties, our prayers are disclosed in secret, in the closest intercourse to the Lord.
We pray with closed doors when with closed lips and complete silence we pray to him who searches not words but hearts. We pray in secret when with heart and fervent mind we disclose our petitions to God alone, so that no hostile powers are even able to discover the character of our petitions.” (Abba Isaac – 7th Cent – in Orthodox Prayer Life, p 200)
Of course the monastic tradition (monos – alone, one) emphasizes the individuals spiritual warfare through prayer and fasting. But the notion of going into our hearts rather than into some private room to pray, means that we can pray anywhere at any time if we have that ability to concentrate and withdraw from the din and allurement of the world around us.
Praying in one’s heart though also caused other questions to be asked about whether we even need the liturgical services. If I can pray anywhere, do I need a church, the liturgy, other Christians?
“…Theophylact (d. 1108AD): ‘Should I not then pray in church? Indeed I should, but with a right mind and not for show. For it is not the place which harms prayer, but the manner and intent with which we pray. For many who pray in secret do so to impress others.” (Dale Allison, THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, p112)
Theophylact takes the command to pray in private to the logical extreme and rhetorically asks – then should I not pray in church if I’m to pray alone in my closet? He then returns to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5:5-6 to warn against praying for show and to impress others. Theophylact then takes that notion of praying for show a step further: it is even possible to pray in secret in order to impress others! One can announce one’s intention and make sure that everyone knows how much time one spends in prayer. The spiritual reality of praying or talking about prayer in order to draw attention to yourself is you have lost the focus of prayer. Prayer is to bring us in communion with God. When we pray to impress others, we don’t stand in the presence of God but ignore God in the effort to get others to notice us. Theophylact notes the wisdom: it is not the place where you pray which harms prayer. You can pray in church or in your private prayer closet in a godly fashion, or you can pray in either place with wrong intent. Jesus wasn’t sanctifying a space – your private prayer closet. Rather he was speaking against praying for show, or praying to attract attention to yourself, or praying to impress others with how holy you are. Interpreting Jesus requires wisdom, not just a literal reading of the text. One can turn one’s prayer corner into a shrine to impress others rather than into that place where you humble yourself before the Lord.
“Whether you pray with brethren or alone, try to pray not simply as a routine, but with conscious awareness of your prayer. ‘Conscious awareness of prayer is concentration accompanied by reverence, compunction and distress of soul as it confesses its sin with inward sorrow.’” (Evagrius the Solitary – d. 399AD, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3431-34)
Evagrius also points out that it is not your location which determines the power of the prayer, nor whether you pray alone or with others. It is the inner chamber of the heart which matters. It matters what is in our hearts and whether we daily spend time in repentance, fulfilling the first teaching of Christ – Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand and believe in the Gospel (Mark 1:15). When in prayer we realize the presence of our Lord, the natural reaction is to repent!
Next: Praying (VI)