If we are truly Christians, we will pray. But the very mention of prayer brings to mind many, many questions. What is prayer? How do we pray? What do we pray? When do we pray? Who should pray? Where should we pray? What does prayer accomplish? And the most difficult for some of all, why do we pray? For many, the answers may seem self-evident. For others, the questions, when honestly and deeply considered, are indeed difficult to answer.
One simple answer to what is prayer is “the mutual and personal encounter with God.” Archbishop Stylianos of Australia calls it “communication between created human beings and the uncreated God.” St. Dmitri of Rostov says this: “Prayer is turning the mind and the 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. Theophan writes “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” All of these are instructive and helpful. However, those who have tried in all earnest to pray deeply before the Holy Trinity know that this cannot be done without a great struggle. Our minds wander. We get tired. A noise interrupts our concentration. Even doubts arise.
In the end, whether we understand exactly how or what is to be done in prayer, the reason for prayer is that God calls us to it. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Luke 11:13. “Pray without ceasing.” 1 Thess. 5:17. “. . . praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.” Eph. 6:15. “He spoke a parable to them that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.” Luke 18:1. “Let my prayer come before you as incense.” Ps. 146:3. “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 Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’” Luke 11:1-4.
Prayer is both personal and corporate. It is corporate when we pray with the Church gathered, and in the Orthodox tradition it is always liturgical. There is no tradition of corporate prayer that is not liturgical. While the reasons are many, one primary reason is for the peace of those who pray, for we pray together that which has been blessed in the prayer life of the Church, most times for centuries. It is personal at any other time – when we pray in our homes, or at work, or traveling, or other. Both are necessary, for each strengthens the other.
It is needful to have a personal prayer “rule,” and order of regular prayer, just as the Church has its own liturgical schedule of prayer. It is most helpful to have a regular place for the personal prayer rule, but personal prayers can and should be prayed everywhere as well. Just as the corporate prayer of the Church includes petitions, thanksgiving, and praise, so should one’s personal prayer rule. One’s personal prayer rule will include both liturgical prayers and personal petitions as the one praying wishes to make. Additionally, it is appropriate and important to ask the intercessions of the saints and the Most Blessed Theotokos. Use of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”) should be used as one is able.
There are a number of excellent books on prayer – The Art of Prayer, edited by Igumen Chariton of Valamo; Beginning to Pray, by Metropolitan ANTHONY; The Path of Prayer, four homilies by St. Theophan the Recluse (see the links under Resources, Prayer); On Prayer, by Elder Sophrony. However, in the end, one will learn best by acutally:
1 Praying with the Church,
2 Praying personally, and
3 Seeking the counsel of one experienced in prayer. This counsel might simply be the ancient prayers of the Church if no one truly experienced is available.
Begin your life of prayer. Come pray with us!