“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)
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).
“Make it your care to pray without ceasing, for prayer is light to the soul, and it acts as a guard to the body. Pray not just when you are standing in prayer, but also when you are moving around or doing something, and even when you are asleep, and when you are eating. When your mouth is occupied with nourishment, let your heart be occupied with prayer. While your right hand is looking after your body’s needs at table, let your mind be given to praise and thanksgiving to him who provides for your needs. In this way your food will be blessed and hallowed in your body, without your being concerned about this.” (Babai – d. 484AD? – in THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, p 149)
Prayer, as can be seen in these many quotes from ancient and modern Orthodox writers, is the constant occupation of Christians. There is no time which is not a time for prayer.
“Not to sin is truly blessed; but those who sin should not despair, but grieve over the sins they have committed, so that, through grief they may again attain blessedness. It is good, then, to pray always and not to lose heart, as the LORD says. And again the apostle says, ‘Pray without ceasing’, that is by night and by day and at every hour, and not only when coming into the church, and not bothering at other times. But whether you are working, lying down to sleep, travelling, eating, drinking, sitting at table, do not interrupt your prayer, for you do not know when he who demands your soul is coming. Don’t wait for Sunday or a feast day, or a different place, but, as the Prophet David says, ‘in every place of his dominion’.” (St. Ephrem the Syrian, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3331-37)
Prayer in this tradition might sometimes be characterized as multi-tasking – pray always in all circumstances and every place. Whatever else you may be doing or may have to do, always also pray. But prayer is also more than just another thing we do, for as we have seen it becomes our very life. Our life becomes prayer when we direct our entire being towards God. Our life is prayer when we choose to make an offering to our Lord God every thought, or word we say, or thing we do.
“There is also another sense in which the Apostle’s words must be interpreted. ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:17) must be taken in the sense of prayer performed by the mind: whatever a man is doing, the mind can always be directed towards God, and in this way it can pray to Him unceasingly.” (St. Dimitri of Rostov, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 50)
The benefits of this continual conversation with God are ultimately union with Creator of the Universe. Such a union between God and humanity is the very thing that the incarnation of God in Christ achieves. The incarnation thus makes pure prayer possible in this world in our daily lives. In prayer we continue to live at each moment of our lives the union with Christ which we receive through the sacraments of baptism, confession, chrismation and communion.
“The intellect joined to God for long periods through prayer and love becomes wise, good, powerful, compassionate, merciful and long-suffering; in short, it includes within itself almost all the divine qualities.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 12703-4)
Prayer is an essential element to the understanding of salvation as theosis.
This is the penultimate blog in this series. Unlike prayer which never ends, this blog series is coming to its end.
St. Paul famously said that we should pray without ceasing. And while this teaching was seized upon by the spiritual champions in Orthodoxy, that phrase about prayer occurs in a sentence which commands constancy in joy and thanksgiving as well, though these other elements are not as often mentioned in the spiritual literature. To quote St. Paul in context:
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
In their book, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS, the Monks of New Skete commented:
“Unceasing prayer, then, is not a technique. To isolate Saint Paul’s admonition, to take it out of its context, does violence to his intent. Surrounding the admonition are two other exhortations that express how he conceived unceasing prayer:
Be happy always: Greet everyone and everything openly and cheerful, even in adversity. Sing together joyfully.
Pray without ceasing: Don’t forget to pray; be open to God’s presence. Don’t stop praying together just because difficulties arise, or when everything’s fine. Pay attention and avoid distractions.
Be grateful in all circumstances: Be generous and appreciative, find something positive, even during reversals and setbacks. Display your unity and heal your divisions by giving thanks in prayer and eucharist.
For this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; translation New Skete) “ (p 188)
And while the exhortation to pray without ceasing became a way of life for monastics, it was not envisioned as being a way of life only for monastics. St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) says:
“Let not one think, my fellow Christian, that only priests and monks need to pray without ceasing and not laymen. No, no; every Christian without exception ought to dwell always in prayer.” (Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3605-8)
Origen (d. ca 254AD) back in the 3rd Century said:
“He prays unceasingly who combines prayer with necessary duties and duties with prayer. Only in this way can we find it practicable to fulfill the commandment to pray always. It consists in regarding the whole of Christian existence as a single great prayer. What we are accustomed to call prayer is only a part of it.” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 212)
“Prayer is turning the mind and thoughts towards God. To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at Him, and to converse with Him in reverent fear and hope.” (St. Dimitri of Rostov – d. 1709AD, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 50)
All along we have read in this blog series that praying is not purely a matter of exactly following some technique. Prayer rather is relationship to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. As such, prayer has many wonderful spiritual effects on the person praying.
“Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God.” (St. Ephrem the Syrian – d. 379AD, THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, p. 36)
We can converse with God for prayer establishes a relationship between us and the Persons of the Holy Trinity. For our part, we need to learn to listen to God speaking to us: listen to His words, His voice, his speech, His language, but also to listen to and for God’s silence and that voice which speaks through creation itself. In listening, we also learn to speak His language, which for us means learning to stand in His presence and to act in accordance with His will. This is how we learn to converse with God: watchfulness, vigilance, attentiveness, and awareness. All of creation is speaking to God without the use of words. We can learn to listen for that as well.
“Yet for there to be prayer in the Christian sense of the word a specifically personal relationship has to be established with the living God, a ‘conversation’ as Evagrius puts it. The word should be taken in a broad sense. It may be silent listening, a cry of distress, a celebration; it may also be Job’s plaintive challenge. The disposition we need to cultivate, even when care weighs heaviest, is that of remembering that God exists and loves us; that we are not alone, lost, ridiculous in the presence of nothingness or horror; that there is another who we may approach in union with Christ, in him, in the depths of our being. . . . Prayer does not seek to draw God towards us since, as St. Augustine says, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Its purpose is to bring us close enough to him for dialogue, and to make us aware of his nearness.
‘It may be true that the divine principle is present in every being, but not every being is present in him. We ourselves will come to dwell with him if we call on him with very holy prayers and a tranquil mind. For his indwelling is not local, as if he could change position . . . If we were on a ship, and to rescue us ropes attached to a rock were thrown to us, obviously we should not draw the rock any nearer to ourselves, but we would pull ourselves and our ship nearer to the rock . . . And that is why . . . in prayer we need to begin, not by drawing to ourselves that Power that is everywhere and nowhere, but by putting ourselves in his hands and uniting ourselves to him. (Dionysius the Areopagite – ca 5th Century …)’” (Olivier Clement, THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, pp 181-182)
Ultimately we who desire God’s presence must remove from ourselves all that prevents us from being in His presence or which blocks us from being aware of His presence. We have to rid ourselves of selfishness and self-centeredness, of sin and all that prevents us from loving Him and our neighbor. As a friend told me, medical science removes all that prevents healing from taking place – that is what allows God to heal. So too confession of sins and repentance removes from us all that prevents us from being in God’s presence, from enjoying communion with Him. The Christian life takes away all that prevents us from listening to God and attending to His will. True prayer occurs when all of the self-centered and sinful obstacles to relating to God have been emptied from our hearts and minds, so that we allow God to enter into our lives.
Next: Prayer That Never Ends
It is Christ who made prayer to the Father the means to communion with Him. It is our union with Christ that brings this salvation – the union of God to humanity – to each of us personally. Our prayers are thus not to some vague and distant deity, but rather to the God who is immanent to our souls and hearts. We do not hope that “the Force” may be with us, but we seek a relationship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Three Persons of the Godhead. We enter into a personal relationship with God, which means we always encounter the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit when we have any encounter with God. There is no such thing as an amorphous divinity which empowers us. God is personal and a someone that we encounter.
“However much we say on prayer, it still remains in ultimate need of experience. In its reality, prayer is the experience of being in God’s presence. Outside God’s presence there is no prayer. The right to enter into God’s presence, we have learned, was gained when Christ opened the way. It was consecrated on the day he was crucified and inaugurated the day he rose and ascended. He introduced a new and living way through his body, the temple curtain separating from man what belongs to God. It was torn open by God’s hand. The tear proceeded from the top, which is God’s dwelling, to the bottom, where we reside. Having previously been hidden in the Father, eternal life rushed into our being and appeared within us.” (Abba Isaac in Orthodox Prayer Life, pgs. 128)
Over and over we have seen in the sayings reproduced in this blog series that we are too seek God, not just what God can give us. St. Augustine says:
“’I sought the Lord and he heard me.’ [Ps 34:4] If someone has not been heard it means he has not sought the Lord.
Pay particular attention to this point. The Psalm does not say: ‘I asked the Lord for riches and he heard me. I asked for a long life and he heard me. I begged for this or that and he heard me.’ Seeking to obtain something from the Lord does not mean seeking the Lord himself. ‘I sought the Lord and he heard me.’
You yourself, when you pray, what do you say to him?
Maybe you request him to remove so-and-so whom you detest form the world! If so you are not seeking the Lord by setting yourself up as judge of your enemy and demanding that God should execute your sentence. Are you sure the person whose death you are requesting is not better than you? In this, at least, he is probably better than you: he can plead that he is not praying for your death.
When you turn to God, do not seek some favor from him. Seek the Lord himself and he will hear you.” (in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 368-369)
If we want God to hear our prayer, we have to seek Him, not just seek what He can give us or what He can do for us, but actually seek a relationship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Experiencing miracles is nothing compared with uniting ourselves to Christ, the incarnate God. Magical power is a vapid and vacuous experience compared to having the Holy Spirit abide in us.
“For the ascetic, prayer was not merely the speaking of words. It was the heart yearning for God, reaching out in hopeful openness to being touched by God. Prayer was the Holy Spirit breathing through the inner spirit of the ascetic and returning to God with yearnings for intimacy.” (Laura Swan, THE FORGOTTEN DESERT MOTHERS, p 27)
We can breathe the Holy Spirit. That is what it means to be inspired.
Ultimately, the question is why settle for some things that God can give us, when God offers Himself to us? We are taught to seek first God, and then His gifts will be ours as well.
Yet, it perhaps sadly true that we prefer the gifts to the Giver because the gifts will be ours to do with as we please, while if we have the Giver, we will have to submit to His Holy Will and to recognize Him as King and Lord.
Archbishop Anthony Bloom in his writings challenges us to think deeply about what prayer is, and what we should not reduce it to.
“When we read the Gospel and the image of Christ becomes compelling, glorious, when we pray and we become aware of the greatness, the holiness of God, do we ever say ‘I am unworthy that he should come near to me?’ Not to speak of all the occasions when we should be aware that He cannot come to us because we are not there to receive Him. We want something from Him, not Him at all. Is that a relationship? Do we behave in that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love?” (BEGINNING TO PRAY, p 5)
What are we seeking in prayer? What do we want from God? We become spiritual beings when we want a relationship with the God who created us rather than simply wanting things from Him, or for Him to do things for us. Archbishop Bloom says:
“First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. … The second very important thing is that a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us. We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned. … ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘judgment’. To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment I our lives, and thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because ewe might not be able to endure such a meeting. Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity. Therefore, the first thought we ought to have when we do not tangibly perceive the divine presence, is a thought of gratitude. God is merciful; He does not come in an untimely way.” (Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 2-3)
Because prayer places us in a relationship with the Holy God, we in encountering His holiness are made ever more aware of our sinfulness and unworthiness. Prayer places us in contact with divine power, so it is not something to be taken lightly. For to come into contact with God is also to enter into judgment for we are exposed completely by One who knows our true nature and is not deceived by our efforts to hide our true selves.
God desires that we approach Him in prayer, so He calls us to this great activity, knowing we are sinners. We in response recognize the need to be humble in his presence and we recognize our need for His great mercy. Thus we call upon the Name of Jesus to invoke God’s own mercy.
“Delve deeply into the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner), with all the power that you possess. It will draw you together, giving you a sense of strength in the Lord, and will result in your being with Him constantly whether alone or with other people, when you do housework and when you read or pray. Only you must attribute the power of this prayer, not to the repetition of certain words, but to the turning of the mind and heart towards the Lord in these words – to the action accompanying the speech.” (St. Theophan the Recluse, THE ART OF PRAYER, pp 90-91)
Fr. Sergius Bulgakov offers a fine summary of what we have learned in this series about the very nature of prayer:
“Here one must underscore the importance of prayer, the direct contact between creation and divinity, the sacrament of the Name of God. Prayer is an essentially personal relation; it is directed from person to Person…” (THE BRIDE OF THE LAMB, p 309)
Bishop Kallistos Ware continues with a very similar theme:
“To pray is not necessarily to ask God for something; it need not even be to employ words, for often the deepest and most powerful of all prayers is simply to wait upon God in silence. But whether we are worshiping with words, through symbolic and sacramental actions, or in silence, always our underlying attitude is the same: we are standing before God.
To stand before God: this implies that worship is an encounter, a meeting between persons. The purpose of worship is not just to arouse emotions and to produce appropriate moral attitudes, but to enter into a direct and personal relationship with God the Holy Trinity. ‘As a friend talking with a friend,’ writes St Symeon the New Theologian, ‘we speak with God, and with boldness we stand before the face of Him who dwells in light unapproachable.’ Here St Symeon briefly indicates the two poles of Christian worship, the two contrasting aspects of this personal relationship: God ‘dwells in light unapproachable,’ yet we human beings are able told draw near ‘with boldness’ and to speak with Him ‘as a friend talking with his friend.’ God is beyond all being, infinitely remote, unknowable, ‘the Wholly Other,’… But this transcendent God is at the same time a God of personal love, uniquely close, around us and within us, ‘everywhere present and filling all things…” (THE INNER KINGDOM, pp 59-60)
Finally, John Mummert sums up the same theme we have encountered over and again in the various writers who addressed the issue of prayer:
“’In prayer we should not seek the gifts alone. Rather, we should seek the giver.’ How often does our prayer life consist of only trying to get things from God?
Real prayer is always concerned with relationship. Having the right relationship with God is central. Things are less central. We often make a god out of good health. Sometimes we make a god out of money. But the Christian life consists of something much different. When our relationship with God is right, we achieve union with God. We know his presence in our lives. We do not know the essence of God, true. But we can know and experience the love of God radiating into our lives. The Greek Fathers spoke of participation in the divine, uncreated energies.
When our relationship with God is right, all other things will be well.” (ABIDING IN JESUS CHRIST, p 31)
Because real prayer is being in a relationship with God, prayer is experiencing salvation in our lives.
St. Silouan the Anthonite (d. 1938AD) exclaims:
“O ye peoples of the earth, fashioned by God, know your Creator and His love for us! Know the love of Christ, and live in peace and thereby rejoice the Lord, Who in His mercy waits for all men to come to Him.
Turn to Him, all ye peoples of the earth, and lift up your prayers to God; and the prayers of the whole earth shall rise to heaven like a soft and lovely cloud lit by the sun, and all the heavens will rejoice, and sing praises to the Lord for His sufferings whereby He saved us.
Know, all ye peoples, that we are created for the glory of God in the heavens. Cleave not to the earth, for God is our Father and He loves us like dear children.” (ST SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 358-359)
Eternal life is to know God and to know His Christ (John 17:3). Prayer does not give us knowledge about God, but rather enables us to know God. Prayer lifts us up to eternity and fulfills our highest aspirations. It is in prayer that we realize that as humans we are not limited by our biology or our genes or by our mortal condition.
“Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich or poor, noble or simple, strong and weak, healthy and suffering, righteous and sinful. Great is the power of prayer; most of all does it bring the Spirit of God and easiest of all is it to exercise.” (St. Seraphim of Sarov, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle 3867-70)
The Holy Spirit prays in us and teaches us how to pray (Romans 8:26-27). The same Spirit comprehends the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:11). Thus when we pray in the Spirit we become united to our God. As St. Seraphim said above, this prayer is possible for everyone because we all can humble ourselves and repent of our sins, thus opening our hearts to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
“Our prayer reflects our attitude towards God. He who is careless of salvation has a different attitude toward God from him who has abandoned sin and is zealous for virtue but has not yet entered within himself and works for the LORD only outwardly. Finally, he who has entered within and carries the LORD within himself, standing before him, has yet another attitude. The first man is negligent in prayer, just as he is negligent in life, and he prays in church and at home merely according to the established custom, without attention or feeling. The second man reads many prayers and goes often to church, trying at the same time to keep his attention from wandering and to experience feelings in accordance with the prayers which are read, although he is seldom successful. The third man, wholly concentrated within, stands with his mind before God, and prays to him in his heart without distraction, without long verbal prayers, even when standing for a long time at prayer in his home or in church…. Every prayer must come from the heart and any other prayer is no prayer at all. Prayer-book prayers, your own prayers and very short prayers, all must issue forth from the heart to God, seen before you.” (Bp. Theophan the Recluse, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3921-30)
When we turn to God in prayer we realize our own sinfulness and simultaneously realize we do not need to fear the Holy God because He loves us and accepts our repentance. Acknowledging our sins, admitting our faults is not an impediment to being loved by God, but rather opens the door to that love. In prayer we thus learn that the shame we feel for our misdeeds is not an obstacle to God’s love for us, but rather because it humbles us it makes us all the more attractive to God’s love. God’s grace is that despite our sins and failures, He loves us anyway and invites us to admit our sins so that we can enter into His holiness.