Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to put into words some of the differences between Orthodoxy and the protestant roots from which we came. And it began with some wrestling with “prayer.”
All too often, prayer is just an afterthought, even for Orthodox. It is there for “emergency use.” And very often, when it is emphasized, it is pretty unclear as to just what it may be.
This happens because, all too often, people act as though there is no direction, no rule or definition for prayer. Our Lord’s command to pray, His invitation, was not made in a void, without context. The Apostles, Saints, Martyrs, all hand down to us the definition and direction for prayer! It does not have to be redefined. Prayer is to be spoken, done, lived!
For the Orthodox, for those in The Church, however, prayer is integral to life in the Body of Christ, to union with the blessed and Holy Trinity. Indeed, through prayer we seek to be joined in communion with the Blessed Trinity. It is not something on the periphery, something that can be taken or left, or something that is left up to one’s imagination. Prayer is of the fabric of living faith, and to pray without ceasing is not merely an ideal or some heady suggestion.
For those in The Church, then, the faith is a lived experience that includes prayer. It isn’t merely the topic of theological discussion or the fodder for pages and pages of writing. It is living reality.
So it is that our Lord, answering the Apostles, teaches us to pray, not only by instruction, but by His own constant prayer. How often we read of His taking time to pray early in the morning, around the time of meals, in the evening. The text of His prayer was more often than not the living word of the Psalms. Prayer was a thread that ran throughout the days and weeks.
Our Lord doesn’t leave us searching for words. We have the prayers handed down from the Apostles, from the saints, in the Hours, in Orthros and Vespers, in the Divine Liturgy. Prayers filled with the words blessed by the Spirit to form and shape thoughts, but also lives. We pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We pray, "Lead us not into temptation," which can also be translated "Be with us in the time of hard testing." Each petition deals with life, and calls for living in the ways of the Lord.
We pray, "Lead us not into temptation," which can also be translated "Be with us in the time of hard testing." Each petition deals with life, and calls for living in the ways of the Lord.
We have received “the Jesus Prayer,” a simple prayer that is to be prayed day in and day out, always placing our lives and actions in the hands of Jesus. To pray “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner” directs us to ways of mercy and His grace. We pray that He would indeed live in us, and that our lives by His grace in every moment would be lived in the faith that He gives and nurtures.
I think all of this is to say that “prayer” isn’t merely a “religious thing” for “religious moments” (the generic statement in every crisis by even pagans is ‘you are in our prayers’). It is not an option, nor is it formed merely to try to get the Father in heaven to “come around” to whatever we want at the moment. Rather, in prayer, we are shaped and formed as the mercy of Christ grants us the power of the Holy Spirit: our prayer is indeed “Thy will be done.”
A friend suggest this thought from Fr. Pavel Florensky (1883-1937) from his The Pillar and Ground of Truth:
"One hears that, in foreign lands, people are now learning to swim, lying on the floor, with the aid of equipment. In the same way, one can become a Catholic or Protestant without experiencing life at all--by reading books in one's study. But to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way."
To pray without ceasing is to be joined to Christ. It is to live every moment in His grace, His will, consciously.