We have discussed the services and the sacred Mysteries involving public worship. The line between this public and personal worship is not absolute. Certainly the daily cycle of services may be incorporated into the personal prayer life of the Christian—especially at waking and before sleep. Further, there are points during the public services when one prays privately—most notably, the Prayers of Preparation which are said quietly before going forward to receive holy Communion during the Divine Liturgy.
Before speaking about personal prayer, we might reasonably ask—just what is ‘prayer’? Christians speak of it often, but as with many special terms it is more frequently used than understood. As a word, ‘to pray’ simply means ‘to ask,’ it is not particularly special or spiritual in itself. But Holy Prayer, according to St. Theophanes the Recluse, is standing consciously in the Presence of God. This may involve formal prayers, spontaneous prayers, a short prayer repeated many times, or silent prayer with no words whatsoever. The goal of all these prayers, however, is to bring the Christian consciously before our God, Who is always present to us.
Prayers with texts which have already been composed provide the foundation for understanding how and why we pray—they are usually taken from the Holy Scriptures, from the personal prayers of holy men and women, or from the texts of the Church services. The foremost example of such a prayer is the ‘Our Father’ or the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, which Jesus Christ Himself taught His apprentices to use when they asked Him how they ought to pray. It is true that through repetition these prayers can become rote, but it is a mark of spiritual maturity that one has worked through the ‘dry, wooden’ phase of prayer, and that these set prayers become more living and dynamic than when they were first learned. We often have difficulty thinking of what to say in prayer—or our focus is inappropriate. These prayers form our ‘grammar’ of prayer and ground us in a sound attitude and theology.
It is customary to pray formal prayers first thing in the morning after waking, before meals, and immediately before going to sleep at night. While most Christians choose a suitable prayer book from an Orthodox publisher, this website has commonly-used prayers. It is best to start very small, but with consistency. The habit, the frequency, and the quality of prayer are far more important than the length of prayer.
For example, under ‘Morning Prayers’ in the linked webpage a beginner may choose simply to pray the first part, from “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit …” through “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen,” followed by spontaneous prayer. This same pattern is also appropriate for the beginner before bedtime. Following this pattern for several months at the least, saying the prayers slowly while attending to their meaning, beginners will establish the habit and quality of their daily prayer.
Just as a well-balanced diet is necessary for nourishing the body, a well-balanced practice of prayer is necessary for nourishing our relationship with God. If all we had were formal prayers, we might find ourselves at a loss for how to express some of our most poignant pains, the particular needs of ourselves or our loved ones, or how to give thanks for specific blessings. It’s often helpful to have a time for spontaneous prayers immediately following formal prayers—this ‘warms’ us to God, reorienting our attitude and our focus.
Spontaneity does not mean chaos, however, and it is helpful to structure our spontaneous prayers so that we do not become distracted trying to think of what to say. Two suggestions may be helpful in this regard.
A-C-T-S. This acronym represents a brief order for spontaneous prayer:
Adoration - we should always begin by adoring, or praising God for His goodness and mercy.
Confession - we then, in humility, confess our sins and our unworthiness.
Thanksgiving - we give God thanks for the specific blessings He has given us.
Supplication - finally, we ask God for specific needs; others’ needs first, then our own.
The Synaptí, or Collect. This brief prayer is helpful when praying for a specific need or outcome. Here is the structure, including a very simple example of each part, in italics.
1. We begin with an invocation of one or all three Persons of the Holy Trinity
- e.g. O Lord Jesus Christ,
2. Then continue with an attribute related to our need
- You Who are the Physician of our souls and bodies,
3. We ask directly for our specific need
- visit, and heal Your servant from his illness,
4. Then we ascribe the purpose for our prayer
- so that, having been raised from his bed of sickness, he might glorify Your divinity;
5. Finally, we close with a doxology in praise of the Trinity
- for You are a loving and merciful God, and we glorify You, together with your Father Who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit; both now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Of course, many times throughout the day we may may be moved simply to make the sign of the Cross and to say, “Thank you, God, for [blessing],” or, “God, help me with [difficulty].”
The Jesus Prayer
Taking into account all that we have said, we return to St. Theophánes’s definition of prayer: standing consciously in the Presence of God. One way that Christians have cultivated this consciousness of our ever-present God is by repeatedly calling on the Name of Jesus Christ. This repeated invocation is formulated in both the cry of the Blind Man, and the words of the Tax-collector as, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy upon me the sinner,” or yet more simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Much has been written about the practice of this Jesus Prayer, but it is simple enough to take some time to pray this way during a regular part of the day, and also when opportunity allows, especially during tasks that do not require our complete concentration.
For times when we would concentrate fully on God, the following is a simple means:
1. Find a quiet place—this will typically be your prayer corner where you have icons and a prayer book—although it needn’t be. Either stand straight and still with your feet about shoulder width apart, or sit on an armless bench or chair.
2. Decide on the duration of prayer—this may be a length of time (for which you will need a timer), or a set number of repetitions (for which it is helpful to have a prayer rope or rosary). Either way, it is fundamentally important that the quality of the prayer—consciously standing before God—be the sole focus, and not length of time or number of repetitions. A prayer rope is helpful for maintaining focus, even if using a timer.
3. Closing your eyes, breathe in slowly through your nose for about seven seconds, expanding not your chest, but your belly. This may take some practice, but it helps to relax the body. While breathing in, silently pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” or simply, “Lord Jesus Christ.”
4. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth, again for about seven seconds, drawing the belly back in. While breathing out, silently pray “have mercy upon me the sinner, “ or simply, “have mercy on me.”
- Our eyes remain closed, but we are not imagining anything. We use icons to show us that Jesus Christ and the saints are with us, we do not imagine them. We focus not on images, but through the words of the prayer we focus on God, Who is present to us.
- As thoughts come to us, we neither engage them, nor fight them—we simply allow them to pass through and leave. This includes lovely thoughts about God and also thoughts that disturb or disgust us—the point of the prayer is not to think about God, but to be with God. Do not even evaluate whether the thought is good or bad, whether it came from us or from somewhere else, whether we’ve forgotten to do something, or will have to do something immediately after prayer. Further, we do not allow ourselves to become distracted by the fact that we oughtn’t to be thinking about something. All these are common distractions and attempts by the enemy to keep us from focusing on God by shifting our focus to thoughts instead. Do not become anxious because of the thoughts, simply allow them to drift on past without touching them.
5. Once the duration is complete, you may want to spend some time in stillness, without repeating the words of the prayer and without focusing on thoughts—just breathing and being there with God. If the impulse is not there, that is fine—but if it is, receive it as a gift and remain in that silent stillness as long as you are able. Then, breathing in and out deeply a final time, return to your daily routine. If you can, carry that peace and stillness with you throughout the day.
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