Fr. Thomas Hopko · November 17, 2011
Fr. Tom is frequently asked about personal prayer and how the Orthodox Christian should approach the life of prayer at home.Today's episode gives practical and biblical direction particularly as we begin the Nativity Fast.
On Ancient Faith Radio now I have a podcast, a new series that began relatively recently, called Worship in Spirit and Truth. And in that podcast which is—you can click on it, if you’d like to—I’m commenting on the liturgical worship of the Christian Church, the Orthodox Christian Church. In other words, what does the Church do when it gathers before the face of God? How does the Church actualize itself and realize itself as a community of people in worshipping God? Hearing God’s word, singing God’s praises, petitioning God according to his will for his assistance and guidance and help; and, basically, offering ourselves: our bodies, our souls, our whole life, our whole world to God, together with Christ; our broken bodies, spilled blood, shed blood, together with Jesus Christ, to God the Father in the Holy Eucharist.
I have this series now, called Worship in Spirit and Truth. I already laid the foundation in the Old Testament of how it is prefigured there, but how Christian worship comes to its head, of course, with the death, resurrection, glorification of Christ, the sending of the Holy Spirit, and so what the New Covenant worship is is in Christ: what is the saving commandment that Christ tells us to do in remembrance of him? How do Christians worship? How do Christians enter into Christ’s worship and communion of God the Father in the Holy Spirit? There’s a whole series on that.
And the way I’m doing that—this is, kind of, a commercial I guess, or advertisement—I’m doing it, I’m going to begin right now, very soon. I laid the foundations as best I could, but I’m going to begin now just going through the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom line by line, word by word, act by act. What do we do? What are we supposed to be doing? What are we saying? What are we supposed to be saying? What does that mean? I’m going to try to do it in as great a detail as I possibly can.
So anyone who’s interested in the Divine Liturgy as now celebrated in the Orthodox Church, namely the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great, then, if you would like, you can listen to my commentary on that. And of course my commentary comes from my own teachers, from the books I’ve read. I even give a long bibliography there of what really wonderful books that people could read about this subject. But I try to put it together, and I try to do it with more of a self-consciously—how can you say?—Scriptural foundation, and then also to deal with contemporary issues of worship in the Church and in the world today.
Now, having done that, I’ve received a few e-mails where I made the comment in Worship in Spirit and Truth that the Divine Liturgy is not a devotion. It’s not a prayer service. It’s not people coming together to say their prayers and to express their feelings about prayer and so on. That’s not what it is. And in fact, in a technical sense, the leitourgia, the liturgy, the common work of God’s people, it is always prayer, because whatever you do, you’ve got to pray! And we pray at the Liturgy, of course; we have litanies and we pray. But it’s much more than prayer: it’s gathering; it’s singing; it’s psalmodizing; it’s contemplating the word of God; it’s hearing the Apostles’ teaching; it’s hearing the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; it is hearing the sermon and the explication by someone qualified to do that of what the words of the Lord mean, and the Apostles and what the Gospel is. And then we intercede and we pray for the world; we pray for each other; we pray for all kinds of people: sick, suffering, travelling, whatever. And then we offer ourself to God with Christ in the bread and the wine. And then you have the whole Eucharistic action, which in some sense is a prayer. It certainly is a prayer, but it’s not simply ‘praying’. It’s not just going there to pray.
And certainly we don’t just go to church to say our own prayers. We don’t go to church to say our private personal prayers. Probably the best line, which I love to repeat on this point, was made by St. Benedict, a very famous man who founded, practically the founder of Western monasticism, certainly communal monasticism. But he himself was taught by the Desert Fathers and by the early Egyptian Fathers through people like Cassian and so on. The same Benedict says, you know, when we gather as Church, we don’t put our mouth where our mind is, or where our heart is. Just the opposite. We put our mind and heart where our mouth is. In other words, the words and the acts and the rituals are given to us and we learn what they mean and how to apply them through doing them. We don’t come to express our own feelings in the Liturgy, and in that sense it’s not simply prayer.
Now, technically speaking, even the word leitourgia, as a common action, doesn’t even mean prayer. And there are other kinds of words, like psalmodia, hymnodia, singing hymns, chanting psalms, which are not technically prayer. But the word ‘prayer,’ euche, proseuche, it means a petition. It means what you ask for; it means what you do, so to speak, every minute of your life. Certainly when you’re in church.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to joke, he liked to joke, but he would say: “Do we pray when we go to church?” And his answer would be: “Yes, of course we pray, because we are commanded as Christians to pray at all times. So we should also pray even when we go to church.” Here’s the joke: we should pray when we go to church. But, in a sense, we don’t go to church to pray.
And there are those who say, you know: “What have you got to go to church to pray for?” You know, some people will say you can go out in a field, you can look at the beautiful tree out the window here, and you can pray to God. You can pray in the secret of your own heart. You can get two or three together, go into a room and say some prayers. You know, there’s very many ways to prayer. Even in the Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus said: “When you pray, go into a room and shut the door and pray to God in secret and the One who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6) And then he even says:
When you pray, don’t pile up lots of words like the pagans do, but God knows what you need before you even ask him.
So when you pray, say:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
May your name be holy; may your kingdom come;
May your will be done as in heaven so also on earth.
Give us this day the super-substantial bread of the coming age.
That’s what ‘daily’ means, by the way. It doesn’t even mean daily.
And deliver us from all that we owe and all our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us and who owe us.
And then let us stand when we are tested and tempted and tried in these final tribulations,
And deliver us from the Evil One (Matthew 6:7-13).
“Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from the Evil One.” So Jesus tells us what to say when we pray.
You know, I can’t resist saying how when I used to work at the seminary, I used to love how on the first days of Lent we’d have these long services. We wouldn’t have any classes but we would pretend, you know, for a couple of days, that we were monks and nuns. And we’d go to church and we’d do all the psalms and all the hymns and all the canons and all the biblical canticles and it would go on for ever and ever. And it was fun to watch because on the first and second day of Lent you’d be going to church and people, students, would be standing there for two or three hours and then there would be little verses, they call them stichera, verses at the end and on the end of Matins, which would say:
Let us not be many-worded in our prayer, O brethren.
But let us raise our heart and say to God:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
And that’s all it would say, you know, and I thought: “ ‘Let us not be many-worded’? We’ve been here for three hours already!” But during those three hours, as a matter of fact, we were mainly psalmodizing, listening to Scriptures, and singing the canticles of the Bible. We were ruminating the Word of God; we were letting it dwell in us. We were not saying our petitionary prayers, not at all, you know.
But when it comes to the petitionary prayer, we’re told what to say. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” This is what Jesus said. In St. Luke’s Gospel he said, when the disciples said: “Lord, teach us to pray as John the Baptist taught his disciples,” the Lord said: “When you pray, say:...” And then he gave the Lord’s Prayer, the Lukan version (Luke 11). In Matthew’s Gospel—those are the two places you find the Lord’s Prayer—the Lord’s Prayer is given in the context of the Sermon on the Mountain where he says: “When you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray then like this: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’ ” So Luke says: “When you pray, say:...” Matthew says: “Pray then like this:...” and gives us the words. And we always begin with the words that the Lord gives us.
So people are asking, you know, “Well, how do you understand the relation between personal prayer in your heart, your private prayer in your room, and the liturgical prayer of the gathered Church, the corporate body, the body praying led by its bishops and priests in the formal act of the prayer of the Church itself? How do those interrelate?”
Well, here I would say the following: I used to teach a course in personal prayer at the seminary and I always used to—I like to joke a little bit too, as you know—and I used to say to the students, after reading all the Holy Fathers for years and years, after reading through everything and so on, I myself discovered what my mother told me when I was a boy. She told me you’ve got to do three things: you’ve got to say your prayers, you’ve got to go to church, and you’ve got to remember God. Never forget God. And actually, when you take the writings of the volumes and volumes of the Church Fathers on this subject, and based on the Holy Scripture of course, you come to that very conclusion that my mother came to, having not gone to school longer than sixth grade. She went to church all her life, though! So she knew what to say.
But basically I think, if we want to just lay this out a little bit, in a kind of simplistic form, what we would say is that all prayer is personal. Even when you go to church you’ve got to pray. You’ve got to make it personal. You’ve got to engage the words that are there given to you and put into your mouth with all your mind and with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your strength. Prayer is an act of love. Basically, prayer is loving God; it’s an expression of loving God and wanting what God wants and wanting to hear what God has to say and wanting to put it into practice and so on. And you do that when you go to church, for sure. Absolutely: it’s got to be personal. We’re not robots; we’re not machines.
We use a language that we can understand, hopefully. In fact, in the old days we used to criticize the Roman Church for Latin, saying, “Well, you can just mouth these words, but you’ve got to know what they mean. You’ve got to put your heart into it. You’ve got to put your mind into it. You’ve got to pray with understanding.” Well, you certainly have to do that when you go to church, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m going to have this long, long series commenting on the Divine Liturgy: to show how it can come alive for us, how we can personally engage it, how we can bring our own life into it and bring it into our life. It’s got to be personal.
And that would mean even, very simply, when you say certain petitionary prayers in the Liturgy, like for the sick and the suffering, you bring to mind people that you know who are sick. When you pray for travellers you bring to mind people who are travelling. When you pray for the bishops, you remember your bishop and think about what’s going on. And you bring your personal attitude; if you think your bishop’s in trouble, then you really pray at that point for your bishop. So it is alive. It’s personal; it’s not mechanical. We’re not robots; we’re not just going through forms, but the ritual has to be there and we’ve got to enter into the ritual.
And that’s very Orthodox, because we pray not only with our mind and our mouth. We pray with our movement, we pray with our body, and we pray with our acts, our actions. And God gives us ritual actions. The Old Testament was filled with ritual actions. You know: “Do this on the Sabbath day. Do this on Passover. Offer these kind of sacrifices. Do it in this way.” That’s all given by God. And I’m afraid some Protestants always don’t get that point.
I knew an Orthodox priest who was raised as a Protestant, his dad was a Protestant minister and they were in a kind of a church where the father wouldn’t even pray the Lord’s Prayer. Because he said, “That’s just a fixed prayer and it’s just uttering words. You’ve got to pray only in your own words and only from your heart for prayers to be real.” Well, we would say that’s simply not true. And, by the way, when you try to do it you end up repeating the same stuff over and over anyway. And it might be a better idea to use the words that God gave than making up your own; that would help immensely. Anyway, Jesus Christ said: “When you pray, say:...” and he said, “Pray then like this:...” We ought to obey him, right?
So we do go to church; that was one of my mother’s points: “Go to church.” So we have to be a member of the Church, a member of the body. We have to put ourselves there and do it personally in an alive, engaged manner. That’s what we want to do. However, there are two other elements of personal prayer that are absolutely essential and, in my mother’s words, they would be, “Say your prayers,” and the other one would be, “Never forget God.” Continuously pray; ceaselessly pray.
So let’s look at the first one: say your prayers. And here, personal prayer, the private prayer, is when you go into your room and shut your door and pray in secret. Every one of us is supposed to have a rule of prayer that’s just our own, individually our own, personally our own. It’s a rule that we keep for ourself every day. It certainly consists in saying the Lord’s Prayer; it can consist of what we Orthodox call the Trisagion prayers: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” It can consist in saying, having some Psalms, so that psalmody can be part of the rule. In fact, Psalm 51 is one that, in my youth, even the people who couldn’t read were taught to memorize: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.” It was the most-used Psalm in Liturgy and a very important Psalm for penitents and for what life is about.
And then there’s the Nicene Creed that you have to remember; you can say the Creed to remember your baptism: I believe in one God, I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism. I look for the resurrection of the dead, I expect it, and life in the coming Kingdom.
So these are things we do, but we can do them privately. We do them by a rule, we do them in our room, we shut the door. And St. John Chrysostom said whenever we pray, even if we’re in the great congregation, even if we’re in a Liturgy with hundreds of people, the door still should be shut. You know? We should be praying in the depths of our heart; we shouldn’t be praying to show off. We shouldn’t be praying to have people see that we’re praying.
And, by the way, that would be an absolutely fixed rule in Orthodox spiritual tradition: when you go to the Divine Liturgy in a congregation, you do what the people there are doing. If they sit down, you sit down, you don’t stand there like a candle. If they don’t walk around kissing all the icons, let’s say before Communion, you don’t do that, even if it’s your practice in your own church. The old saying: you don’t bring your own rule into someone else’s monastery. Or as St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, was told by St. Ambrose when she asked about what she should do when she goes to Rome, to church; he said: when in Rome do as the Romans do. So, when we go to church, we don’t bring attention to ourself. We’re not supposed to appear to be praying, even when we’re in the great congregation. And John Chrysostom says there are people who are in church and the whole world knows that they’re praying and they’re showing off how they pray, and even when they go in their room and shut the door the whole world knows that they’re in there and they’re shutting the door because they’re praying. Well, that’s not what we’re supposed to do.
And the Holy Fathers, I mean, this was even quoted, by—I don’t know why I say ‘even’—but it was made a strong point in the teaching of St. Dimitry of Rostov in Russia when he summarized the Fathers, when he said the closet, the door that we can go into is our own heart. In other words, we could be riding on a subway, we could be sitting in a classroom, we could be eating our lunch, but we could be praying with God in the depth of our heart consciously and nobody knows that we’re doing it. And we shouldn’t be showing that we’re doing it.
And by the way, in our tradition we never use prayer to rebuke somebody, or to criticize somebody. We don’t pray against anybody publicly, we don’t use prayer for, I don’t know, political demonstrations or something. I don’t know, we shouldn’t be out on the street saying some prayers at an abortion center or even reciting the rosary or something. That’s not the place for that. Praying should be done in secret in the depth of our heart.
Even in the Divine Liturgy, after the Liturgy of the Catechumens is over, the psalms are sung, the epistles, the Scriptures, are read and the sermon is given, we close the doors. We say only the faithful should be in here. We’re not here to use this as some kind of, I don’t know, rebuke or missionary tool or whatever. The prayer has to be secret. So even the communal prayer should in some sense be secret; the Divine Liturgy, at least the second half, should be somehow secret. We’ll talk about that in the other podcast series.
However, when we talk about personal prayer, it would be a rule that every one of us should have a rule that we try to keep, where we say certain prayers every day. And that would include intercession for other people: people that we know, people who are sick, people who are troubled. That would include even sitting in silence before the face of God. It might include saying some Jesus prayers, some short meditative prayer to concentrate on God. It might include reading a few psalms. It can include even Scripture reading, the lectio divina, reading a few lines of the Holy Scripture. That could be part of our rule that we do at home.
And here every person and every family, even, should have some kind of a rule of prayer that it keeps. A family is a mikrē ecclesia, as Chrysostom says, a little church. So in our family we have our kitchen table, dining table, we have our icons and so on. But there still is the individual person, and even here in a family, each individual person should have his or her own prayer rule, his or her own secret prayer that even the other members of the family don’t know about, and this is very important.
Now in this rule, in Orthodox tradition, usually there’s never free prayer said in public. We don’t even pray in our own words in family prayer. We might say, “God bless this person or that person,” that’s okay, that’s part of a ritual, so to speak. But we don’t just express our own mind and so on; that’s for secret before God. So, when we’re in our room and the door is shut, we have these prayers that are given to us, but then we enter into what we might call our own intercourse with God, our own intimate speech with God, our own dialogue with God.
We talk to God, but we never begin in our own words. We always begin in the words that are given to us and then we go into our own words, privately, secretly, and then we may even go beyond words into silence. And, in our tradition, that would be the deepest and the highest form of personal prayer. Beyond, where even our heart is so established in God, like St. Seraphim of Sarov said, we’re even beyond praying in the terms of petitioning. We’re just before God in silence, or just saying, “Amen! So be it. Your will be done.” And that’s it; we get less and less specific.
And here I would claim that in personal prayer [as] we become less and less specific the wiser, the deeper, and the more Christian we become. We stop explaining to God what he already knows and telling him what he ought to do about it, which is what lots of people’s prayer, too many people’s prayer is. Fr. Schmemann used to quote his spiritual father, the Archimandrite Cyprian, who said: for many people prayer is explaining to God what he already knows and then telling him what he ought to do about it: “Lord, today is Thursday.” I don’t know: “The sun is shining and my friend Michaela is having an operation.”
God knows all that, you know. You may have to remind yourself of it, but then you can pray to God for your friend Michaela, who’s having this surgery today, which is actually the case for me right now. But I also have to say, “Please let it go well; please let her be healed, if it be your holy will. Let your will be done; give her the strength to bear what she has to bear, and let it be for the salvation of her soul and ours, too.” That’s the petition that we would make, because we pray according to Christ.
And that’s what “in the name of Christ” means. Personal prayer is always in the name of Christ. It doesn’t mean that we say, “We ask this in the name of Jesus.” That’s a formula; you could use it if you want. The Orthodox tradition of the East doesn’t know that formula. We don’t have in nomine Jesu, in the name of Jesus; we just don’t use it. Because the usual interpretation of praying in Jesus’ name doesn’t mean just invoking the name; it means being according to who he is and what he teaches. So all prayer should be according to what Christ teaches. That’s what it means to pray in the name of Christ. So whatever we ask in his name, that is, according to what he teaches, we can be absolutely sure that he will give. The problem is we’re praying a lot of times for things that he would never have us pray for.
Now, if we want to know, what is the paradigmatic petition to pray, that would be the Lord’s Prayer. And here, if you’re interested in this, I’ll make another advertisement: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press sells a set of CDs of twelve hours where I go through, line by line, word by word, the Lord’s Prayer. Because I’m afraid, especially in English translation, we don’t really always catch what it is we’re supposed to be petitioning, what we’re supposed to be asking for. But Jesus says, he tells us what to ask for by giving us the Lord’s Prayer. And here St. Isaac, St. John Cassian, St. Gregory and others point out that in the Lord’s Prayer there’s nothing there temporal, nothing earthly, nothing having to do with this life. It’s not about health, wealth, and happiness. It’s about doing God’s will and entering into his kingdom and bringing his kingdom into this world.
Now, that does not mean that in the secret of our heart, in our room, we cannot ask God for what we want. We can certainly pray, “O Lord, let me get that job. O Lord, let me marry Lucy. O Lord, deliver me from my carnal passions.” Or whatever it is. But we still have to always add, “Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done. Maybe you don’t want me to marry to Lucy. Maybe you don’t want me to have that job, and maybe even, in this sense or at this moment in my life, you want me to struggle with my carnal passions. You don’t want me to be delivered from them; you want me to learn how to handle them and overcome them.” St. Paul had a thorn in the flesh; three times he asked God to take it from him and God said, “No.” And Paul called this a messenger of Satan sent to harass him! So we all have our messengers of Satan that God sends to us to harass us. We’ve got to learn how to deal with those things and we can pray about it specifically, in secret, in our room, by a rule of prayer.
But in addition to that, using my mother’s formula, you also have the prayer of the heart, the ceaseless prayer. My mother’s way of putting it would be, “Never forget God. Always remember God.”
So we go to church and we pray with the great congregation, we pray within the body of Christ, we pray as one member of the people of God. We pray being led by our bishops and our priests, we pray with all of the other baptized, and, in that particular common worship, we worship according the biblical teaching prefigured in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. We have, in place of Sabbath, Sunday. In place of the Old Testamental feasts, like Pascha or Passover, Pentecost, we have the new Pascha, the new Passover, the Resurrection of Christ; the new Pentecost, the new Booths, Transfiguration. We have the new Feast of Lights, the Birth of Christ in this world. And we have, even, the new sacrificial system; we don’t have all these different sacrifices like in the Levitical code. Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all and it covers them all. But still we bring all those intentions to the sacrifice; we want to be a peace-offering, a praise-offering, a thanks-offering, a guilt-offering, an offering for redemption and so on. So all of that is fulfilled and that’s what we do as Church. And we have to enter into that and bring ourselves personally and alive and awake into that worship.
Then we have, we go into our room, we shut the door, we say our prayers. We repeat the Lord’s Prayer seven or eight times a day—that can be done in the heart too, outside the room, of course, I’ll just say that in a minute. But in any case we do have some kind of a rule that we try to keep.
But then we have the constant prayer. St Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” St. Paul says, “Be constant in prayer.” St. Paul says, “Whatever you do, do with prayer to the glory of God.” So ceaseless prayer is a personal act of every person. If we are not constantly praying we’re not a human being. We’re not a creature of God, we’re not a believer, we’re not a baptized person. We have to be remembering God and calling on God in the depth of our heart no matter what we’re doing, at all times.
Here the Holy Fathers say that when our mind is not specifically occupied with doing something, like, I don’t know, I’m giving this talk now, once I turn this machine off and the talk’s over I should consciously begin to pray again. I should pray to God: “Use that talk for good. If I said something stupid, let the people miss it. If I make a real mistake and somebody’s got to correct them, let them write me an e-mail.” You know, I’ve got to pray to God that it be done the way he wants it done. So there is this conscious prayer of the heart, never forgetting God.
And the saints say, following the Scripture, that it can even be done when we’re sleeping. The Song of Songs in the Bible says, “I sleep, but my heart is awake.” So when I’m sleeping I’m unconsciously praying and I may even be fighting terrible phantoms and dreams and so on when I’m sleeping. [For] some of us, one of the crosses that we bear are terrible dreams, horrid, horrid dreams. Some people have that; it’s terrible, it’s something… but God may want a person to have to deal with that, too. If you’ve got them you’ve got to deal with it, right? And you can’t pray to God, just, “Take it away!” You can say, “Take it away,” but maybe God doesn’t want to take it away, so you have to say, “Let me deal with it properly.” God doesn’t take our crosses away; he teaches us how to transform them into victories, how to use our crosses, our suffering, our temptations, for our salvation and the salvation of others.
But you do have this ceaseless prayer, and here our tradition would say the best way to do it is have a little prayer that you constantly repeat, like “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” or “Lord Jesus, deliver me from myself.” or “Lord Jesus, enlighten my darkness.” or “Lord Jesus, free me from my idols.” or “Lord Jesus, let me have self-knowledge.” or “Lord Jesus, give me true love for your people.” or, “Lord Jesus, may your will be done in my life.” It doesn’t even matter, according to the saints, what the words are, but the attitude of constantly calling on God, and we each find the words that fit our situation. They’re very personal in that sense. We all have to do that.
So I would say that if a person would ask, “How do Christians personally pray?” well, we personally pray all the time personally: in our own way, in our own mind, in our own heart, in our own life, in our own conditions; we sanctify the life that’s actually given to us. We pray to be the person that God made us to be here and now, to do what God wants us to do here and now. So it’s always personal. There is no impersonal prayer; it doesn’t exist. Prayer is always personal.
So we do pray when we go to church, and we try to make those words, in church, as personal as we can. And we try to engage them with our own person as deeply, truly, authentically, and genuinely as we can. But, if that’s the only time we’re praying, we’re not going to get very far and we’re not going to be very fruitful, or, if you want to use a good American word, we’re not going to be very ‘successful.’ It ain’t going to work.
In fact, forget about success. The Holy Fathers say God tells us to be faithful, not successful. If we’re successful, that’s his business. But we can know we’re not going to be successful or fruitful according to God’s will if we’re only praying on Sunday morning when we go to church and go through a prayer book with other people and hardly even understand and know what is it that’s happening and what it means and having no personal engagement or connection with it practically at all. That ain’t going to work.
It’s not going to work either if we go to church and just say our own personal private prayers and take our own needs to God during the Divine Liturgy when we’re supposed to be praying with one mind, one heart, and one mouth with everybody else that’s there, in a dialogical congregational prayer of a whole body. Where the priest says, “Peace be unto you,” and we say, “And to your spirit.” “Let us lift up our hearts.” “We lift them to the Lord.” We’re doing all this together, but it’s got to be personally done.
And then when we go into our room and shut the door, it’s got to be personally done. We’ve got to make it our own; we’ve got to bring ourself to it. Again, our condition, our time, our place, our troubles, our temptations, even our gifts sometimes, we have to ask God: “Lord, I have to do this work, let me do it well. I’ve got to play this piano at a concert, I’ve got to play this football game, I’ve got to give this podcast talk, I’ve got to fix this computer, I’ve got to build this house, I’ve got to paint this picture.” You know, we pray to God, very personally, that we would be able to do it, according to his will. And in the personal prayer it’s always according to his will.
And then we pray ceaselessly. We pray all the time. In between the prayer rule in the room, in between the liturgical services in church, we try to remember God all the time. And we call upon him any way we know how, in the depth of our heart, in the secret of our heart. That we have to do continuously and continually. Whenever our mind’s not occupied, we pray.
Now, if we wanted to end this little commentary, this little reflection, by defining petitionary prayer, we would say technically prayer is petition; it’s asking. It can include thanking, praising, but basically the technical word ‘prayer,’ certainly in the Bible and in the Fathers, it means ‘petition.’ It means what you ask for. And the model, the pattern would be the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, some Fathers say we should never ask for anything that’s not specifically a petition of the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s all eschatological; it’s all about the coming kingdom, being already lived by us now, here, and we enter into it at the end of our life and become a human being, a real human being with God, a real icon and word of God.
What we are saying here is that personal engagement in what we ask for in petition is shown to us in the Lord’s Prayer and in generally the teaching of Christ. We never want to pray contrary to what Christ teaches. We never want to pray for anything that we don’t believe that he’s going to give to us anyway for our own good, and if we don’t know what that is that’s why we say, “Let your will be done.” If we know what it is we just say it. For example, we know God wants to forgive us, so we can say, “Forgive me, Lord.” We know God wants to have mercy on us and does, we say, “Have mercy on me, O Lord.” We know God wants to enlighten and guide us, so we say, “Enlighten me, O Lord.” There’s no danger in saying any of those things. But there are dangers when we get specific about earthly things, that maybe it’s better to say, “This is what I want, but nevertheless your will be done, O Lord.” “Your will be done” is the heart of prayer.
So prayer, personal prayer. I think a good definition—I made this up—would be this: petitionary personal prayer, wherever and however it’s done—in church, in our room, at all times, at specific time, together with others, by ourself, with a few people even getting together—what is it? It is a conscious act of uniting, not only our mind, but our heart and our will and our soul and our body and our passions and our emotions and everything I have, and everything I do; it’s a conscious act of uniting that with God, bringing God into it and bringing it into God. That’s the intention. For what purpose? For the purpose of knowing what his will is and doing it. And if we don’t even know what it is, we pray and say we don’t know what it is, but we want to do your will.
It’s the conscious act of uniting our whole being, and even other people, ourselves and each other and the whole world with God, consciously, purposefully, intentionally. That’s what we want to do, for the sake of doing his will in every smallest, most seemingly insignificant detail of our everyday life. Every thought, word, and deed in this fallen, corrupted world. You know, in the drudgery, the routine drudgery of everyday existence in this world, we want to consciously connect with God for the sake of his will being done, his kingdom come, his name being sanctified, so that any given moment of our life, if you want to put it this way, would be transformed into prayer, real prayer, genuine prayer, and therefore be transformed into Paradise. That we would live in the kingdom. That his kingdom would come in us. His kingship, his reign would be in us. That’s the intention of prayer.
Now, some people say, “Well, everything you do is prayer. A good act is prayer.” That’s not true. Every good act has to be accompanied by prayer, and if it’s not accompanied by prayer it won’t be good. It may look good, but it won’t be good, because all kinds of our sins and passions and all our poison can get into it. But we can’t say that, you know, work is prayer. No! Work is work and prayer is prayer. Now you accompany your work with prayer, and certainly prayer is hard work; prayer is not easy. Prayer is something we do our entire life to our last breath; it’s not easy.
When we do try to personally pray as Christ teaches us, every demon in Hell tries to mess it up and destroy it and screw it up and make us crazy. You know, anyone who starts praying, you’ve got to know, boy, you’re opening yourself to a huge battle. One of the Desert Fathers was asked, “What’s the hardest thing of the Christian way?” He said, “Everything can be accomplished easily, by the grace of God, if he so wills. But for us creatures, fallen, sick, sinful, to remain steadfast and constant in prayer,” he said, “is blood to the end.” Blood to the end.
So prayer is shedding blood, you know, and it’s perseverance, and things are going to happen. There are going to be times when we don’t feel like praying, when we have to force ourself. There’s times when we feel we hit a brick wall; we have to know that’s the grace of God: he wants us to accept something, he wants us to let go of something, he wants us to repent of something. It’s always a signal from God when things go tough and things get dark and things get dry: we can’t do it by ourself.
Prayer has to be personal; it’s got to be in our own room in secret, it’s got to be in the depth of our heart, but—this is important—someone’s got to know even about that. We don’t pray to show off, but we have to have spiritual guides and elders and pastors, at least one or two, that we share our deepest experiences with so they can guide us so that we don’t get caught up in our own vain imagination. So we’ve got to have help; we can’t do it alone. But we must do it for ourself.
And that would be a rule of spiritual life generally: we can’t do anything in the spiritual life by ourself, but we must do everything in the spiritual life for ourself. No one can do it for us. They can help us, they can be with us, they can teach us like the Holy Fathers, but they can’t do it for us. In fact, one guy said to St. Anthony the Great— it’s in the Sayings of St. Anthony—“Pray for me, holy Father.” You know what Anthony answered? He said, “Pray yourself.” He said, “Because if you do not make the effort to pray, of prayer, neither I nor God will or can have mercy on you.” You know, you’ve got to make the effort yourself. And prayer is blood; it’s an effort. But once we get into it and make the effort we see that it’s grace. We see that God is helping us.
We don’t evaluate progress, because we’re tempted to our last breath, and the end of life is sometimes harder and [more] difficult, I would say always harder and [more] difficult, than the beginning. When I was young I knew everything and I knew what to do. Now I have doubts about everything and I’m not sure about anything. I mean, specifically, relative to my own existence and I want to get rid of that. Pray for me, please!
So we pray for one another, but at the same time, all prayer has to be personal. And it has to have three forms. It has to be in church with others, as the Church. It has to be by rule, in discipline, in our room with the door shut and not to appear to be praying. And it has to be in the secret depth of our heart at all times. You can’t just do it one of these ways; you’ve got to do it all of the ways.
Even the monks, who sometimes are alone and just do the Jesus Prayer all the time, they still have to go to the synaxes, they still go to receive Holy Communion. And they still keep a rule; they still have a rule. So you can’t just have a rule of prayer where you say ‘Our Father’ a few times a day and then say, “Okay, I prayed today.” No, you’ve got to still go to church and you’ve got to still have continuous, constant prayer. So personal prayer involves these three elements at all times. They’re interrelated; they’re interwoven. You can’t have one without the other. You certainly can’t have one fruitfully, or successfully, without the other. You need all three forms; you’ve got to have them and work on each of them, and that’s what the personal effort of personal prayer is really all about.
This is according to the saints and according to the Scriptures and according to the Holy Fathers. This is what we are taught as Orthodox Christians, this is what we’re taught in Church tradition, and this is, we believe, the teaching of God Almighty himself. Because God does give us the ritual of the common prayer, the sacraments, the Church year, the feasts and the fasts. God does give us prayers to say in our room with the door shut and asks us to go into our room and shut the door and pray in secret—that’s a commandment. And God also tells us be constant and steadfast and ceaseless and pray, pray at all times, never forget God, take every thought captive and live in the constant awareness of the presence of God, asking, even deeper than words, that his name would be sanctified, his Kingdom would come, his will would be done. As in heaven in the risen and glorified Christ, so also in us, his people on earth. This is what personal prayer is about, as given to us from God. May God help us to be really human beings, which always means to be persons of personal prayer.