Dear brothers and sisters,
As we begin the Apostles’ Fast, I thought I would post some thoughts on prayer that I shared at the Romanian youth meeting which I and some of our young parishioners attended on Saturday evening.
For that occasion, I decided to talk about prayer, knowing that we often have a rather two-dimensional understanding of what prayer actually is. We think of prayer as something that we do, or say, but the whole challenge of Orthodox Christian living is to make our whole life into prayer… so prayer is something that we become.
Many champions of the Christian life, recognised and unrecognised, known and unknown attained such heights in their relationship with God that they no longer needed to say anything: their prayer had reached the angelic state where words were no longer necessary.
We are very far from this purity and exalted experience of prayer, but by reflecting on the teachings of the Holy Fathers, we can begin to understand that there are many dimensions to prayer – some of which we may have even heard or ever considered. We still need to speak with the words and phrases, but we also need to deepen our understanding and appreciation of what constitutes prayer and deepen our inner experience of prayer as inner communion with God.
May God bless your labours in this short fast and beware! Just because it is short, it does not mean that it need not be taken seriously.
Maintain your daily rule of external prayer and attend the services of the Church in which we pray together, but also grow in mindfulness of the deeper and wider meaning of prayer.
Watch and pray!
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark
As Christians, prayer is the most important thing we can do, and the most important thing we ever do, and one cannot be a follower of Christ without praying. Without prayer, we are lifeless and incomplete. In the words of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, “As a bird without wings, as a soldier without arms, so is a Christian without prayer.”
… and what a wonder and miracle is this thing we call prayer. In a single second, we may turn our mind, our consciousness, towards the Creator, and without even opening our lips, we can talk to Him whilst we seemingly remain silent in the eyes of those around us.
As Christians, to pray is to live and the 19th century Russian Church father, St Theophan the Recluse instructs us, “Consider prayer to be the first and foremost duty in your life…”
Prayer is to come before all things, during all things and be after all things – presuming these activities are godly and virtuous.
Prayer is the greatest gift, and the greatest treasure and privilege for the Christian is to be able to pray and have a life of prayer.
St John Chrysostom says,
“He who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne.”
Of course, what should strike us here, is that St John stresses proper prayer that is prayed correctly, and hopefully by listening to what the Holy Fathers tell us, we will discover the meaning of what is true, and what is proper. By cherishing the inheritance of the saints, we will not stray in prayer.
Prayer as the path to holiness has been revealed in the lives and teachings of the saints, from whom we learn how to pray, and to whom we turn as our helpers in prayer.
The St Silouan the Athonite said that –
“All the Saints lived in prayer, and they call others to prayer. Prayer is the best of all activities for the soul. Prayer is the path to God. Through prayer we obtain humility, patience and every good gift.”
St Ignaty Brianchaninov explains that prayer finds its source in the Gospel and becomes the origin of all of the virtues of the Christian life – “the mother of all the virtues…” which “produces virtues from the union of the human spirit with the Spirit of the Lord.”
What are the Christian virtues which flow from a life of prayer?
- ἀγάπη – love
- χαρά – joy
- εἰρήνη – peace
- μακροθυμὶα – patience
- χρηστότης – kindness
- ἀγαθωσύνη – goodness
- πίστις – faith
- πραΰτης – gentleness
- ἐγκράτεια – self-control
Prayer is the mother of all of these, and St Seraphim points out that – as the means of acquiring the Holy Spirit – prayer is more important than all of these and every good gift that proceeds from it.
St Seraphim says:
“Of course, every good deed done for Christ’s sake gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but prayer gives us it most of all, for it is always at hand, so to speak, as an instrument for acquiring the grace of the Spirit. For instance, you would like to go to Church, but there is no Church or the Service is over; you would like to give alms to a beggar, but there isn’t one, or you have nothing to give; you would like to do some other good deed for Christ’s sake, but either you have not the strength or the opportunity is lacking. This certainly does not apply to prayer. Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and humble, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful.”
Prayer is always possible for everyone. This is one of the greatest wonders of prayer, and more than this, we should strive to pray whenever and as much as we can. Sadly, this is often thought to be the duty of priests, and even more so of monks and nuns, but when St Paul says to the Christian of the Church of Thessalonica, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” He is not speaking to clergy or monastics, but to ordinary Christian people, with families, responsibilities, jobs and demanding lives – people like us!
Pray without ceasing? How the earth do we begin to even get our heads around this phrase and understand the Apostle’s words?
The problem is that we often have a two-dimensional and imperfect idea of what prayer even is, with an obsession with words.
St Theophan both asks and answers the key question, “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.” and this is a good summary of what the Holy Fathers tell us about prayer.
St Silouan says, “He who loves the Lord is always mindful of Him, and remembrance of God begets prayer…” but St Isaac goes further than this by saying, “Every good care of the intellect directed toward God and every meditation upon spiritual things is delimited by prayer, is called by the name of prayer and under its name is comprehended…” In other words, even the mindfulness and remembrance of God may be considered prayer, even before we have said anything – even if we do not say anything. Even contemplation of divine things and knowing that we are in the presence of God is prayer and the mind turned to God – the mind that remembers God is already praying.
One of our parishioners once used the phrase God-minded and this word sums up exactly what St Isaac talks about. Our minds raised to God are in communion with God. Communion is prayer and the very purpose of prayer is to have communion with God – not to gain things, not to ask things, not to be seeking what we want, or what we think we need. No, the purpose of prayer is to have communion with God.
This was the experience of Adam and Eve in Paradise, when, in the coolness of each evening, God walked with them in the garden. This was the experience of Mary of Bethany as she sat at the feet of Christ in the home she shared with her brother Lazarus and sister Martha.
This is a very powerful idea, freeing us from our obsession with words and simply understanding our prayers as verbal expression (outer or inner) – albeit in conversation with God.
St Theophan makes it clear that words are only the outer clothing of prayer:
“Prayers are spiritual because they are originally born in the (human) spirit and ripen there by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. In their origin they (i.e. prayers, psalms, hymns, etc.) were purely spiritual and only afterwards came to be clothed in words and so assumed an oral form”
Furthermore, if we struggle to be God-minded then, following St Isaac’s train of thought, whether we say anything or not, we are maintaining prayer and prayerfulness, whatever we may be doing externally – in the office, at home, in the car, at work… in the supermarket.
And as we pray, we get better at praying. More than this, if we expect to make progress in prayer, we must struggle in remembrance of God and keep praying,
St Silouan reminds us that “Prayer comes with praying” and St Theophan makes the common-sense observation, “Success does not come instantly; one must be patient; one must labour without rest… All will come in due time… That this is so, is supported by the experience of all those people who are seeking and working out their salvation” (Letter 43).
What sort of Christians do we want to be? Do we want to be active and knowledgeable, participating in the life of the Church and having a real relationship with the Living God, in which we are truly alive.
St Theophan continues: “If the body has breath, it lives; if breathing stops, life comes to an end. So it is with the spirit. If there is prayer, the soul lives; without prayer, there is no spiritual life.”
In what I share here, I am not suggesting for one minute, that we abandon our practice of external prayer – far from it. However, I am encouraging you to understand living prayer as being far more than the very necessary prayers that we offer in the communal worship of the Church, or the daily prayer rule that each of us should all be maintaining.
By combining our external prayer with inner prayer – including raising our hearts and minds to God – we can grow and mature in prayer, grow in awareness of God and his immeasurable love for us, and see the fruits of the Gospel in our daily lives.
In the Liturgy we say, “Let us lift up our hearts… We lift them up unto the Lord.”
We should endeavour to do this hour by hour, day by day, so that our hearts are ALWAYS with on high the Lord.
And, let us understand and experience prayer as…
“… the refuge of help, a source of salvation, a treasury of assurance, a haven that rescues from the tempest, a light to those who are in darkness, a staff of the infirm, a shelter in time of temptations, a medicine at the height of sickness, a shield of deliverance in war, an arrow sharpened against the face of the enemies, to speak simply: the entire multitude of these good things is found to have its entrance through prayer.”
(St Isaac the Syrian)