TALK ON WHAT IS PRAYER

AND HOW SHOULD WE PRAY?
 

        25th October 2007

Homepage

 

   Back                     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
After last weeks talk I got thinking on what we should talk about this week and felt there was a great need to explain what prayer is. I got the impression that many people today do not understand the power of prayer and the need for prayer as a whole. Most people only remember that there is a God when they are in need of something, and usually resort to prayer when they suffer from some sort of ailment, when someone close to them is ill, when they are in trouble, when they need financial help, when they apply for a new position, in general when they have need of something worldly. At all other times they rarely think of God and live their lives without God and prayer. Others again have got into the habit of praying in the morning or before going to bed but don’t feel the need to pray throughout the day. On those rare occasions when they resort to prayer they expect God to respond by answering their prayers. If he doesn’t then that affects their belief in him and often people lose faith and say God didn’t help me when I needed him. Prayer from this point of view is not prayer at all. The meaning of prayer has been grossly distorted from its main purpose which is communion with God. So how should we pray and for what things should we pray for? Christ Himself, in his Sermon on the Mount, taught us how to pray and told us the things we should pray for. He said: when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matt. 6:6) This does not mean that we should enter into our room to be alone. The closet has always been interpreted as meaning our heart. We should look into our heart which no man can see but only God who sees the secret parts of man. He told us that our Father in heaven knows what things we have need of even before we ask him.(Matt. 6:8) Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they? And why take you thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. (Matt: 6: 25-34)
So we should not worry about everything that has to do with our worldly existence, but only seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. That is all that we should strive and pray for, everything else will be provided for if we believe in Christ’s words. True prayer then is to seek for God’s love, because the kingdom of God is love. Prayer is the means by which we ask God to help us love him and this is what we mean when we ask for God’s mercy. It goes without saying that God is love and his love is there for us to experience thus we don’t ask God to love us, we take it for granted that his love for us is total and unconditional. It is we who need to heal ourselves so that we may be able to experience God’s love. It is we who have a problem in our relationship with God. When we ask for God’s mercy we are in fact asking him to heal our existence in such a way as to allow him to find rest within our own hearts and bring about a union with his love. This is what we must first and foremost ask of God. When this happens then God offers us whatever else we might have need of. If fact, when this primary need has been satisfied then all other needs seem to fade away, they are not important to us anymore. We see things in a different light and even our infirmities are not seen as a burden but as a blessing. We can see an example of this from St. Paul’s life: After describing how he was caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter, he was in danger of glorifying himself for his holiness if he didn’t remember that he had a bodily ailment of the flesh which constantly reminded him that he was only human. In his own words he says: “I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be, or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12: 5-10)
Thus we should look upon our infirmities and difficulties as a blessing from God for they are often a source for us to grow stronger in faith. We should remember that nothing in our lives happens without a reason. This doesn’t mean that illnesses and troubles come from God. They are the result and consequences of the fall, but by accepting them as blessings we use them for spiritual growth. When health problems arise People often say within their hearts: why me O God, why have you allowed this to happen to me, me of all people who believes in you, who goes to Church every Sunday, why have you kept in good health that person who doesn’t believe in you, but have dealt with me in this way. This attitude reveals that we only have love of ourselves; our main concern is ourselves and definitely reveals our lack of faith in God. On the other hand, if we accept everything as God’s plan, then our troubles, our weaknesses become instruments that help us come closer to God’s love. That is why holy people never pray for their own afflictions, but only for God’s mercy. This doesn’t mean that we should not pray for other’s when they are in need. Praying for others is an act of love and as God is love and loves all of mankind, then we should also show love to all mankind. The most practical way for us to show love for others is by praying for them.
Usually the first stage where someone will seek God’s intervention is as we have already said when either they themselves or someone close to them is suffering from a serious illness. It is then that they remember God and seek for a miracle. If there was no illness then they would not remember that there is a God, so the illness is in fact a blessing in disguise: it forces the person to accept that there is a God and for the first time they reach out to God for his help. A communion with God has begun where before it was non existent. In these first stages God often responds and gives the person more opportunity to seek him. If the person responds positively then God will slowly guide him to what is necessary for his salvation.
Now there are various forms of prayer. Prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God. The things we petition for are also many, we ask God for all sorts of things especially in the liturgy and other church services. We ask for peace, a good harvest, protection for those at sea, good rainfall, etc.
The way we pray are also many. Prayer is of course devout words but also the outward signs of piety as: the sign of the Cross, bowing our head, kneeling, prostration, etc. But prayer can also be offered without words, and without other external manifestations. This is the inner or hidden prayer of a pious soul, which is familiar through experience to many earnest Christians.
The most widespread form of prayer is petition, offered in acknowledgment of our weaknesses, infirmities, and lack of experience. Because of sins and passions, our souls become weak and sick. Therefore, it is essential in prayer to ask God to forgive us and help us to overcome our faults. Sometimes requests are made because of an impending danger hanging over us, a need, etc. Petition in prayer is inevitable in view of our weakness and is readily accepted by the all-merciful Lord. But if our prayer has only a predominant character of request, that is, if all we do is continually demand things without also giving praise and thanksgiving; this indicates poor development of our spiritual life. It shows that we are not progressing spiritually: that we have not understood that prayer is to commune with God, that our aim in life is to be with God.
So we have seen that we should not continually seek things from God only for our worldly benefit, yet Christ said: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
And again he said: “Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in my name. Until now you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
Whatever one asks in the name of Jesus will be given. This does not mean that man can ask God for all and everything. He cannot ask for what is not needed, or for what is evil. He can ask, however, and must ask for "good gifts," for whatever can be asked in the name of Christ, for whatever is holy and sinless and good. If one asks for good things in faith, he will certainly receive them if God thinks that he should have them for his life and salvation. This is the promise of the Lord Himself.
If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. (John 15:7)
And whatever you ask in prayer, if you have faith, you will receive. (Matthew 21:22)
Every prayer directed to God in faith is answered. This does not mean that what is asked is always given, for God knows better than the person who prays what is good for him. For this reason the spiritual teachers warn us against being too long and insistent in our demands of the Lord other than for his mercy. God knows best what is needed thus it is always best to be brief in prayer, and not too specifically demanding. It is always best to pray: Give what is needed, O Lord. Thy will be done.

Regarding how to pray, St. Isaac the Syrian writes: Don't be thoughtless in your petitions, in order not to offend God by your foolishness. But rather be wise, to become worthy of the greatest gifts. Ask for a treasure from Him Who is a stranger to stinginess and you will receive a treasure from Him in accordance with the reasonableness of your request. Solomon asked for wisdom and together with it he received an earthly kingdom because he made a wise request before the Great King. Elisseus (Elisha) asked for a twofold portion of grace of the Holy Spirit and his request was not refused. To ask for trifles from the King insults his dignity.
Westerners not used to the Orthodox way of praying often accuse us that our Liturgical prayers are repetitive and. Yes, they are - by design: “Again and again, in peace, let us pray unto the Lord.” In this way the Orthodox Church is simply following the command or Our Lord that we should be persistent in prayer and not half-hearted. Twice in St. Luke’s Gospel, Our Lord commends people who are persistant in asking: The first is the friend we go to at midnight to ask for three loaves of bread because another friend of ours has visited us and we have nothing at home to offer him. And although the friend doesn’t want to get out of bed he gets up not because you are his friend, but because of your persistence and gives you as many loaves as you need. (Luke.11: 5-8) The second is the parable of the unjust judge. The Lord spoke this parable to show that men should always pray and not lose heart, He said: “There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying: Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.” (Luke18:1-8).
Another repetitive prayer is the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. People are quick to remind us that the Lord warned against vain repetition by which he meant hypocritical babblings. There is nothing vainly repetitious in the use of this prayer. Any believer who prays it must do so consciously, focusing on each word and the whole meaning. If it is used mechanically then yes it can become vain repetition. The Jesus prayer is a simple prayer used throughout the day to keep our minds on God thus fulfilling what St. Paul said that we should “Pray without ceasing”. (1 Thess. 5:17). It is repeated over and over, literally hundreds of times throughout the day and night, until it becomes unceasingly implanted in the heart as a gushing spring,a continual presence in the soul calling out to the Lord. It is often, but not necessarily, connected with ones breathing, so much so that it is uttered with every breath. (St. Gregory the Theologian; St. John Chrysostom) There are various stages to the Jesus Prayer. It begins by being said vocally, then silently with the lips, then with the mind and then by joining the mind to the heart, the last stage is the gift of grace which takes its abode in the heart. One can continue this unceasing prayer even while engaged in the normal activities of life, while reading or writing, and even while sleeping, thus the body sleeps, but the heart is awake. Then, when one awakes from ones bed, one finds that the prayer is continuing itself. This is of course in the advance stage of the prayer.
The choice of this particular verse Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner has a theological and spiritual meaning.
First of all, it is centred on the name of Jesus because this is the name of Him whom God has highly exalted,”(Acts 5:31) the name given to the Lord by God Himself (Luke 1:31), the name which is above every name. (Philippians 2:9)
“For there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
All prayer for Christians must be performed in the name of Jesus: if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:14)
The fact that the prayer is addressed to Jesus as Lord and Christ and Son of God is because this is the centre of the entire faith revealed by God in the Spirit.
That Jesus is the Christ, and that the Christ is Lord is the essence of the Christian faith and the foundation of the Christian church. To believe and proclaim this is granted by the Holy Spirit. no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:3) and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.(Philippians 2:11)
The second part of the prayer Have mercy on me a sinner is the publicans prayer. When uttered with humble conviction it brings divine justification. (Luke 18:9-14) Generally speaking, divine mercy is what man needs most of all. It is for this reason that the numberless repetitions of the request for the Lord's mercy is found everywhere in the prayers of the Church.
But to pray without ceasing is easier said than done. How does someone begin to train oneself to have remembrance of God all the day long and eventually all night long.
The beginner should take things very slowly in the beginning establishing in his daily timetable a set time that he will use for his daily prayers. Each person desiring to live the spiritual life should have his own rule of prayer. It should be brief and regular, such that it could be kept in all conditions and circumstances. In this set rule of prayer, the prayers of the Church should be used, the Lord's Prayer and those from the prayer book.
The set times of prayer are very important, and should not be put aside for any reason, even when one prays continuously in his heart. This is the teaching and practice of the saints. This gives discipline in prayer and provides instruction and inspiration in prayer which is perfectly trustworthy and sound, having demonstrated its power in the lives of the saints. In this set time for prayer one can introduce the Jesus Prayer saying it aloud with the lips. In the beginning the novice should keep to a minimum and perhaps limit himself to only one hundred prayers to begin with. To keep count of the prayer a komposkini should be used. The normal komposkini is a prayer rope made of a 100 knots. The komposkini is also an aid to help concentrate on the prayer. When praying, it is important to turn away from our usual cares and preoccupations, collect our scattered thoughts, as if closing the door of the soul against all that is worldly, and direct all our attention towards God. Then without rushing the prayer try to keep focused on the prayer trying to observe each word as it comes out of the mouth. You will notice that even after only four or five times of saying the prayer, the mind has already lost its focus on the prayer and has started to wander and think of other things that seem important. This is natural and to be expected at this stage. This is the beginner’s stage. It takes time, practice and growth to master the skill of praying, we would not expect a child to act as if he is a university graduate. When we are beginners we are bound to face difficulties and make mistakes. We will pray in an imperfect way. So having that in mind one mustn’t lose hope or courage that he cannot focus and then lose interest in getting into the habit of prayer, but just redirect the mind back to the prayer. It takes a lot of hard work and persistence to master any skill. Do not attempt to do more than one komposkini” (100 Jesus prayers) until you have accustomed yourself to the prayer. For the rest of the day use short prayers asking God to bless everything that you do. For example on waking praise God for the new day, thank him for raising you from sleep and ask him to bless your day. If you have a set rule for the morning, say your prayers and then ask him to bless your breakfast or your morning drink. As you leave your home to go to work, ask him to bless your exit and safeguard your return. As you get into your car ask him to bless your journey, as you begin work ask him to bless your work and workplace. Ask him to bless and enlighten your work colleagues that working side by side with them you do not encounter problems of jealousy and stress related tempers. In fact in everything we do we should first ask God to bless our actions and in this way we get into the habit of remembering God throughout the day. This is a form of unceasing prayer and can easily be adapted into one’s life. When we have mastered this stage we can then go to the next stage of saying the Jesus prayer not only at our set time for prayer but at every opportunity that we don’t have to concentrate on our work. For example during our coffee and lunch breaks and if our work is not of the mental kind but manual and doesn’t demand concentration then these are excellent opportunities to practice saying the prayer. At these times the prayer should be said silently otherwise people will think that there is something wrong with you. Gradually you will notice a difference in yourselves. You will be saying the prayer without even being conscious of praying. The prayer is becoming part of your life and soon you will wonder how you ever lived without it.
The Jesus Prayer basically is used in three different ways. First as the verse used for the prayer of the heart in silence in the hesychast method of prayer. Second as the continual mental and unceasing prayer of the faithful outside the hesychast tradition like the way we have described above, and thirdly as the brief prayer used to ward off temptations. Of course, in the actual life of a person these three uses of the prayer are often interrelated and combined.
The second use of the Jesus Prayer (outside the hesychast method for unceasing prayer) is to repeat the prayer constantly and continually, whatever one is doing, without the employment of any particular bodily postures or breathing techniques. This is the way taught by St. Gregory Palamas in his short discourse about how unceasing mental prayer is the duty of all Christians. Anyone can do this, whatever his occupation or position in life. This also is shown in the book “The Way of the Pilgrim”, which everyone who is serious of the practice of the Jesus Prayer should read.
The purpose and results of this method of prayer are those generally of all prayer: that men might be continually united with God by unceasing remembrance of His presence and continual invocation of His name.
The third method of using the Jesus Prayer is to have it always ready for moments of temptation. In this way, as St. John Climacus has said, you can flog your enemies, i.e. the temptations, with the name of Jesus for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 21) When one practices the continual prayer of the heart, and when the temptations to sin enter the heart, they are met by the prayer and are defeated by grace.
But coming back to the first method, the use of the Jesus prayer in the hesychast method of prayer called “Prayer of the heart” this requires always and without exception the guidance of a spiritual guide, one must not use this method unless one is a person of genuine humility and sanity, filled with all wisdom and peace. To use this method without guidance or humble wisdom, is to court spiritual disaster, for the temptations that come with it are many. It is usually used with aids which help concentration of the prayer. The person sits on a stall in total darkness or with only the light of a candle or vigil light, with his head bowed and his eyes directed toward his chest. He continually repeats the prayer with each breath, placing his mind in his heart by concentrated attention. Thus as he inhales he says the first part of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and as he exhales the second part “have mercy upon me a sinner.” Breathing in this way helps to concentrate on the words of the prayer and by keeping one’s mind near the heart area one soon becomes aware of the rhythm of the heartbeats which again help to rhythm the prayer with the beating of the heart. Quite soon the person feels his heart warming as though it is on fire. In this state he may find an ineffable sweetness welling up in his soul. We should not seek this sweetness as such consolations are not always of divine origin. We should, rather, praise God that the prayer is proving to a blessing in our Christian lives. This is actually a very natural stage of the prayer which many people misinterpret as the grace of the Holy Spirit. They become puffed up with pride thinking that they have succeeded in such a short while what many monks do not achieve in a lifetime of prayer. The grace of God does not come by using mechanical methods of concentration. That is why the fathers continually warn us of the dangers of these techniques and should only be attempted with the guidance of a spiritual father experienced in prayer of the heart. Bishop Theophan (1815-1894) tells that the bodily postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his time since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only in ruining their lungs. (The Art of Prayer, lgumen Chariton) So mechanical aids or mental techniques are not at all necessary. What is important is to pray with humility, without expecting reward. In time God will intensify and strengthen your prayer and at a time that God will allow the prayer will become automatic. Without effort the prayer will repeat in your heart whatever you might otherwise be doing and not only while you are awake but also while you are sleeping For as it says in Holy Scripture: I sleep but by heart waketh (Song of Songs 5:2) This stage is accompanied with tears, not the sentimental tears which we associate with females, but uncontrollable tears of repentance. And tears are necessary and an integral part of real prayer. It cleanses the heart of all the defilements that Christ mentions are hidden in the heart and replaces them with love for God and all creation. With the heart cleansed, God can now take his abode there. This is the last stage of the prayer. The grace of Christ lives in the heart. We become the dwelling place of God, when He lives within us and we become the temple of God where remembrance of Him is not disturbed by earthly cares, and the mind is not distracted by unexpected thoughts. This then is the kingdom of God that Christ said is within us. This stage is connected with the vision of the uncreated Light that we read about in the lives of the saints, but it is not reserved only for the saints. We are all called to be saints and unceasing prayer – the prayer of the heart of the Orthodox Church has for two thousand years proven that with proper use it can open the doors of the kingdom to all who seek it.