Amongst all topics written about in the history of the Christian Church, prayer is sure to be one of the most discussed.
Because prayer is part of coming to know God, all of this experience and writing does not even begin to explore the depths of prayer. Nevertheless, below is a humble attempt of outlining the basics of prayer as passed down to us by the Holy Fathers of the Church.
What is Prayer?
Prayer, most simply, is a conversation with God.
Prayer is able to be done alone and with others, and in the Orthodox Church, are both necessary to help us pray well. The Lord taught his disciples and those who would hear Him about prayer.
“Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”
“So He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”
Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11
Why Do We Pray?
There are many forms of prayer, just as there are many forms of conversation.
Through each of these types of prayer – thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, repentance – we learn about who God is and who we are. Ultimately, prayer is an opportunity to come face to face with the cause and purpose of our existence: Union with God.
“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
How to Pray
We have been given many beautiful examples of how to pray by the saints of the Church.
Regarding the proper approach to prayer, the Lord gave the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. Though the Pharisee prayed arrogantly and “with himself”, the tax collector was humble and repentant, and prayed to God.
Below is a short rule of prayer sometimes called the “Rule of St. Pachomius,” or sometimes “The Little Rule of St Seraphim.” It is said to have been given by an angel to St. Pachomius of Egypt, who used it each hour of the day and night. St. Seraphim of Sarov assigned it to many of his spiritual children living in the world, telling them to use it morning and evening. Many variations exist.
The idea is that the rule can easily be memorized, and thus can be used without the need for a prayer book. It gives us practice in the precious Jesus Prayer, which we can then begin to use throughout the day, learning in small ways to pray without ceasing.
And He said to them, “Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within and say, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give to you’? I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs.
When to Pray
Ultimately, our goal as St. Paul instructs, is to “pray unceasingly.”
In our efforts to move toward this goal the Church gives us The Jesus Prayer, prayers for our morning and evening routine, at meal times, and corporately during the divine services.
The best time for our personal prayer rule is in the early morning and evening, when it is darker. “It is important to remember that we will never have time for God but rather must make time for God, for the ‘Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force’ (Matt. 11:12).”
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– St. Paul, First Epistle to the Thessalonians, 5:16-18
Where to Pray
Following the idea of praying unceasingly, it is possible to pray anywhere.
The king and Prophet David says in his 138th Psalm, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.” As Orthodox Christians we pray to the Lord, “Who art everywhere present and fillest all things”. There is no where we can go where we cannot pray. This is a beautiful and comforting realization.
However for our own good and in order to remain focused, it is important that we are able to “go into our closet” and pray. “A prayer rule must not and cannot be said in the car, but rather alone, in front of the icons and Gospel, preferably with a lit candle and, if possible, the room lights dimmed.”
“It is imperative that we see personal and corporate prayer as two sides of the same coin. Corporate liturgical prayer life in the Church feeds into and provides invaluable and essential shape for our interior life. Corporate prayer life can become dead and frozen without the attention and fire which personal prayer gives us. Inner life, if not well-grounded in the liturgical life of the Church, can possibly lead us to delusion.”
– Archimandrite Sergius, Acquiring the Mind of Christ, p. 14