Table of contents
Prayer - Orthodox Spirituality
by Fr. Thomas Hopko
All of the virtues and powers of God are attained primarily by prayer. Without prayer, there is no spiritual life. As the Russian bishop, Theophan the Recluse, has said, “If you are not successful in your prayer, you will not be successful in anything, for prayer is the root of everything.” (Theophan the Recluse, 19th c., The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.)
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)
Prayer must be in secret. This is the first rule given by Christ. The person who prays must do so in such a way that he would not be seen by men to be praying.
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, the words of Christ “go into your room” have been interpreted in two ways. First of all, they have been understood to be a literal commandment. The praying person must close himself off physically during times of prayer in order to pray secretly and to avoid being seen.
Secondly, these words of Christ have been understood to mean that the praying person must enter within himself, praying secretly in his mind and heart at all times, without displaying his interior prayer to others. Thus the “room” which one must “go into” is the “room of the soul.”
The room of the soul is the body; our doors are the five bodily senses. The soul enters its room when the mind does not wander here and there, roaming among the things and affairs of the world, but stays within, in our heart. Our senses become closed and remain closed when we do not let them be passionately attached to external sensory things and in this way our mind remains free from every worldly attachment, and by secret mental prayer unites with God its Father.
God who sees all secret things sees mental prayer and rewards it openly with great gifts. For that prayer is true and perfect which fills the soul with divine grace and spiritual gifts. (St. Gregory Palamas, 14th c., How All Christians Must Pray Without Ceasing)
Thus, in the spiritual tradition of the Christian teachers of prayer, the unification of the mind and the heart within the soul is seen to be the fulfillment of the basic condition of prayer as commanded by Christ. (cf. The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.)
And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the heathen do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not he like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. (Matthew 6:7-8)
God knows the needs of His people. Man prays in order to unite his mind and heart with God. He prays in order that God’s will would be done in his life. He prays so that whatever he needs from God would be given. He prays so that he would consciously and with full awareness express the fact that all that he is, has and does is dependent on God. It is man who needs to pray. It is not God who needs man’s prayers.
True Christian prayer must be brief. It must be simple and regular. It must not be many-worded. Indeed it need not have words at all. It may be the totally silent inner attitude of the soul before God, the fulfillment of the words of the psalmist:
Commune with your hearts…and be silent. Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 4:4, 46:10)
The teaching about brevity and silence in prayer is found in all of the spiritual teachers. St. Dimitry of Rostov sums up this teaching when he says that the publican prayed only “God be merciful to me a sinner” and was justified; the repentant thief prayed only “Remember me…” and received paradise; and the prodigal son and the tax-collector, Zacchaeus, said nothing at all, and received the mercy of the Father and the forgiveness of Christ. (Luke 15:20, 18:13, 19:5, 22:42; cf. St. Dimitry of Rostov, 17th c., The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.)
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (...) If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14)
Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in my name. Until now you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:23-24)
Whatever one asks in the name of Jesus will be given. This does not mean that man can ask God for anything at all. He cannot ask for what is not needed, or for what is evil. He can ask, however, and must ask for “good gifts,” for whatever can be asked in the name of Christ, for whatever is holy and sinless and good. If one asks for good things in faith, he will certainly receive them if God thinks that he should have them for his life and salvation. This is the promise of the Lord Himself.
If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. (John 15:7)
And whatever you ask in prayer, if you have faith, you will receive. (Matthew 21:22, cf Luke 18:1-8)
Every prayer directed to God in faith is answered. This does not mean that what is asked is always given, for God knows better than the person who prays what is good for him. For this reason the spiritual teachers warn man against being too long and insistent in his concrete demands of the Lord. God knows best what is needed, and in order to prove this to His servants, He may at times yield to their insistent demands and give what they want, but should not have, in order to show them quite clearly that they should have trusted in His wisdom. Thus it is always best to be silent and brief in prayer, and not too specifically demanding. It is always best to pray: “Give what is needed, O Lord. Thy will be done.”
How many times have I prayed for what seemed a good thing for me, and not leaving it to God to do, as He knows best, what is useful for me. But having obtained what I begged for, I found myself in distress because I had not asked for it to be, rather, according to God’s will… (St. Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer)
The Lord’s Prayer
When teaching men to pray, Christ said,
Pray then like this: 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 this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13, cf Luke 11:2-4)
This is the usual translation of the prayer used in the Orthodox Church. It begins with a petition to God as “our Father.” There was no such prayer before this teaching of Christ. The Old Testament people did not address God as “Abba: Father.” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6) This name of “Father” for God is given by Christ, the divine Son of God. Men can dare, “with boldness and without condemnation” to call upon the “heavenly God” with the name of “Father” only when they are made worthy to do so by Christ. (cf. Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) In the early church the prayer “Our Father” was taught only to the baptized members of the church.
The statement that the Father is “in heaven,” or literally “in the heavens,” means that He is everywhere and over all things. The heavens are over all and encompass all. Wherever man goes on the earth or in the air, or even in space, the heavens are around him and over him. To say that the Father is “in the heavens” means that He is not tied down or limited ‘to any location whatsoever - as were the gods of the heathens. The heavenly God is the “God of gods” (Deuteronomy 10:17, 2 Chronicles 2:5), the “Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (Ephesians 4:5) the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) To say that God is “in heaven” is not to place Him somewhere; it is rather to say that He transcends all things and yet is present to all.
“Hallowed be Thy name” means that God’s name is holy and should be treated with respect and devotion. In the old covenant it was the custom of the Jews never to say the sacred name of God: Yahweh, the I AM. (cf. Exodus 3:13-15) This was to guard against defilement of the divine name, and to safeguard against transgressing the commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)
In the New Testament God gives Jesus the “name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9) and in making the name of the Father holy, Christians do so in the name of His Son.
“Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer is first of all the prayer for the end of the ages. Christians want the world to end so that God’s Kingdom would fill all creation with divine glory and life. “Come Lord Jesus;
Marantha!” is the prayer of the faithful, the last prayer of the Scriptures. (Revelation 22:20, cf. I Corinthians 16:22) It is the calling for the final appearance of the Lord.
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, the prayer “Thy Kingdom come” has also been understood as an invocation of the Holy Spirit to dwell in God’s people. In his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, St. Gregory of Nyssa says that there was another reading for this petition which said “Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Thus he says, following the scriptures, that the presence of the Holy Spirit in man is the presence of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
For the Kingdom of God is…righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
...it is God who establishes us with you in Christ…He has put His seal upon us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:22)
In Him…you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it to the praise of His glory.
...do not grieve the Holy Spirit in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:30)
The seal of the Holy Spirit on men’s hearts is the pledge and guarantee of the Kingdom of God still to come in all power and glory. In the prayer “Thy Kingdom come,” believers in Jesus ask that the Kingdom of God “not coming in external signs of observation” for the faithless to behold, might dwell powerfully and secretly within the faithful. (cf. Luke 17:20-21)
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is the center of the Lord’s Prayer, the central desire of Christians. The whole purpose of prayer, the very purpose of man’s life, is to do the will of God. This is what Jesus prayed and did. (cf. Matthew 26:42) And this is what His followers must pray and do. There is but one purpose of prayer, say the spiritual teachers, to keep God’s commandments so as not to sin, thus leading to deification and divine sonship with Christ.
The only thing that God demands of us mortals is that we do not sin. But this…is merely keeping inviolate the image and rank we possess by nature. Clothed thus in the radiant garment of the Spirit, we abide in God and He in us; through grace we become gods and sons of God and are illumined by the light of His knowledge… (St. Simeon the New Theologian, 10th c., Practical and Theological Precepts)
To pray “Thy will be done” according to the spiritual teachers, is a daring and dangerous act. This is so, first of all, because when one makes this prayer, he must be ready, like Christ, to follow where it leads. God will answer this prayer, and make known His will. The person who prays must be ready to obey, whatever the consequences. When asked why many Christians are frustrated and irritated, grouchy and mean, and sometimes even somewhat “unbalanced,” one spiritual teacher responded that the reason is clear. They pray “Thy will be done,” and continue daily to do so, while at the same time they resist God’s will in their lives and so are always ill at ease. Then they begin to justify their attitudes and actions, to explain and to rationalize their behavior, before their own consciences and others. A person in such as state can never be at peace, for “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)
The second reason why it is said that the prayer “Thy will be done” - and prayer generally - is daring and dangerous is because the devil ferociously attacks the person who prays. Indeed one of the greatest proofs of demonic temptation, and the reality and power of the devil, is to be fervent in prayer. For the devil wants nothing so much as for man to fail to accomplish the will of God which is the purpose of all prayer.
If you strive after prayer, prepare yourself for diabolical suggestions and bear patiently their on-slaughts; for they will attack you like wild beasts…Try as much as possible to be humble and courageous…He who endures will be granted great joy. (St. Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer)
The prayer for our “daily bread” is normally understood to signify generally all of our bodily needs and whatever we require to sustain our lives in this world. In the spiritual tradition however, this petition, because it literally says our “essential” or “super-essential” bread, is often understood in the spiritual sense to mean the nourishment of our souls by the Word of God, Jesus Christ who is the “Bread of Life;” the “Bread of God which has come down from heaven and given life to the world” (John 6:33-36); the bread which “a man may eat of it and not die,” but “live forever.” (John 6:50-51) Thus the prayer for “daily bread” becomes the petition for daily spiritual nourishment through abiding communion with Christ so that one might live perpetually with God.
The prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” has been especially emphasized by the Lord.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
This is the point of Christ’s parable about the unforgiving servant. (Matthew 18:23-35) All men need the forgiveness of God and must pray for it. All men are indebted to God for everything, and fail to offer the thanksgiving and praise and righteousness that are due. The only way that God will overlook and forgive the sins and debts of His servants is if they themselves forgive their brothers, not merely in words and formal gestures, but genuinely and truly “from their hearts.” (cf. Matthew 18:35) In the prayer taught by Christ this is clearly acknowledged.
“Lead us not into temptation” should not be understood as if God puts His people to the test or brings them in to the occasion of evil.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God;” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
“Lead us not into temptation” means that we ask God not to allow us to be found in situations in which we will be overcome by sin. It is a prayer that we be kept from those people and places where wickedness reigns and where we in our weakness will certainly succumb. It is a prayer that we will be liberated from the deceit and vanity of our minds and hearts, from the carnal lusts that dwell in our bodies. It is a prayer that God Himself would be man’s shelter and refuge. (cf. Psalm 91)
“Deliver us from evil” says literally “rescue us from the evil one,” that is, the devil. The meaning is clear. There are but two ways for man: God and life or the devil and death. Deliverance from the devil means salvation and redemption from every falsehood, foolishness, deceit, wickedness and iniquity that leads to destruction and death.
Thus, as Archbishop Anthony of Sorouzh has explained, the Lord’s Prayer shows the whole meaning of the life of man. (cf. Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer) Delivered from evil, man is saved from temptation, in so doing he is merciful to all and receives the forgiveness of his own sins. Being forgiven his sins, by his mercy to others, he has all that he needs for life - his “daily bread”; and being nourished by God, he accomplishes His will. Having accomplished His will, God’s Kingdom is present, His name is sanctified and He becomes the Father of the one who shows himself to be in truth the child of God who can say “Our Father.”
In praying to His Father, Jesus prayed for His people, (cf John 17) He Himself is the only competent intercessor for men before God.
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus who gave Himself as a ransom for all. (I Timothy 2-3)
Jesus in His resurrected glory, prays eternally to His Father on behalf of His creatures.
...He holds His priesthood permanently because He continues forever. Consequently He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make inter- cession for them.
For Christ has entered, not a sanctuary made with hands . . . but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Hebrews 7:24-25; 9:24)
In and through Christ, Christians become competent to intercede before God. In the name of Jesus, Christians are commanded and empowered to pray for each other and for all creation: “on behalf of all and for all.” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)
First of all I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions,...This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (I Timothy 2:1-4)
Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power In its effects. Elijah was a man of like natures with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain and…it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit. (James 5:16-18)
Intercessory prayers can be made for every “good gift” from God for the sake of the salvation of others. Such prayers can include petitions for every kind of blessing, both for the body and the soul. They can be made for the inspiration and instruction of men, as well as for their healing and salvation. Whatever one can ask for oneself, one can ask for all men. Whatever one does ask for oneself should be entreated for all. “It is right to pray not only for one’s own purification, but for the purification of every man…” (St. Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer)
To understand intercessory prayer, one must remember the eternal providence of God. One must grasp the fact that God knows all things eternally and takes into consideration each act of man in His overall plan. With this perspective one can then see that even before the creation of the world, God has heard, or rather, more accurately, eternally hears, the cries of His people. He considers man’s prayers in all that He does in His dealings with men. Thus it is the case that God does not wait to see what we do or how we will pray. He considers our actions and prayers from the perspective of eternity. And in the light of our desires and deeds He sees that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28)
If we understand this we can see how our prayers are considered by God, for ourselves and for others. We can understand as well how we can pray even for those who are dead, whose lives on this earth are over and done. For the Lord does not hear our prayers “after” something is finished, because for God there is no “after” at all. God knows what we ask before we even ask it, for He knows all of man’s life in one divine act of all-embracing vision and knowledge. Thus all of our prayers, even for those who are dead, are heard and considered by God before we even make them. If we fail to pray, this too is known to God, and it takes its effect in God’s plan of salvation. Therefore we have to “pray for one another” and our prayer will have “great power in its effects” through the eternal and providential action of God.
In his letter to the Romans St. Paul instructs Christians to “be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12) In his first letter to the Thessalonians he says simply, “pray without ceasing.” (I Thessalonians 5:17)
These two commands of the apostle have been interpreted in the Orthodox tradition in two different ways. The first way, mentioned by St. John Chrysostom and St. Dimitry of Rostov, is that Christians should have regular times for prayer which they never skip - “in the evening and the morning and at noon day” (Psalm 55:17) - and then in between they should always remember God and do all things to His glory (cf. I Corinthians 10:31), offering up supplications and petitions as the need may arise, praising and thanking when the occasion requires it. Such is the normal way that all Christians must live.
Prepare for your set times of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul, and you will soon make progress. (St. John of the Ladder, Step 28)
The set times of prayer are very important, and should not be put aside for any reason, even when one prays continuously in his heart. This is the teaching and practice of the saints. Each person desiring to live the spiritual life should have his own rule of prayer. It should be brief and regular, such that it could be kept in all conditions and circumstances. In this set rule of prayer, the prayers of the Church should be used, the Lord’s Prayer and those from the prayer book. This gives discipline in prayer and provides instruction and inspiration in prayer which is perfectly trustworthy and sound, having demonstrated its power in the lives of the saints. A person who does not follow a set rule of prayer using the traditional prayers of the Church runs the great risk of impoverishing his prayer and reducing its dimensions and scope to the limited perspective of his own individual desires and needs.
When praying with a set rule of prayer, the spiritual teachers tell us to put our whole mind and heart into the meaning of the words, not merely “saying prayers,” which is not prayer at all, but genuinely praying through personal attention and fervor. They tell us to allow our mind not to wander from the words of the prayer, but to use the given words as the basis of our own personal devotion, even allowing our mind to go beyond the given words to our own words, or to no words in the prayer of silence, if the Lord leads us this way. They also tell beginners - and St. Dimitry of Rostov says that we are all beginners, no matter how advanced - never to go back and repeat prayers done poorly. They tell us rather to put ourselves at the mercy of God, and to try to do better the next time. This method reduces the possibility of thinking that God hears our prayers according to the perfection of our performance and not according to the greatness of His mercy, and safeguards against both pride and despair. It gives humility and hope, and keeps us always forging ahead. (cf. Luke 9:62, Philippians 3:13-15)
Thus when one finishes his rule of prayer, however well or poorly he has done it, he should say Amen, and go about his business of living in Christ, remembering God and doing His will until the next time comes for the rule of prayer to be done. Then he should do it as well as he can, beginning all over again.
The second way of interpreting the teachings about unceasing prayer is that men should actually pray with conscious awareness at every moment of their lives, and even in their unconscious selves while their bodies are sleeping. This understanding of “unceasing prayer” was developed in the monastic tradition, but then spread rapidly throughout the whole membership of the church. It became very popular in recent times, mostly through the appearance of the book by the anonymous Russian peasant called The Way of the Pilgrim.
The search for active “unceasing prayer” has its source not only in the instruction of Saint Paul, but also in the literal interpretation of such words of the psalmist:
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continuously be in my mouth. (Psalm 34:1)
And of the Song of Solomon:
I slept, but my heart was awake. (Song 5:2)
The method of “unceasing prayer” is to have a brief prayer verse, usually the Jesus Prayer (see p. 131ff.) which is repeated over and over, literally hundreds of times throughout the day and night, until it becomes perpetually implanted in the heart as a “bubbling spring,” a continual presence in the soul calling out to the Lord. (cf. Theophan the Recluse, 19th c., The Art of Prayer) It is often, but not necessarily, connected with one’s breathing, so much so that it is uttered “with every breath.” (St. Gregory the Theologian; St. John Chrysostom) It begins by being said vocally, silently with the lips, and then it becomes wholly mental. The claim is made that one can continue this “unceasing prayer” even while engaged in the normal activities of life, while reading or writing, and even while sleeping, thus the “body sleeps,” but the “heart is awake.” Then, whenever one’s attention to the affairs of life cease, or when one awakes from one’s bed, one finds that the prayer is continuing itself.
The prayer is also known to break through one’s consciousness with power in times of temptation or stress, appearing, as it were, of its own accord. (cf The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.)
We are not commanded to work, keep vigil or fast without ceasing, but we are commanded to pray without ceasing. For…prayer purifies, and strengthens the mind which was created to pray…and to fight the demons for the protection of all the powers of the soul. (Evagrius of Pontus, 4th c.)
He who has entered his room (i.e. his heart) and prays without ceasing has included in this all prayer everywhere. (St. Mark the Ascetic, 4th c., Direction from Discourses)
Let no one think, my brother Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all Christians to remain always in prayer.
...bear in mind the method of prayer - how it is possible to pray without ceasing, namely by praying in the mind. And this we can do always if we wish. For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink we can always pray mentally and practice this mental prayer - the true prayer pleasing to God.
Blessed are those who acquire this heavenly habit, for by it they overcome every temptation…
This practice of inner prayer tames the passions…by it the dew of the Holy Spirit is brought down into the heart…
This mental prayer is the light which illumines man’s soul and inflames his heart with the fire of love for God. It is the chain linking God with man and man with God. Oh, the incomparable blessing of mental prayer. It allows a man constantly to converse with God.
And what other and greater rewards can you wish than this, when…you are always before the face of God, constantly conversing with Him - conversing with God, without whom no person can ever be blessed, either here or in the life still to come. (St. Gregory Palamas, 14th c., How All Christians In General Must Pray Without Ceasing)
The Jesus Prayer
The most normal form of unceasing prayer in the Orthodox tradition is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is the form of invocation used by those practicing mental prayer, also called the “prayer of the heart.” The words of the prayer most usually said are “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The choice of this particular verse has a theological and spiritual meaning.
First of all, it is centered on the name of Jesus because this is the name of Him whom “God has highly exalted,” the name given to the Lord by God Himself (Luke 1:31), the “name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9-10, cf Ephesians 1:21)
...for there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
All prayer for Christians must be performed in the name of Jesus: “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
The fact that the prayer is addressed to Jesus as Lord and Christ and Son of God is because this is the center of the entire faith revealed by God in the Spirit.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And Jesus answered, “Blessed are you…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven…and on this rock I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:16-18)
That Jesus is the Christ, and that the Christ is Lord is the essence of the Christian faith and the foundation of the Christian church. To believe and proclaim this is granted by the Holy Spirit.
...no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:3)
... every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:11)
In calling Jesus the Son of God is to acknowledge God as His Father. To do this is, at the same time, to have God as one’s own Father, and this too is granted by the indwelling Spirit.
And when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6)
When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God… (Romans 8:15-16)
Thus, to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” is already to be a child of God, and already to be certain that the Holy Spirit is in you. In this way, the Jesus Prayer brings the Spirit of God into the heart of man.
“Have mercy on me a sinner” is the publican’s prayer. When uttered with humble conviction it brings divine justification. (cf. Luke 18:9-14) Generally speaking, divine mercy is what man needs most of all. It is for this reason that the numberless repetition of the request for the Lord’s mercy is found everywhere in the prayers of, the Church.
And finally, all men are sinners. To know this is a fact, and to confess it with faith is to be justified and forgiven by God. (cf. Romans 3:10-12, Psalm 14:1-3)
The Jesus Prayer basically is used in three different ways. First as the verse used for the “prayer of the heart” in silence in the hesychast method of prayer. Second as the continual mental and unceasing prayer of the faithful outside the hesychast tradition. And third as the brief ejaculatory prayer used to ward off temptations. Of course, in the actual life of a person these three uses of the prayer are often interrelated and combined.
In the hesychast method of prayer the person sits alone in a bodily position with his head bowed and his eyes directed toward his chest or his stomach. He continually repeats the prayer with each aspiration and breath, placing his “mind in his heart” by concentrated attention. He empties his mind of all rational thoughts and discursive reasoning, and also voids his mind of every picture and image. Then, without thought or imagination, but with all proper attention and concentration he rhythmically repeats the Jesus Prayer in silence - hesychia means silence - and through this method of contemplative prayer is united to God by the indwelling of Christ in the Spirit. According to the fathers, such a prayer, when faithfully practiced within the total life of the Church, brings the experience of the uncreated divine light of God and unspeakable joy to the soul. Its purpose is to make man a servant of God.
...the mind when it unites with the heart is filled with unspeakable joy and delight. Then a man sees that the Kingdom of heaven is truly within us.
When you enter the place of the heart…give thanks to God, and praising His mercy, keep always to this activity, and it will teach you things which you will learn in no other way.
...when your mind becomes established in the heart, it must not remain idle, but it should constantly repeat the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” and never cease.
For this practice, keeping the mind from dreaming, renders it invincible against all suggestions of the devil and every day leads it more and more to love and longing for God. (St. Nicephorus, 14th c., Discourse on Sobriety)
To practice the hesychast method of prayer requires always and without exception the guidance of a spiritual guide, one must not use this method unless one is a person of genuine humility and sanity, filled with all wisdom and peace. To use this method without guidance or humble wisdom, is to court spiritual disaster, for the temptations that come with it are many. Indeed, the abuses of the method became so great in recent centuries that its use was greatly curtailed. Bishop Theophan tells that the bodily postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his time since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only “in ruining their lungs.” (cf. The Art of Prayer, lgumen Chariton, ed.)
Such abusive and abortive used of the method - itself something genuine and richly rewarding were already known in fourteenth century Byzantium when St. Gregory Palamas defended the tradition. And evidence exists from as early as the fourth century to show that even then people were using the prayer foolishly and to no avail by reducing it to a “thing in itself” and being captivated by its form without interest in its purpose. Indeed, the idolatrous interest in spiritual technique and in the pleasurable benefits of “spirituality” and “mysticism” are the constant temptations of the spiritual life - and the devil’s most potent weapon. Bishop Theophan called such interest “spiritual hedonism”; John of the Cross (16th c. Spain) called it “spiritual gluttony” and “spiritual luxury.” Thus, by way of example from various times and places, come the following admonitions.
Those who refuse to work with their hands under the pretext that one should pray without ceasing, in reality do not pray either. Through idleness…they entangle the soul in a labyrinth of thoughts…and make it incapable of prayer. (St. Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer)
As long as you pay attention only to bodily posture for prayer and your mind cares only for the external beauty of the tabernacle (i.e. proper forms), know that you have not yet found the place of prayer and its blessed way is still far from you.
Know that in the midst of all spiritual joy and consolation, that it is still more necessary to serve God with devotion and fear. (St. Nilus of Sinai, Texts on Prayer)
It is natural for the mind to reject what is at hand and dream of something else to come… to build fantasies and imaginings about achievements before he has attained them. Such a man is in considerable danger of losing what he has and failing into self-delusion and being deprived of good sense. He becomes only a dreamer and not a man of continual prayer (i.e. a hesychast). (St. Gregory of Sinai, 14th c., Texts on Commandments and Dogmas)
If you are truly practicing the continual prayer of silence, hoping to be with God and you see something sensory or spiritual, within or without, be it even the image of Christ, or an angel, or some saint, or if an image of light pervades your mind in no way accept it…always be displeased with such images, and keep your mind clear, without image or form…and you will suffer no harm. It has often happened that such things, even when sent by God as a test before victory, have turned into harm for many…who have then done harm to others equally unwise…leading to pride and self-conceit.
For the fathers say that those who live rightly and are faultless in their behavior with other men…who seek God with obedience, questioning and wise humility…will always be protected from harm by the grace of Christ. (St. Gregory of Sinai, Instructions to Hesychasts)
The use of the Jesus Prayer outside the hesychast method for unceasing prayer is to repeat the prayer constantly and continually, whatever one is doing, without the employment of any particular bodily postures or breathing techniques. This is the way taught by St. Gregory Palamas in his short discourse about how unceasing mental prayer is the duty of all Christians. (see p. 130) Anyone can do this, whatever his occupation or position in life. This also is shown in The Way of the Pilgrim.
The purpose and results of this method of prayer are those generally of all prayer: that men might be continually united with God by unceasing remembrance of His presence and perpetual invocation of His name, so that one might always serve Him and all men with the virtues of Christ and the fruits of the Spirit.
The third method of using the Jesus Prayer is to have it always ready for moments of temptation. In this way, as St. John Climacus has said, you can “flog your enemies, i.e. the temptations, with the name of Jesus for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 21) This method works best when one practices the prayer without ceasing, joining “to every breath a sober invocation of Jesus’ name.” (Evagrius of Pontus) When one practices the continual “prayer of the heart,” and when the temptations to sin enter the heart, they are met by the prayer and are defeated by grace.
Man cannot live in this world without being tempted. When temptation comes to a person, there are only three possible results. Either the person immediately yields to the temptation and sins, or he tries to ward off the temptation by the power of his will, and is ultimately defeated after great vexation and strife. Or else he fights off the temptation by the power of Christ in his heart which is present only by prayer. This does not mean that he “prays the temptation away.” Or that God miraculously and magically descends to deliver him. It means rather that his soul is so filled with the grace and the power of God that the temptation can have no effect. It is in this sense that the Apostle John has written: “no one who abides in Christ sins.” (1 John 3:6)
He who sins is of the devil…The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God commits sins; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin for he is born of God. By this may be seen who are children of God, and who are children of the devil. (I John 3:8-10)
One becomes a child of God, born of God in the Church through baptism. One continues as a child of God and does not sin only by continual prayer: the remembrance of God, the abiding in Him, the calling upon His name without ceasing in the soul. The third use of the Jesus Prayer, like the first two, is to accomplish this end: that man might not sin.
Liturgical prayer is not simply the prayers of individual Christians joined into one. It is not a corporate “prayer service” of many persons together. It is rather the official prayer of the Church formally assembled; the prayer of Christ in the Church offering His “body” and “bride” to the Father in the Spirit. It is the Church’s participation in Christ’s perpetual prayer in the presence of God in the Kingdom of heaven. (cf. Hebrews 7:24-25, 9:24) The model of liturgical prayer is in the book of Revelation, and not in the gospel events of Jerusalem or Galilee.
In the Orthodox Church there is no tradition of corporate prayer which is not liturgical. Some consider this a lack, but most likely it is based on Christ’s teaching that the prayer of individuals should be done “in secret.” (Matthew 6-.5-6) This guards against vain repetition and the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others. It also protects persons from being subjected to the superficialities and shallowness of those, who instead of praying, merely express the opinions and desires of their own minds and hearts.
When a person participates in the liturgical prayer of the Church, he can only do so effectively to the extent that he prays by himself, at home, and in his own mind and heart. The one who “prays without ceasing” is the one who offers and receives most in liturgical prayer.
When one participates in the liturgical prayer of the Church, he should make every effort to join himself fully with all the members of the body. He should not “say his own prayers” in church, but should pray “with the Church.” This does not mean that he forgets his own needs and desires, depersonalizing himself and becoming but one more voice in the crowd. It means rather that he should unite his own person, his own needs and desires, all of his life with those who are present, with the church throughout the world, with the angels and saints, indeed with Christ Himself in the one great “divine” and “heavenly liturgy” of all creation before God.
Practically this means that one who participates in liturgical prayer should put his whole being, his whole mind and heart, into each prayer and petition and liturgical action, making it come alive in himself. If each person does this, then the liturgical exclamations become genuine and true, and the whole assembly as one body will glorify God with “one mouth, one mind and one heart.” (See Worship, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)
Meditation differs from prayer, even from silent prayer, in that meditation is thought about God and contemplation of His word and His works.
Meditation normally begins by reading from the holy Scriptures, the Word of God. This is called in the spiritual tradition lectio divina. It is the slow and attentive reading of the Bible, or perhaps the writings of the church fathers and saints, not for the purpose of gaining information, but for the purpose of communion with God.
Such meditative reading may be of the sort where the person tries, with the power of his thought and imagination, to enter into the event about which he is reading in order to become its contemporary participant. Or, it can be of the sort where the person merely reads and listens in silence, without imagination or rational thought, in order to let the Word of God enter his mind and heart in order to remain there, to bring forth its fruit at the appointed time.
Psalmody, done either alone or in the churchly assembly, exists for this latter purpose. When reading or chanting the psalms, the person does not try to think about each word and phrase. Rather he cuts off all reasoning, and opens his heart to the Lord, uniting “his mouth with his mind,” (St Benedict) and allowing the Word of God to be planted within him to blossom in his soul with the fruits of the Spirit. This also is the case with churchly hymnology. It is sung for the glory of God and the edification and expansion of the soul through the contemplation of the Lord in His words and works of salvation, much more than for any intellectual instruction. This type of meditation is especially advised in times of despondency.
There is also the type of meditation and contemplation done totally in silence, without any words or images or thoughtful activity at all, not even psalmody. The person merely sits in silence, often in the presence of holy icons, and emptying his mind of all thoughts, imaginations and desires, listens to God in silence, the divine “language of the Kingdom of heaven.” (St. Isaac of Syria) This type of meditation, for a person of unceasing prayer, will be the “prayer of silence,” with the “bubbling spring” of the Jesus Prayer as its only foundation and background. In such contemplative prayer and prayerful contemplation, the spirit of man becomes one with the Spirit of God. (cf. I Corinthians 6:17)
Prayer in the Spirit
All Christian prayer must be prayer in the Spirit; and all genuine prayer most certainly is. Men pray to the Father, through Christ the Son and Word of God in the Holy Spirit. This is the case wherever men pray, whatever their method, whether they know it or not. For prayer is not man’s lonely cry across empty spaces to a far-off God. Prayer is man’s being in God; being in the Holy Spirit, as made in Christ’s image, the dwelling place of God.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?... God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are. (I Corinthians 3:16-17, cf. Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalms 139:7-14, Romans 10:5-13)
Christian prayer is done consciously in the Holy Spirit, with all faith and awareness. It is addressed to and through Christ, to the Father. In the Orthodox Church there is only one prayer among all the prayers of the Church addressed to the Holy Spirit. This is the prayer O Heavenly King which begins all prayers and clearly creates the conditions in which all prayer is performed.
O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
You are everywhere and fill all things,
Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life,
Come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls,
O Good One.
Even on Pentecost Sunday in the Orthodox Church the three special prayers of the feast are addressed to Christ and the Father.
The prayer to God for the coming of the Spirit is itself a sign that the Spirit is already in man enabling him to call to the Father. This is the mystery of man’s nature and existence; that he is only truly man when the Holy Spirit is in him. This is the mystery of God’s gracious work in man. It is the mystery of prayer and life itself.
One calls God “Our Father” only in the Spirit. One calls Jesus “Lord” only in the Spirit. One prays to God in any manner or form only in the Spirit. The words of the psalms, the prayers of the Saints, the liturgical worship of the Church, is the “breathing of God’s Spirit” in man. (Father John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ) For all prayer, like the scripture itself, is by the inspiration of God.
Even when men do not know how to pray or for what they should ask, it is the Holy Spirit who prays in them that they would have what is needed, that God’s will would be done.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with signs too deep for words. And He who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit be- cause the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
Thus the prayer in the Spirit, as well as the prayer for the Spirit, has as its purpose the “acquisition of the Spirit” so that by the “fruits of the Spirit” man would be holy and divine by God’s grace. This is the basic mystery of the spiritual life. For as Saint Augustine has said, the person who seeks the Lord has already been found by Him. The very seeking in prayer, when one knows not how to pray, makes a person already the dwelling place of God.
In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul speaks of a special kind of prayer in the Spirit. It is the spiritual gift of “speaking in tongues.” With this particular gift the person praises God in a language he cannot understand. His “spirit prays” with ecstatic utterances, but his “mind remains unfruitful.” According to the apostle, who himself had this gift and says that it should not be forbidden, such prayer in the Spirit is without benefit to man unless it is accompanied with “some revelation or knowledge or prophecy (i.e. the directly inspired Word of God) or teaching.” He says that it should not be done in the public gathering of the church unless there be some interpretation and that even then there should be “only two, or at most three,” and that those who are “eager for manifestations of the Spirit should strive to excel in building up the church” and should “not be children in their thinking…but in thinking be mature.” He says that all should seek rather to prophesy, i.e. to speak the Word of God clearly and plainly so that those who observe Christians would declare “that God is really among” them and not consider them "mad.” He says finally that “all things should be done decently and in order.” (cf. I Corinthians 12-14)
It is apparent that the gift of praying in the Spirit with tongues was the cause of no small confusion and disorder in the Corinthian Church, and that those having this gift of ecstatic prayer were disturbing and dividing the community by considering themselves more spiritual than others. St. Paul insists that not all have the same gifts, and that tongues are but one of the gifts, the last of those mentioned, to serve as a sign not for those who already believe, but “for unbelievers.” (I Corinthians 14:22) In general it is clear that the sole purpose of the apostle’s extended discussion of the spiritual gifts, and his insistence on giving up “childish ways” in the pursuit of perfection when one becomes mature, was to rebuke the members of the Corinthian Church for their misuse and abuse of the spiritual gift of tongues.
There is no evidence in the spiritual tradition of the church that any of the saints had the gift of praying in tongues or that such kind of prayer was ever a part of the liturgy of the church. The only mention that can be found of it, to our knowledge, was at the baptism of Montanus, a third-century heretic who left the Church to found his own spiritualist sect. If any of the saints or spiritual masters had this gift, they did not write about it or propagate it openly. It was unknown, for example, to Saint John Chrysostom by his own report, (cf. Commentary on Corinthians) Since a number of believers have this gift in our time, and since there are persons who seek it, it is critically important that this method of prayer be understood according to the counsels of Saint Paul and in the light of the teaching of the spiritual masters on prayer.
From:The Orthodox Faith by Fr. Thomas Hopko