“The Lord teaches, besides other, higher matters, of which there is no time to speak now, that if we are stirred up to pray alone in our houses and bedrooms this also encourages prayer to God in church, and inner prayer of the mind encourages spoken prayer. If someone only wants to pray when he attends God’s Church, and has no concern at all for prayer at home, in the streets or in the fields, then even when he is present in church he is not really praying.” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homilies, p. 51)
first forgive all those who have offended you,
Only then will your prayer rise up
into the presence of God.
If you do not forgive,
it will simply remain on the earth.
When you pray, be mindful
that you are in the presence of God,
offering a priestly sacrifice.
Would it not be a shameful thing
to offer a sacrifice that was blemished?
first forgive those who have offended you.
Bring them to mind and pardon them,
and then you yourself will also know
The heart of this blog series are quotes from many different sources, ancient and modern, on prayer. The series is not a “how to pray” selection, but more focuses on what is prayer. Prayer is not a technique, but a relationship with God the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Prayer is not mostly an activity that Christians occasionally engage in, but really is a way of life in which we form a constant relationship with God and allow ourselves to be formed by that relationship.
Y0u can find links to any of my other blog series that are now available in PDF format at: Blog Series Available as PDFs.
This is the 44th and last blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.” The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Prayer That Never Ends (II). Our blog sojourn will come to an end, but the prayer sojourn is always ongoing.
To be a disciple of Christ means to follow a discipline. To accept the Lordship of Christ means to become a servant of His holy will. Prayer is one way in which we can practice a discipline and faithfully serve Christ who told us to love God and neighbor. Beyond being a discipline, prayer becomes a living relationship with the Triune God. And while we need a discipline of prayer, ultimately we are not trying to enslave ourselves to a discipline but we are striving to enter into communion with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
“True prayer is loving and serving the God of prayer, not the prayer of God. The call to unceasing prayer is not an invitation to divided consciousness; it does not imply that we pay any less attention to daily realities or retreat from life’s responsibilities. Rather: It is a call to learn to live always in the presence of God in a manner appropriate to changing circumstances, through these very circumstances, none of which are an end in themselves but which lead to God.” (Monks of New Skete, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS, p 187)
The mystery of the incarnation of God the Word who becomes Jesus Christ in the flesh is at the heart of the Christian prayer life. For though the goal of the Christian life and thus of prayer is union with God, it is never an abandonment of this world or of our body. Rather it is a transfiguration of ourselves and our world. As the ancient Christians worded it, “God became human so that we humans can become god.” Christ came to unite divinity to humanity, not to destroy or eliminate our physical nature but to save it. In prayer we use our bodies, we don’t escape them, to become the very thing that God created us for in the beginning, namely, spiritual beings united to God. Spirituality and our spiritual lives are not opposed to our physical bodies. Our bodies and our physical experiences are the very means for us to experience the divine life.
“Every devotional act of the Christian is meant to emphasize one’s personal relationship to Christ in and through his Body the Church, of which one is member. A Christian at prayer, whether in the privacy of the ‘cell’ or in the company of the assembly, never prays as an individual but as a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Moreover, prayer for a devout Christian is more than an activity; it is a state of being that is defined by an abiding love for and trust in God. St. Basil (d. 379AD) makes this point in a beautiful passage on prayer, which reads, in part, as follows:
‘Ought we to pray without ceasing? … Prayer is a request for what is good, addressed by the devout to God. But we do not rigidly confine our petition to words. Nor yet do we imagine that God requires to be reminded by speech. He knows our needs even though we ask him not. What do I say then? I say that we must not think to make our prayer complete by syllables. The strength of prayer lies rather in the moral attitude of our soul and in deeds of virtue reaching every part and moment of our life. ‘Whether you eat,’ it is said, ‘or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ [1 Cor 10:31] … Thus will you pray without ceasing; if you pray not only in words, but also by uniting yourself to God through all the course of life, so that your life becomes one continuous and uninterrupted prayer.” (Alkiviadis Calivas, ASPECTS OF ORTODOX WORSHIP, pp 51-52)
Thus we understand how we can fulfill St. Paul’s teaching that we are to pray unceasingly: we transform our hearts, minds and our lives into prayer. We consciously work to make everything we do, say or think an offering to God. Thus we direct every aspect of our lives to our Creator. Then everything we do is prayer.
“’Pray without ceasing’, St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:17). And in other epistles, he commands: “Praying always with all supplication in the spirit’ (Eph 6:18), ‘continue in prayer and watch in the same’ (Col 4:2), ‘continue constant in prayer’ (Rom 12:12). Also the Saviour Himself teaches the need for constancy and persistency in prayer, in the parable about the importunate widow, who won over the unrighteous judge by the persistency of her appeals (Luke 18:1-8). It is clear from this that unceasing prayer is not an accidental prescription, but the essential characteristic of the Christian spirit.” (St. Theophan the Recluse – d. 1894AD – in THE ART OF PRAYER, p 81)
If we understand our life and everything we do, think or say as our offering to God, then we understand how we can pray without ceasing. Each and every thought, word we speak, action we take is what we have to offer and consecrate to God. As long as we are mindful of this, we are praying constantly. And in this we realize prayer is not a technique that we must master, rather prayer is learning to allow Christ to be Master of our entire lives.
The entire blog series on prayer is now available in PDF format at Prayer (PDF).
The practice of remembering the acts of God is central to Orthodox communal worship. At each Divine Liturgy we remember the saving acts of God, and give thanks for them. Remembering the saving deeds which God has done to bring us up to heaven is not a search into the distant past history, but rather makes God in His saving deeds present in our lives here and now. This is also accomplished on each Feast Day and in all of the sacraments of the Church.
Remembering God at every moment of our lives is a TASK for each of us who claim God as our Father. It is a task – work, requires expending energy – because we do not readily keep God in our daily focus. This has been a serious and sinful failure of the people of God through history: for example meditate on Psalm 106 paying attention to the words “remember” and “forget”. The task of remembering requires us to strive to drive out all extraneous thoughts and to focus on God. Just remembering God daily is hard work! It is taking up the cross daily, but it is also an act of love and therefore not a heavy burden but a task that uplifts us.
“This is the true foundation of prayer: keeping watch over your own thoughts and giving yourself to prayer in great tranquility, in great peace, in such a way as not to disturb others . . . You will then have to wage war on your own thoughts and cut back their rampant growth . . . push ahead towards God, refrain from doing as your thoughts would have you do, but on the contrary lead them back from their dispersion.” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, pp 169-170)
The task of remembering God is hard work, and not just because of evil or sin. There are endless distractions in our modern entertainment-driven culture which are competing for our attention. The desire for pleasure, for escape, for entertainment and for fulfilling one’s ‘wants’, all take our minds away from God. Which is not to say that these things must turn our minds away from God, they could make us thankful to Him. But often we pursue them for what they do for us with little regard for how we might serve God through the blessings He bestows on us. When we engage in self love rather than true love for the other, we are distracted from God.
Remembering God does not require us to go searching for Him in the heavens or in the future coming Kingdom. We remember God in our own hearts right here and right now for the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21). We can encounter God in the poor and needy, Christ’s least brothers and sisters.
“When you pray to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost—to the one God in the Trinity – do not seek Him outside yourself, but contemplate Him within, as dwelling in you, entirely penetrating and knowing you. ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). ‘And I will walk among you, and will be your God’ (Lev 26:12). ‘I will dwell in them, and walk in them, and I will be their God, and will be a Father unto you (2 Cor 6:16, 18).” (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 195)
Remembering God constantly means setting aside other things which are on our minds, including the ways in which others failed us or offended us.
“(St.) Makarios (d. 392AD) teaches us another important lesson regarding the wrongs done to us by another. As noted above, he advocates in their place a constant remembrance of God: ‘If we keep remembering the wrongs which men have done to us, we destroy the power of the remembrance of God.’ To meditate on the wrongs of others is to create a major obstacle to prayer. Prayer should become the primary and constant activity of all that we do in life. Prayer is not something we say from time to time, but something we are to be all the time.” (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle, Loc. 803-6)
Next: Praying (XIII)
Both the Old and New Testament (see for example Deuteronomy 6:5 and Luke 10:27), teach that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength. This basically means we are to love our God with all of our being (spirit, soul and body).
“I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.” (Psalm 104:33)
This is the same kind of thinking that says we are meant to pray not just on occasion but with our entire lives, with all we think, say and do.
“… the heart is the man himself. Thus he who does not pray or does not serve God with his heart, does not pray at all, because in that case his body only prays, and the body without the mind is nothing more than earth. Remember, that when standing in prayer, you stand before God Himself, who has the wisdom of all. Therefore, your prayer ought to be, so to say, all spirit, all understanding.” (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 4)
Prayer is not the mere recitation of texts, not even if we are reciting the Psalms from memory. We as humans are quite capable of multi-tasking, and can recite texts from memory even if our heart or mind is far removed from what we are reciting. Prayer is that coming together of all of the aspects of what it means to be human, including having a relationship with our Creator. Thus we are to pray as long as we live, and we are to pray every moment of our lives. Prayer is communion with God. But, this doesn’t mean that if we become prayer we eschew the necessities of life or renounce the world completely. Rather prayer has to do with the transfiguration of our lives so that we begin here and now to participate in the new creation of God: we participate in salvation when we pray.
Prayer, as we’ve said before, informs, forms, reforms and transforms our lives. Prayer always involves the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
“They asked Abba Macarius, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man replied, ‘There is no need to lose oneself in words. It is enough to spread out the hand and to say, ‘Lord, as thou wilt and as thou knowest best, have mercy.’ If the battle is fierce, say, ‘Help!’ He knows what is suitable for you and he will take pity on you.(Sayings of the Desert Fathers….)” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 203)
I love the above quote, specifically the line, “if the battle is fierce, say, ‘Help!’” That one word, “Help!” is enough verbiage. If we find ourselves not knowing how to pray or what to say, cry out “Help!” God does hear that prayer. We don’t need long and eloquent prayers written by saints. God accepts the plea of our hearts, however simple.
“The brethren said, ‘What is pure prayer?’ The old man said, ‘that which is of few words and is abundant in deeds. For if their actions be not more than their petition, their prayers are mere words wherein the seed of their hands is not…” (E. Wallis Budge, THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS vol 2, p 331)
Prayer is not mere words, no matter how holy those words may be, for prayer consists also of how we live and what we do daily. Prayer is that holistic bringing together of our heart, mind and body – our thoughts, words and actions. We work to establish those things for which we also are praying.
“At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers, so that when you forget Him, the Lord may remind you.” (St. Mark the Ascetic, THE PHILOKALIA Vol 1, p 112)
When we pray, we stand in God’s presence and we are aware of His presence. This is remembering God, for the biblical sense of remembering is that we participate in what we remember. (In the Liturgy for example we remember what Jesus did on the night in which he was betrayed, taking the bread in His hands and blessing and breaking it, and now we participate in that same event as we receive Holy Communion.) As we remember God, as we become more aware of the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit, we participate in salvation, we participate in the divine life and become as St. Peter says partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Next: Praying (IV)
Christianity is replete with seemingly unachievable teachings. For example, on the one hand, Christ comes to seek and save sinners not the righteous, and yet, on the other hand, the membership of the Church is to be the holy people of God. The foremost of sinners and the least among the saints at the same time! We are to pray without ceasing, love our enemies, be perfect as God the Father is perfect, and love others as Christ loved us.
All of these teachings belong more to Wisdom teachings than to law giving. All of them require discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in understanding how we are to fulfill them. According to Scott Cairns, St. Isaac of Syria writes:
“The love of God… proceeds from our conversing with Him; this conversation of prayer comes about through stillness, and stillness arrives with the stripping away of self.” (THE END OF SUFFERING, p 11)
We see the need for wisdom in helping us to fulfill St. Isaac’s teaching that we are to converse with God in “stillness.” Usually we think of “conversing” as an activity. St. Isaac calls us to stillness, an inner peace and quietness, as the means for conversing with God. We learn to converse with God not by endlessly chattering to Him, but by learning stillness of heart when we are in His presence. Stillness and silence are forms of prayer – the very means by which we learn to stand in God’s presence.
And requiring even greater wisdom, we come to realize that prayer does mean “stripping away of self.” Prayer is not self-love, but our love of the other: the love of God and the love of neighbor. Prayer involves self-denial. Prayer requires a self-emptying, also known as kenosis in the Orthodox tradition. Christ engaged in kenosis, self-emptying when He became incarnate and then obediently suffered death on the cross (Philippians 2:4-8). This is the love that we are to engage in as we approach Christ. As St. John the Forerunner said, “He must increase. I must decrease.”
“Prayer is mystery that goes beyond technique, which is a relief, really. We needn’t be worried about getting the techniques absolutely right, so much as being absolutely honest and sincere before God. What happens after that is God’s business.” (Monks of New Skete, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS, p 96)
Though in prayer we become more important to the world because we become mediators of God to His creation, in prayer we also humble ourselves and make ourselves to be servants of God and one another.
“The aim [of prayer] is the constant direction of the mind toward God […]. The worst obstacle to prayer is sin. The next is worry or anxiety about the material circumstances of life—sex, food, money, irritations with colleagues, levity. The next obstacle is pride; humility is an opening of the heart. […] The man who is not prayerful as he goes about his daily life will be less prayerful when he gets on his knees. And no one can be prayerful during his daily life unless he is in the quest for purity of heart. …prayer will contain certain attitudes or aspirations.
It will contain resolution, even if that is wordless – a wish to be something, even a vow to be something.
It will contain penitence.
It will contain intercession, for you cannot pray without remembering need in other people, whether you remember only the people within your affections or whether you reach outward toward the world and its peace, its kings and its governments.
It will contain thankfulness. To pray is to be in the presence of God. To be in the presence of God is to be aware, wordlessly or not, of His goodness to humanity.”
(John Cassian, Conferences, pp 11-12)
Next: Praying (III)
Prayer has to do not just with our standing in God’s presence, but even more so, by praying we are making God present in our lives and in our world. When we pray, we become a mediator between creation and God, doing what God created humans to do from the beginning. We each thus make a difference in the world when we pray, uniting not just ourselves but our surroundings to God. When we stand in God’s presence, we also help make God present in creation. It perhaps is something like the conscious observer in a quantum mechanics experiment – the observer makes the event take place. So too when we stand in God’s presence, then He becomes present in reality. Think about the disciples at the Transfiguration. Orthodox thinking says the apostles suddenly saw reality as it is – they themselves were transfigured by what they observed. Christ, as God’s Son, always shares/shared in the Father’s glory, but for a brief moment, the apostles saw that reality. It took conscious observers to see the event – to make it happen. For without the disciples watching, the transfiguration would have gone unrecorded.
“The fact that we are present in a situation alters it profoundly because God is then present with us through our faith. Wherever we are, at home with our family, with friends when a quarrel is about to begin, at work or even simply in the Underground, the street, the train, we can recollect ourselves and say, ‘Lord, I believe in you, come and be among us’.
And by this act of faith, in a contemplative prayer which does not ask to see, we can intercede with God who has promised his presence when we ask for it. Sometimes we have no words, sometimes we do not know how to act wisely, but we can always ask God to come and be present.” (METROPOLITAN ANTHONY , p 74)
When we understand we are to pray at all times, we realize there should not – cannot! – be a difference in us when we are consciously praying and when we are engaged in the necessary activities of life. We can be aware of God’s presence anywhere we are. We can help make God present wherever we are by being people of prayer.
“Therefore, before we begin to pray, we ought to try to be the kind of people whom we wish God to find when we pray. Whatever we do not want to creep into our time of prayer, we must try to keep out of the heart when we are not praying.” (Abba Isaac in Orthodox Prayer Life, p 128)
Our hearts are the very place God dwells with us. So we want in our hearts at all times what is in our hearts when we pray. Conversely as Abba Isaac notes above, we need to tend to the garden of our hearts and weed out all those things that should not be there when God is present.
We are not trying to create two selves – a prayerful self and then our secular self – rather through prayer we are trying to end all the divisions and separation and alienation which sin has caused in our world and in our selves. Even when we are not consciously engaged in prayer, we are to be preparing our hearts for prayer. That is, we are to be living the Christian life, following Christ, fulfilling the Gospel teachings.
We are by living the Christian life preparing our hearts and minds to receive the Holy Spirit, for it is the Spirit of God who teaches us to pray and who prays in us.
“Do not imagine, brother, that prayer consists solely of words, or that it can be learnt by means of words. No, the truth of the matter, you should understand, is that spiritual prayer does not reach fullness as a result of either learning or the repetition of words. For it is not to a man that you are praying, before whom you can repeat a well-composed speech: it is to Him who is Spirit that you are directing the movements of your prayer. You should pray therefore in spirit, seeing that He is Spirit.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 466)
Praying is a lifelong activity which is both how and why we are taught to pray without ceasing.
Next: Praying (II)
St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1908AD) offers a summary of the many metaphors and direct answers which Orthodox saints and teachers have given to describe what prayer is. Better than offering techniques about how to pray, St. John gives us a rich treasury of what prayer is, reasons for prayer, and the blessings bestowed upon those of us who pray. From his description of what prayer is we gain greater insight into how and why prayer is not simply an occasional activity in which we engage, but rather is something we do continually throughout the day and throughout the days of our lives.
“Prayer is the lifting up of the mind and heart to God, the contemplation of God, the daring converse of the creature with the Creator, the soul reverently standing before Him, as before the King and the Life Itself, giving life to all; the oblivion of everything that surrounds us, the food of the soul; its air and light, its lifegiving warmth, its cleansing from sin; the easy yoke of Christ, His light burden.
Prayer is the constant feeling (the recognition) of our infirmity or spiritual poverty, the sanctification of the soul, the foretaste of the future blessedness, angelic bliss, the heavenly rain, refreshing, watering, and fertilizing the ground of the soul, the power and strength of the soul and body, the purifying and freshening of the mental air, the enlightenment of the countenance, the joy of the spirit, the golden link, uniting the creature to the Creator, courage and valor in all the afflictions and temptation of life, the lamp of life, success in all undertakings, dignity equal to the angels, the strengthening of faith, hope and love.
Prayer is intercourse with the holy angels and saints, who pleased God since the beginning of the world. Prayer is the amendment of life, the mother of heartfelt contrition and tears; a powerful motive for works of mercy; security of life; the destruction of the fear of death; the disdain of earthly treasures; the desire for heavenly blessing; the expectation of the universal Judge, of the common resurrection and of the life of the world to come; a strenuous effort to save ourselves from eternal torments; unceasing seeking for mercy (forgiveness) of the Sovereign; walking before God; the blissful vanishing of self before the all-creating and all-filling Creator; the living water of the soul.
Prayer is holding all men in our hearts through love; the descent of heaven into the soul; the abiding of the most Holy Trinity in the soul, in accordance with that which has been said: ‘We will come to him and will make our abode with him.’” (in TREASURY OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, pp 350-351)
We have explored in this blog the and seven preceding blogs ideas from Orthodox writers about what prayer is. We will in the next set of blogs turn our attention to how we go about praying. We conclude this blog with a prayer by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow (d. 1867AD):
My LORD, I know not what I ought to ask of you. You and you alone know my needs. You love me more than I am able to love you. O Father, grant unto me, your servant, all which I cannot ask. For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation; I dare only to stand in your presence. My heart is open to you. You see my needs of which I myself am unaware. Behold and lift me up! In your presence I stand, awed and silenced by your will and your judgments, into which my mind cannot penetrate. To you I offer myself as a sacrifice. No other desire is mine but to fulfill your will. Teach me how to pray. Do yourself pray within me. Amen. (Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , Kindle Loc. 164-70)
For some prayers that I learned as a teenager see my blog series which began with My “O Lord” Prayers: A Story.”
In the previous blog, we encountered several different metaphors which St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) uses to describe prayer. Here Chrysostom continues with more metaphors concerning prayer, and a note that a poor man who can pray is wealthier than the rich man who is deprived of prayer.
“Surely, prayer is a harbor for those caught in a storm; it is an anchor for those tossed by the waves; it is a staff for those who stumble. Prayer is a treasure for the poor, security for the rich, a cure for the sick, a safeguard for those in good health. It keeps our blessings inviolable and quickly changes our ills to good.
If temptation comes, it is easily repelled. If loss of possessions or any of the other things which cause grief to our souls befall us, prayer is quick to drive them all away. Prayer is a refuge from every sorrow, a basis for cheerfulness, a means for continual pleasure, a mother for our philosophy and way of life. Even if the man who can pray with diligence is destitute of all things, he is richer than any other man. Yet, one who has been robbed and deprived of prayer may sit on the very throne of a king, but he is poorer than the poorest man.” (St. John Chrysostom, THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, p 209-210)
By using such rich and varied metaphors, Chrysostom helps us move away from imagining that prayer is but a technique. Prayer is many things and accomplishes many things in our lives. Prayer involves our entire being, it is not just something we say, but something we believe and a relationship with our Creator.
‘Prayer is a work of the heart, not of the lips. For God does not pay attention to the words of the one who is praying to him, but rather to his or her heart. It is better to pray in the silence of the heart than to pray only with words, without the mind paying attention.
It is useless to pray when trust and hope are missing.
Our spirit contemplates God perfectly only if it is not obstructed by earthly anxieties.’” (Defensor Grammaticus – 7th Cent – in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 367)
We come again to the notion that prayer is a way of life, not just one activity in which we occasionally engage. In prayer we are conversing with God, an activity that ought to be present at every moment of our lives for we are always to remember God and His saving deeds. I think especially of Psalm 106 and Psalm 107.
“To describe it with the boldest expression, payer is a conversation with God.
Even if we speak with a low voice, even if we whisper without opening the lips, even if we call to him only from the depths of the heart, our unspoken word always reaches God and God always hears.
Sometimes, however, besides speaking, we lift our head and raise our arms to heaven.
In this way we are underlining the desire that the spirit has for the spiritual world. We are striving with the word to raise the body above the earth. We are giving wings to the soul for it to reach the good things on high.” (Clement of Alexandria in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 366)
Next: What is Prayer? (VIII)