By the mercy of God, we have completed the third week of Great Lent. What a joy it has been to be in the Church, to attend the services, and to commune with our Triune God. We have discussed that the foundation and purpose of Lent is our repentance, our return to God, and have learned that repentance is threefold, involving the means of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We learned that prayer for the departed is indeed a form of almsgiving. This week, I will focus more on prayer in general. We are encouraged to increase our prayer during this season of Lent; therefore it is of utmost importance that we reflect upon on what prayer is and why we need it so.
It would be good to begin with an understanding of what prayer is. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom describes it as an encounter with God: “to meet God means to enter into the ‘cave of the tiger’—it is not a…cat you meet—it’s a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it” (Beginning to Pray p. 15).
St. Joseph, one of the Holy Elders of Optina says, “Prayer is food for the soul. Do not starve the soul, it is better to let the body go hungry.” (Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina p. 84).
St. Anatoly of Optina says, “Prayer to God is always profitable. But precisely how, we do not know. He is the One Righteous Judge, but we can mistake a lie for the truth. Pray and believe.” (Living Without Hypocrisy p. 84).
Righteous Archimandrite Sophrony teaches that, “Prayer is infinite creation, far superior to any form of art or science. Through prayer we enter into communion with Him that was before all worlds. Or, to put it in another way, the life of the Self-existing God flows into us through the channel of prayer.”
To quote Archimandrite Sergius Bowyer, Abbott of St. Tikhon’s Monastery in South Canaan, PA, “According to St. John Climacus, prayer is defined as ‘converse and union with God.’ It is this personal conversation with God that affects our union with Him, enabling us to fulfill our task of actualizing our salvation. If prayer is right, the Fathers say, then everything else will be right. Our task in this short earthly life is to resume the dialogue that was lost with God in Paradise [the Garden of Eden]; to learn how to orient the heart, tuning its antennae to the frequency of God’s life and grace. It is in this way we acquire eternal life and salvation.” (Acquiring the Mind of Christ: Embracing the Vision of the Orthodox Church p. 11).
Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, from his volume “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology” states this, “Prayer is the manifestation of the Church’s life and the spiritual bond of its members with God in the Holy Trinity, and of all with each other. It is so inseparable from faith that it may be called the atmosphere of the Church or the breathing of the Church. Prayers are the threads of the living fabric of the Church body, and they go in all directions. The bond of prayer penetrates the whole body of the Church, leading each part of it into the common life of the body, animating each part and helping it by nourishing, by cleansing, and by other forms of mutual help (Eph. 4:16). It unites each member of the Church with the Heavenly Father, the members of the Church with each other, and the earthly members with the heavenly members. It does not cease, but yet more increases and is exalted in the Heavenly Kingdom.” (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology p. 311).
With this understanding of what prayer is, we must also realize what the foundation of our prayer must be: the Gospel. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the All-Holy Trinity became man in order to redeem humanity: this is our solid rock from which our prayer can spring from and be acceptable to God our Almighty Father. Our Lord assumed our fallen humanity and raised it to His Divinity, for “that which was not assumed was not healed” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol 2, #7, p. 648 at www.ccel.org). The Incarnation – our Lord’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, sitting at the right hand of the Father, offering the eternal Sacrifice of Himself to His Father, interceding on our behalf – is what makes our prayer possible. Our Lord’s entrance into the Holy of Holies in the Eternal Liturgy is what makes our prayer acceptable to God and can thus become the means of our process of salvation: purification, illumination, and deification (becoming by grace what God is by nature). The entire life of prayer is based on Jesus Christ and our participation in His very life – that is, our moment-by-moment acceptance of the Gospel. Our participation in the life of Jesus Christ is what the ascetic, sacramental, liturgical life of the Church is all about. Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone from which His Church is built; thereby, our prayer becomes the means through which we return to God. This is why the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that we can “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
The Holy Scriptures are filled with prayer. Indeed, one can read the Bible as a prayer, prayerfully connecting to God. The Psalms are especially important in the life of the Church, for they are the first hymns of the Church. Our Mother Church recommends that we pray Psalm 50 (51) LXX/MT faithfully every day without fail, for true prayer does not begin without repentance. We know this because our salvation is a process in which we go through different stages of purification, illumination, and God-willing, deification. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). The Church has understood that this is possible through the practice of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Countless monks, nuns, and holy persons have attained what’s known as the ‘prayer of the heart’ through the disciplined practice of the Jesus Prayer in the context of the Church. We, of course also pray the chief prayer our Lord taught, the “Our Father” multiple times throughout the day, for it is the quintessential prayer, and it teaches us how to pray. The Church gives us opportunities to pray throughout the day—by praying our morning and evening prayers, the Hours, Matins, Vespers, and of course, the Divine Liturgy.
But what do we do with all that God has given us in His Church? Do we take advantage of the services? The Hours? The Psalter? The Divine Liturgy? Do we allow ourselves to be changed by the prayers of the Church? Do we allow our personal prayers to be informed by the prayers of the Church? For truly we must do this. Prayer isn’t just for asking God to give us something and thanking Him in return or getting upset at Him when He doesn’t do what we want. Prayer is about our salvation and our return to God. If we allow ourselves to be immersed in the life of the Church, then certainly, certainly, we will allow ourselves to be transformed by conforming our wills and lives over to the care of God in His Church. God doesn’t need our prayer—we need it! We need to pray, because we need to be purified of our passions. We need prayer because we need to surrender our will to God’s will. We need prayer because we are so far from our Heavenly Father in our hearts, and we have barely even begun to return to Him. We need prayer because we need to be changed by God. To quote Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once again, prayer is “a longing in the heart for God Himself, not for His gifts, but for God Himself” (Beginning to Pray p. 17). If we forget that this is what prayer is all about—God – then we are missing the mark. Prayer is participation in the life of the All-Holy Trinity, for “in Him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).
Great Lent is given to us as a way to refocus our spiritual life, and to come back to the practice of prayer, which is often so neglected in our lives. How often do we put school, work, television, music, sports, household chores, etc. ahead of prayer in our lives? How far we have moved away from God! Let us do so no longer. God has given us this holy season in order to return to Him, our Heavenly Father, and to enter into unhindered perfect communion with Him. Let us use all the opportunities that God has given us to pray to Him and unite ourselves to Him in prayer. We lift up our prayers through the services, the hours, the prayer books, the Jesus Prayer, the sighs of our hearts, the Holy Scriptures, and the Divine Liturgy. So often we come to prayer with an attitude of ‘fulfilling a duty’ or ‘completing a chore.’ How wrong this attitude is! We are all guilty of approaching prayer this way at least in one moment in our life.
Let us strive with all we are to pray, knowing that it is an opportunity to come in direct contact with the Living God and to enter into His Presence, knowing that He is our life, our refuge and our strength. Let us cast aside our passions and sins that keep us separated from God, so that we may enter into intimate communion with Him and really begin to love Him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths through prayer. Let us allow God to make Himself present in our midst through prayer, as Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick says quoting Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk “God is present wherever human beings allow God to enter” (An Introduction to God p. 164). May God grant us all renewal to pray and return to Him with all our beings in the Holy Fast.
For Further Reading:
Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom http://www.amazon.com/Beginning-Pray-Anthony-Bloom/dp/0809115093/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459300822&sr=8-1&keywords=beginning+to+pray
Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina http://www.amazon.com/Living-Without-Hypocrisy-Spiritual-Counsels/dp/0884650928/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459300877&sr=8-1&keywords=living+without+hypocrisy
On Prayer by Archimandrite Sophrony
Acquiring the Mind of Christ: Embracing the Vision of the Orthodox Church by Archimandrite Sergius Bowyer
Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
The Orthodox Study Bible