How should I pray?
"Prayer needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher." - St. Meletius the Confessor
Daily Personal Prayer
￼Once you begin to outwardly order your life, prayer is the first discipline you should develop. What is prayer? It is the mutual and personal encounter with God. It is through prayer that we open ourselves to the invisible, imperceptible power of God. The perfect example of personal prayer is the one given to us by Jesus Himself: Our Father who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. To pray is to stand before God with our mind in our heart.
Why do we Pray?
First of all, Christ asks us to pray. He tells us in the Gospel of Luke, How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13). We pray so that God can help us to become more like Him in our actions. We also pray for our renewal and the growth of our soul. We pray to give thanks to God for all he provides for us. We also pray to seek forgiveness for our sinfulness. We can also pray to seek help for others as well as ourselves. But we must not forget to pray for His help in our own spiritual growth. This is not selfish, but essential for us to better love and serve others and carry out God’s commandments. We can ask also for His help in supporting us in the various ascetic practices we choose to undertake to help purify our inner being.
We are asked to pray without ceasing. Here are the Scripture references to this idea:
- Pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17)
- Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit (Eph 6:158)
- He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart. (Luke 18:1)
Our life is to become one of a constant prayer where we are continually in a relationship with God. This is our main task, to draw nearer to God. Saint Isaac of Syria says that it is impossible to draw near to God by any means other than unceasing prayer.
How Do We Pray?
A Regular Time
First, you need to establish a regular time to pray. You should have as a minimum a time in the morning and a time in the evening. With our busy lives this means you will have to make some conscious changes to make time for prayer. Pick a time that you know you can keep no matter what. Strict discipline in this is important. The length of time is something that only you can determine in consultation with your spiritual father. You prayer time should not be less than ten minutes in the morning and then again in the evening. Your time in prayer will grow as your relationship with God grows. At first you will find it a struggle to maintain what seem like a simple discipline as there are negative forces that will try and keep you from regular prayer. But, there will come a time when you can’t wait for the time to pray. Expect a struggle in the beginning to maintain a strict schedule. As the popular saying goes, “Just do it!” Think of all the other things in your life that you do routinely like getting to work of school on time, or personal hygiene acts like brushing your teeth. Surely you can also make prayer a fixed routine.
A Private Place
Next, you need to find a quiet private place where you will not be disturbed for your daily prayer. This may be a corner in the bedroom (a room divider can help make a special place), space in a walk-in closet, or, if you are fortunate to have an extra room, a special room that is only for prayer. It needs to be a place where you can be undisturbed and alone. Once you choose the place, you should set up a small home icon stand. ￼On it place an icon of Christ, Theotokos, and your patron saint. Have an oil lamp or candle that you can light while you pray. Also an incense burner, a cross and a prayer book and Bible.
With a regular time and a special place, you are ready to begin. You begin praying by focusing your consciousness in your heart and forcibly gathering there all the powers of the soul and body. Take the time at the beginning of your prayer time to quiet your body and to concentrate your energies in your heart. Christ says, “Enter into thy closet and ... shut thy door” (Matt 6:6). Remove all activities that could disrupt your inner descent. Set aside, to the best of your ability, all of your problems of the day and your worries for tomorrow. This is not a time for thinking or worrying. When you are preparing to pray, stand, sit or walk a few minutes and steady your mind to concentrate on God. Reflect on who it is that you will be addressing. Remember, it is God Himself who you are about to talk with. Try to bring about a feeling of humility and reverent awe. Make some prostrations before you begin.
You should have a specific rule for both morning and evening. Don’t try and wing it. You are developing a discipline that is beyond what you will feel like doing. This is not a relaxation exercise but a path to be in communion with your God. You will need to have a specific set of guidelines that you follow each time with no excuses for shortcutting them. In your rule, incorporate standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, reading, and at times singing. Use prayer books and written prayers. The Orthodox prayer books are filled with prayers that have been well tested and used for hundreds of years. Prayer does not have to be a creative activity. You must be sincere. Keep your awareness in your heart and concentrate on the words of the prayer. Once you establish a rule, always keep it. Be sure to work with your spiritual Father on this.
As you begin to pray enter into every word of the prayer. Bring the meaning of the words down into your heart. Do not rush through the prayers like you are in a hurry to get them over with. Let them slowly drop into the depths of your heart with humility and awe of God. Its like in driving a car. When you are going 90 miles per hour down the highway the driver may feel powerful and in control. But at high speeds things can go wrong fast. When driving at a speed of twenty-five miles per hour the car handles easy and if someone makes a dangerous maneuver you can easily avoid it. Well, the mind works the same way. We want to train it to slow down so we can open our heart to God’s presence. So, in prayer we say the words slowly so we can gain the meaning of them and allow them to penetrate our consciousness and to bring to our heart feelings of love and reverence for our God. Let the words drop individually into your heart like pebbles dropping into a pond. You will eventually find the right pace for yourself. Beware of the tendency to rush to complete them hurriedly. When this happens you have turned your prayer into an obligation and it is no longer true prayer. Don’t worry if you catch your self doing this. It is normal at first. Just stop and slow down and proceed asking God’s forgiveness and help. Also, study the prayers before you use them so you know the meaning of each word. Eventually you will want to memorize them.
After you begin to recite your prayers you will find that your mind will want to wander. Don’t be concerned about this as this is natural due to the forces that do not want us to pray to God. Work to learn to concentrate your attention. When you mind wanders, be gentle with yourself and go back and recite again what you said while your mind was elsewhere. Bring yourself to concentrate on the words of the prayer. Sometimes it helps to say them out loud for a while. The mind is quite adept at being able to have you do more than one thing at a time. You need to bring yourself to a single focus on God. These wanderings of the mind show you the dimensions of your busy life that you need to find ways to make quieter so you can be always mindful of God. Prayer it is not time to focus on these worldly activities, because this will only further distract you from prayer. Work to concentrate your attention more and more. Each day you will gain in your attentiveness during prayer.
When you finish your prayers, stand for a few moments. Consider to what your prayer life commits you. Try to hold in your heart what has been given to you. Treasure it for a few moments.
Remember to make your prayer life one that is a firm rule and not something that is done occasionally or sporadically. It must be done each day morning and evening at a minimum. You need to have specific prayers that are part of your prayer rule. You need to commit to doing you rule each and every day. Think about certain personal hygiene tasks such as brushing your teeth that you do each day out of habit . You don’t forget to do them each day. The same needs to be with your prayer rule. You need to make prayer a similar habit that you never forget. Just like the hygiene activities that we do for the health of our body, prayer is essential for the health of our soul.
What is the Jesus Prayer?
The Jesus Prayer is known in the Orthodox Church as one of the most powerful prayers. It is a discipline that will pay numerous dividends in your Orthodox life over the years if you follow its simple practice. The prayer is very simple. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner.” The practice of the Jesus Prayer is to say the prayer over and over until it becomes an unceasing prayer in your heart. Of course this takes many years. To begin to recite the Jesus prayer, add to your payer rule the recitation of a certain number of repetitions. You might begin with saying it fifty times. This is where the use of a prayer rope comes in. A prayer rope is made of of a fixed number of knots. A common one has fifty knots. As you say the Jesus prayer you advance your thumb and forefinger one knot each time. In this way you will know how many times you have repeated the prayer. Prayer ropes are made in monasteries and blessed with prayer in their making.
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
You begin the practice of the Jesus prayer as with other prayers by reciting them with you lips or saying them aloud. Then after you have learned to concentrate your mind on prayer, you can begin to say them in your mind. Finally after much time you will descend from the mind into your heart and your prayers will be said from the depths of your inner most being.
St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering—compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together. The words of the prayer ought to be said without the feast hurry. even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
Why do we Pray for the Dead?
In the Orthodox world view there is eternal life and we never leave the Church. In God all are alive. Our Church life is penetrated by the living awareness and feeling that our dead ones continue to live after death only in a different form. They are not deprived of spiritual nearness to those of us here on earth. Saint Paul tells us, “Neither death nor life... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ our Lord”. (Rom 8:38-3) All the ancient liturgies attest to this both in the East and the West.
When we pray for the dead the Church intercedes for them just as it does for the living. We pray for the forgiveness of sins for all who have died for no one is sinless (1John 1:8). Prayer helps nurture the seeds of a new life that those who have died have taken up. Now we are not to be deceived about reviving rotten seeds. Nothing can revive rotten seeds. The prayers for those who have died in impiety and without repentance are powerless. (1Thes 5:19) However, on earth we do not know what lot one has been subjected to. A prayer of love can never be without profit. We must remember that those in heaven respond to our prayers with prayers for us.
Why do we include Saints in our Prayers?
In our Prayer rule we can also ask the saints to interceed for us and to help us in our worldly struggles. Saints are those holy individuals who have died as martyrs, who have made a fearless confession of faith often with the threat of death, who have demonstrated self-sacrificing service, who have a special gift of healing and perform miracles after their death when remembered in prayer.
These holy people the Lord calls His friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15)
They are those He has received in His heavenly mansions in fulfillment of His words: Where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3) Instead of praying for forgiveness of their sins, we praise them for their struggles in Christ. We make petitions to them asking them to pray for us and the remission of our sins and spiritual growth, seeking their help in our spiritual needs.
The saints are near the Throne of God:
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, who praised the Lord. (Rev 5:11)
Our communion in prayer with the saints is the realization of the bond between Christians on earth and the Heavenly Church. (Heb 12:22-23)
Sacred scripture presents numerous examples that the righteous, while still living can see and hear and know much that is inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. The saints while they were still on earth we able to penetrate in spirit into the world above.
From the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (luke 16:10-31) we know that Abraham being in heaven could hear the cry of the rich man who was suffering in hell, despite the great unbridgeable gulf that separates them.
The Church has always taught the invocation of the saints, convinced they intercede for us before God in heaven. Having a prayer relationship with a saint is another way that we can gain help in our spiritual path to salvation in the Church.
A Sample Prayer Rule
A prayer rule is the outline of our daily prayer routine. It is important to have a thought out rule. Casually going to your place for prayer and simply talking with God is not the best way to begin to develop your prayer life. We will find that we end up babbling in front of our God. We can take advantage of the centuries of wisdom and being by using proven prayers that will lift us up in our way of communicating with God.
A prayer rule should first specify the place and time of prayer. Then it should outline the sequence of your prayers and the specific prayers you will say. Below is an example of a beginners prayer rule.
Morning and Evening Prayer
- Place: In the icon corner
- Time: 6:30am and 11:00pm for 20 minutes each time
- Begin by lighting a candle, and making three prostrations and then stand quietly to collect yourself in your heart
- Trisagion Prayer
- One of six Morning or Evening Psalms
- Intercessions for the living and the dead
- Psalm 51 and confession of our sinfulness
- Doxology and the morning or evening prayer
- Personal dialogue with God
- Jesus prayer - repeat 100 times.
- Reflect quietly on the tasks of the day and prepare yourself for the difficulties you might face asking God to help you .
- Dismissal prayer
- Stop mid morning , noon and mid afternoon to say a simple prayer.
- Repeat the Jesus Prayer in your mind whenever you can throughout the day.
- Offer a prayer before and after each meal thanking God and asking for His blessing.
What is Corporate Prayer?
Corporate prayer is the official prayer of the Church when it is formally assembled. It is the way the Church participates in perpetual prayer in the presence of God in the Kingdom of heaven. There is no tradition of corporate prayer which is not liturgical in the Orthodox Church. To participate in corporate prayer one should also pray by himself, at home, and in his own mind and heart. Attending the Divine Liturgy once a week is essential, but not sufficient for a vibrant prayer life. We should attend the divine liturgy each Sunday as this is one of God’s commandments. When we attend the services we must remember to participate and to pray the litanies intoned by the priest or deacon and other prayers offered on our behalf. Hopefully worship in the church will become another habit to your life. It can become a new source of joy in your life, no longer viewed as an obligation you struggle to fulfill.