Monday, October 26, 2009

Prayer is the Test of Everything....

"Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong." — St. Theophan the Recluse

Perhaps the most popular and basic definition of prayer is that it is a conversation with God. While this is essentially true, Orthodox Christianity looks upon prayer as something deeper than "conversation".

Prayer is understood as an intimate encounter with God. When we pray, we meet with God in our hearts, in the sanctuary of all our thoughts, motivations, dreams, emotions and concerns. This is a place where we can share our inner selves with no other human person as completely as we can share ourselves with the Lord.

To enter into this very personal and intimate place with God, full of faith and love, is to feel His presence in our lives in the most profound and life-giving of ways. In this place in our hearts, we no longer perceive God as being "out there", looking down on us. Rather, we sense His presence inside us, stirring our hearts, guiding our actions, enlightening our minds.

Our Orthodox Christian Faith teaches us that prayer is the most natural thing a person can do, it is what we are created for. In Paradise Adam and God converse frequently. It is only after the Fall that we hide from God and choose not to speak openly with Him.

Human beings were made for prayer, not because God needs us to pray to Him, but because we need to connect with Him who made us, saved us from sin and death, and showers His sanctifying grace upon us. Without prayer there is no life, not in its fullest sense. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to breath or to think. Prayer is part of our unique nature; of all God's creatures, only human beings are able to perceive and interact with both the visible (physical) and invisible (spiritual) realities.

Prayer is so important in our lives that St. Gregory of Nazianzus instructs us to, "remember God more often that you breath". At first, this task might seem daunting, perhaps impossible. In truth, we find that often the greatest obstacle to our developing prayer life is our own lack of trust in ourselves, and in what God can do for and with us.

Often we "psych" ourselves out when it comes to prayer. We think that it is only for the spiritual "specialists" to engage in prayer -- clergy, monks, nuns. We feel that if we need to struggle with our prayer life we must not be "doing it right". In truth, it is only when we struggle with prayer that we are approaching it in a healthy way.

But even though prayer is -- or at least should be -- a natural part in our human make-up, prayer is a discipline, it is a spiritual exercise. An analogy commonly used by the Saints is that prayer is like a fire. Initially, it starts out only as a small spark in our soul; eventually though, if we fan the flames with a constant effort to pray, this spark grows into a spiritual flames — these flames are the burning bush in our souls, where we, like Moses, speak with God.

To feed the fire of prayer in our soul, we must work ourselves into a regular pattern — or "rule" — of prayer. Like a fire, if our prayer life is left untended, it will die away and turn cold. The more we pray, the more meaningful and nourishing our prayer life becomes, and the more of a desire we have to enter into prayer.

The ways that we pray 
In Orthodox spirituality, we recognize two basic types of prayer: liturgical (that is, worship); and personal prayer. In our Church both of these types of prayer are understood as corporate acts -- they are carried out by believers as a single body, the body of Christ.

Liturgical prayer is obviously corporate. A group of brothers and sisters in the faith gather together in one place to offer hymns and prayers to God. However, even when we pray in private, we do not pray alone. Rather, we join our voices to the countless other Orthodox Christians throughout the world who are also lifting their hearts to God in prayer at that time. Christianity is always lived out as a group, never as an isolated individual.

Liturgy and private prayer are interdependent. It is not enough for us only to pray by ourselves, because every human being has an innate need for community, a need to belong. Our liturgical worship also gives us the order and structure that we need to have stability in our spiritual lives.

At the same time, our liturgical prayer is truly vibrant and life-giving only when those present are "people of prayer" outside the services as well. Our faith is not "Sunday-only" and our prayer life shouldn't be Sunday-only either. Each type of prayer, liturgical and personal, compliments and supplements the other.

In both worship and personal prayer, structure is important. Worship services have a set structure of fixed and variable parts. Although our private prayer can be much more simple and "customized" than worship services, we still structure it as part of our daily lives. In our personal prayer life, we need to develop a habit of praying regularly at certain times during the day. This habit of regular prayer is called a "rule of prayer."

Ancient Christian sources instruct Christians to pray three times a day: in the morning, at mid-day and in the evening. In this way we keep God on our minds and hearts throughout the day -- upon waking up, in the midst of our daily tasks and upon retiring for the night. This regularity is very important because, at its core, a life or prayer is a life lived in the constant remembrance of God.

The Saints teach us that our prayers should include the following four elements, in this order:
1 & 2) glorification and thanksgiving: the primary work of prayer is to glorify God and thank Him for His great blessings, both know and unknown;
3) confession of sins: we ask God for His forgiveness for when we fall short of the life that He calls us to;
4) supplication: we ask God to be merciful and grant our petitions for others and for ourselves
This structure helps us remember that God’s blessing are giving to us not because owe have earned them, but in spite of our imperfections and faults. It also helps us avoid looking upon God as a spiritual "bell boy" who is there merely to answer our requests -- the last thing we do is ask for things, not the first.

Prayers do not have to be long or complicated to be effective. Some of the most powerful prayers in history have been sentences of only a few words. The Thief on the Cross merely had to say, "Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom", to hear Jesus' promise, "today you shall be with me in Paradise."

When trying to develop a habit of daily prayer in your life remember this: it is far better to spend five minutes each day in private devotions, than to "bank" the time and take in 35 minutes of personal prayer once per week.

Should we pray from books, or use our own words? 
Many believers have developed a great love for the prayers found in our prayer books. In our prayer books we find collections of prayers, written at different times in history for different situations, times of day and needs.

In the Orthodox Church, one of the most beloved prayer books is the Old testament Book of Psalms. The Psalms offer us a way of framing life's varying experiences -- good and bad -- in prayer using very poetic and profound language. So important is the Book of Psalms that you will find the Psalms used in every worship service and rule of prayer.

Written prayers can be a font of wisdom and comfort. There are those, however, that do not feel that written prayers completely fit their personal "voice". For these people, spontaneous prayer is an important part of their personal devotions. There is nothing wrong with spontaneous prayer. The only caution with spontaneous prayer is that the content of such prayers must not contradict the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Faith. For example, we would not pray that, after we die, God would reincarnate us as a better person, since we do not believe in reincarnation.

The Orthodox Christian approach to written and spontaneous prayers is one of balance. Our written prayers are truly a treasury of Christian spiritual insight, nurture and guidance. But at the same time even our prayer books instruct us to "take time to pray to God in your own words..." There is a place for both types of prayer, written and spontaneous, and each complements the other.

In the Gospels, Jesus gives the following warning about prayer: "when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matthew 6:7)" Based on this verse, some Christian groups teach that God is not pleased by written prayers; instead, they say, all prayer should be spontaneous. This teaching, however, does not make sense when we see that two verses later, Jesus gives His disciples a specific prayer to use: "In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father Who art in heaven... (Matthew 6:9-113)."

The issue that Jesus addresses is not written prayer versus spontaneous prayer, but rather the how we approach prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus also teaches us, "when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you open." The Saints teach us that there is a double meaning to the words, "go into your room."

First, "go into your room" means keep a low profile when you pray. Do not use prayer to show off to others: "Look at me, everyone! I'm praying! I am *SO* holy!"

Second, "go into your room" means shut out distractions when you pray. We have to pay attention when we pray. We cannot simply rattle off the words of our prayers with our minds wandering to other things -- our schedules, a song on the radio, a conversation happening beside us, the big play of last night's game. We must focus on what we are saying.

Whether we are praying using words from a prayer book or in our own words, the key is that we put in the effort to do it right. No one likes the feeling of being in a conversation, knowing that the other person is not paying attention. If we would try not to act like this with another human being, then we should also put the effort in with God. Quite simply, He deserves nothing less.

The Jesus Prayer
One of the most important prayers in the Orthodox Tradition is the "Jesus Prayer." It is not long or complicated, simply, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Some make it even shorter: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy one me."

The Jesus Prayer became famous in monasteries through the movement known as "hesychasm", or the way of "stillness." The idea of hesychasm is that it is only when we have stilled our hearts and bodies that we can be fully open to the life-giving presence of God. The body must be stilled from its obsessions, compulsions and addictions and the heart must be stilled of it's wandering here and there looking for something to keep it occupied, entertained and satisfied.

The Jesus Prayer is used as the refrain of a prayerful meditation. Through continued use, practitioners find themselves saying it automatically, much in the same way that we sometimes find a tune running through our minds without our conscious effort. At its highest level, practice of the Jesus Prayer leads to an intimate encounter with God through a vision of what is know as the "Uncreated Light."

The Gospels tell us that, shortly before His Crucifixion, Jesus took the apostles Peter, James and John to the top of Mount Tabor. There, they saw Jesus garments go pure white, and He began to shine with a resplendent light that was almost too much for the to bear. (See Mttw. 17:1-9; Mk.9:2-13; Lk. 9:28-36) This light was a manifestation of Jesus' Divinity. This is the light that vary advanced practitioners of the Jesus Prayer will encounter when saying the prayer.

This sounds very impressive and perhaps even desirable. However, it is not what we experience -- or what we do not experience -- that matters when say the Jesus Prayer or any other prayer. What really matters is that we pray with an awareness of what our words really mean, and that we try to stay as attentive as possible to the words we are saying while we pray.

The most important part in the Jesus Prayer is the name of our Savior. The Saints teach that the very mention of name of Jesus sends the demons running. Jesus Christ is God speaking for Himself. God is not far off and remote from us. God loves us so much that He came to be one of us, through His only-begotten Son, and He allows us to relate to His Son on a first-name basis, calling Him "Jesus".

Repetition of the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a very powerful tool in our spiritual life. It allows us to approach God in a very direct manner. We do not simply say, "Somebody, who ever is out there, hear my prayer." We specifically say, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God", hear my prayer. By the way, the name "Jesus" means, "the Lord is salvation."

As we call on the name of Jesus, we call upon Him as "Lord" -- "Lord, Jesus Christ..." "Lord" is a title of honor. In times past, someone who was a lord had authority over people under him. To call Jesus our Lord is to put ourselves under His authority. Jesus is the Lord of our lives... we will follow His teachings, do what He wants us to do, base our lives on the way of living that He has showed us. In short, if Jesus is the Lord, Jesus is in charge.

Also important in the Jesus Prayer is the call for God's mercy. Admitting that we are broken, sinful, we pray words found so often in the Gospels, "have mercy on me". No one is "worthy" of God's grace; there are no "necessary requirements" that makes us "entitled" to God's blessings. The blessings we receive from God are solely based on His great and abundant mercy. Divine mercy is the starting point our whole life. If God were not merciful, we wouldn't even exist.

The Jesus Prayer became so important, so loved, that it eventually made it's way into every worship service in a couple of different forms. The best know of these forms is the response, "Lord, have mercy" in our litanies. "Lord, have mercy," is a compact form of the Jesus Prayer.

Whether we are singing it in worship or saying it quietly in personal prayer, the Jesus Prayer is a jewel of our spiritual tradition. I said in an earlier posting that prayers don't necessarily have to be long to be effective. Say the words of the Jesus Prayer, with awareness, attention and a sincere heart -- say them often -- and we will find God acting in our lives like we never have before.

Prayer as Silence
God is always trying to get our attention. He wants us to turn to Him, to listen to Him, to open ourselves to a relationship with Him. God does not force Himself on us, but He is always making ovations towards us, waiting for us to respond with loving attentiveness towards Him. If we pay attention, if we listen, we will hear God speaking to us in our lives. Prayer is as much about listening to God as it is speaking to Him. In fact, the listening is even more important than the talking.

One way that we listen to God in our prayers is through the reading of the Holy Scriptures and other of our Church's spiritual writings. In our private devotions, we can select a passage, read it, and then take some time to think about what we have read. As we think about the passage, we try to be aware of specific sentences, phrases or words that grab our attention. Some people will write down their observations in a journal for future discussion with their spiritual father.

The second means of listening to God in prayer is through silence. Silence is something that many of us are not comfortable with. We fill our days with the noise of iPods, TV, radios. For some people, the time that they dread most are the moments at night before they go to sleep, when all they are left with is silence and their thoughts. And yet, God often talks to us, not in thunder claps and lightening flashes, but in the still small voice whispering in our heart. (for more on this, see 1 Kings 19:11-13)

The Saints instruct us that as we say our prayers, we should take time to stop and sit quietly, just being present with God. The monastic fathers and mothers of our Church say that prayer is like a flying bird. When a bird is in the air, it beats its wings until it has reached a certain height; at that point, it stops beating its wings and glides along. The words of our prayers are our spiritual wings. There will come a point while praying where words are no longer necessary, we can stop talking and glide in silence, allowing God's presence keep us aloft.

Prayer is a conversation. It is a two-way dynamic. As we all know, its hard to say we have had a "conversation" with someone, if one party has monopolized the time, without giving the other party the chance to offer any input. In order for prayer to be truly beneficial to us, in addition to talking to God we also need to listen to what He has to say to us.

A Call to Prayer
Sometimes we think that if our spiritual life isn't "feeling right," that our prayers are some way not working. Regardless of how we feel, any time is an appropriate time for us to pray. We start from where we are, emotionally and spiritually. We approach God as we are, trusting that He is ready, willing and able to overlook our faults, doubts and wounds and to lift us above them.

At the same time, we must take care never to assume that we are doing "good enough" in our lives, and that we may excuse ourselves from prayer. Christ did not call us to being "good enough"; He called us to be perfect. The struggle for that perfection is a life-long endeavor. Furthermore, it is an endeavor that we cannot achieve ourselves, it can be accomplished only with, and through God — the God that we encounter intimately through prayer.

In the Divine Liturgy, we hear the invitations "Let us lift up our hearts", and "Let us give thanks to the Lord". These two calls sum up the center of human existence. When we lift up our hearts to God, glorifying Hi for all that He does for us -- both known and unknown. And in doing so, the image of God -- who is the maker, savior and sanctifier of our lives -- shines within us, and through us into the world.

"Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong." — St. Theophan the Recluse

By Fr. Andrew Jarmus
Source: Saint Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church


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