What is Prayer?

Reflections on Children and Prayer

In this three-part mini-series, Dr. Daniel Opperwall (author of We Pray from Ancient Faith Publishing) presents a reflective commentary on the meaning of prayer, children’s relationship to Orthodox prayer, and the role of Orthodox parents in helping guide children to a fuller experience of prayer.

August 2017

What is Prayer?

In Part I, Dr Opperwall discusses the nature of prayer from an Orthodox perspective, drawing from scripture and the ancient patristic tradition. The goal is to understand prayer a little better in order to think more deeply about a child's relationship to it.

August 25, 2017 Length: 8:05





Hello. This is Dr. Daniel G. Opperwall of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto, and author most recently of the book, We Pray, a children’s book about Orthodox prayer, released this year by Ancient Faith Publishing.

Today I’m going to offer Part I of a three-part podcast mini-series on the prayer lives of children. Along with the sacraments, prayer is at the heart of Orthodox Christian life and is essential for all members of the body of Christ, no matter their age or vocation. We all wish to share in a life of prayer with our children, yet teaching children to pray is daunting, especially since many of us struggle ourselves to pray as much as we ought to. In this mini-series, I want us to think a little more deeply about what prayer really is from an Orthodox perspective and how we can help our children to build a life of prayer within themselves.

Here, in Part I, I want to begin by focusing on the nature of prayer. I won’t talk very much today about children specifically. We’ll have that conversation more in the second and third installments of this mini-series. For now, as we begin, we will need to have a clear definition of prayer that can give us a good picture of the goal to which we are trying to guide our children. From there we can start to think more about how to do so.

So what is prayer? If you take a moment to think about this question, you will probably realize it is harder to answer than one might expect. Certainly we are all familiar with many liturgical prayers and the Lord’s Prayer. We have probably read the psalms. We have probably called out to God or a beloved saint in times of trouble or on behalf of a loved one. Most Orthodox Christians are familiar with the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” repeated over and over in the heart and on the lips. We may have prayed through silent meditation, alone, with others. We probably keep, or try to keep, a prayer rule, saying set prayers or praying for a set period of time several times a day.

All these things are forms of prayer, of course, but what do they really share in common? What is the essential heart of Orthodox prayer? Back in the fourth century, St. John Cassian provided an important answer to this question. For St. John, there are five basic kinds of prayer: supplications, prayer proper, intercessions, thanksgiving, and finally contemplation. Prayers of supplication are those in which we repent of our sins and ask for God’s help in overcoming them. Prayer proper, for St. John, happens when we offer a promise to God: to devote our lives and pursuits to him. In prayers of intercession, we pray for God’s help on behalf of someone else, that he might guide that person to peace and a fuller life in Christ. Prayers of thanksgiving are those in which we revel in God’s good gifts to us and give thanks in our hearts for them. Finally, in contemplation we seek to cut off all thoughts and images from our mind so as to experience God, and him alone, here and now in the world. Unlike the other forms of prayer, this is almost always done in silence, or sometimes through repetitive prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.

This is not the time to go into great detail about how St. John and the other Fathers practiced these kinds of prayer. Their writings reveal a great deal, of course. What I mainly want us to notice here is that for St. John prayer is generally not about reaching out to God with our various requests for life, however noble. Rather, prayers are a form of communication, verbal or silent, that is centered on developing the right kind of relationship with God, turning to him when we or others fall, promising our fidelity, giving thanks for his grace and forgiveness, filling our minds with his light.

This is true whether we are praying with a set text or during the Liturgy or another service, praying through the saints or praying extemporaneously or in silence. Orthodox prayer, in all its many forms, is a mental activity that is always about drawing us closer to God, building the fullest possible connection with him in this life. In this respect, there’s a certain sense in which prayer is not so much something we do, but rather something that God does through us. St. Paul teaches us this in his letter to the Romans, saying that we do not know what to pray, but the Spirit intercedes for us nonetheless. St. Gregory the Theologian would later reiterate this point, teaching that in true prayer the Spirit prays through us to God the Father. Human prayer, then, is about opening ourselves up to this action on the part of the Holy Spirit.

We are ever invited into the love that is God the Trinity. To pray is to turn our mind to this invitation and to accept it in the given moment. It therefore should come as no real surprise that St. Paul teaches us to pray unceasingly, that famous line from Scripture upon which the Orthodox practice of repeated prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, is founded.

If prayer amounts to opening ourselves to God’s presence and love, then every moment should be filled with it. This is why we strive to keep a prayer rule, to attend services regularly, to read over and over again the prayers of the saints, that generation after generation have found effective and beautiful, the psalms above all. Prayer rules, prayer books, icons, prayer ropes, incense, services—all of these are tools that we use to help ourselves, to teach our minds, to be aware of God’s presence through prayer, to be open so as to allow the Spirit to do the work of prayer within us.

Prayer, therefore, often requires great discipline. In the fallen world, it is difficult to do what we know full well to be good. Yet prayer, when we do come to it, is also a kind of rest for the human soul, space in which we lay aside our broken selves and dwell for a moment in God’s kingdom on earth.

For centuries our saints and teachers have described the results of this kind of prayer in profoundly beautiful terms. Many of them speak of the experience of prayer using the language of light. There are myriad examples. Here is just one from St. Symeon the New Theologian.

Now from afar I look up on the beautiful, invisible things. I am struck down with astonishment by the unapproachable light, the unbearableness of the glory, even though I see but one drop from an abyss.

Such transformative power there is in prayer! Prayer at its fullest becomes a well of spiritual refreshment in which we become aware of grace being poured upon us, the total presence of God, trembling with St. Symeon in astonishment at his goodness, grace, power, transcendence, and love.

Above all, then, prayer is beautiful, a gift to be cherished and turned to in every possible moment. Through prayer we are invited into the love of the Persons of the Trinity. When we open our hearts to this invitation, the result is peace, joy, comfort, strength, courage, and all other virtues. This is prayer: an invitation accepted, a mind turned away from its sins and toward the presence of God, through words and silence, in every possible moment, on behalf of oneself or on behalf of another. It is into this kind of experience of prayer that we hope to invite our children.

In Part III of this series, we’ll think through some ways of doing that. Yet to think effectively about how we can invite and encourage our children toward such prayer, we have to ask an important question first. In Part II of this mini-series (the next part), we will think a little bit about children themselves, what they really are as creatures of God, how they think and experience the world, so that we can ponder more effectively our ways of leading them toward the depth and beauty of true prayer. For now, thank you for listening, and please pray for me, a sinner.

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