“”So it is spiritually, removing our shoes, freeing ourselves from inner deadness, we begin to realize that the world around us is holy – that God is near. We renew our sense of awe and wonder. Each thing, each person, becomes a sacrament of the divine presence – a means of communion with God.” – Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, on Moses’ interaction with God in Exodus 3.
There’s so much to say about prayer. As I write this, there is so much that I want to say about the topic, I’m having difficulty in keeping this post to a reasonable length. In my last post, I wrote a bit about structured rules of prayer – specifically, why formal rules of prayer are valuable in spiritual formation and why they are Biblical and within the teachings of Christ. For this post, I want to talk about prayer from a more personal perspective. That is, I want to share my understanding of the purpose of prayer from an Orthodox perspective and what effects I’ve seen in my own life as a result of the Orthodox rule of prayer.
I’d like to make two quick points. First, I haven’t stopped praying informally. In fact, all Orthodox (and Catholic and Anglican) Christians pray informally in addition to formal prayers. Informal prayer is very important, but formal prayer (especially with other Christians) is indispensable (at least for me). Second, there are many amazing and godly Christians in other traditions who do not employ formal rules of prayer. One of the reasons I chose to become Orthodox was because of the emphasis on a formal prayer rule, which is part of what I earnestly believe is the fullness of the Christian faith, and this is something I truly need for spiritual growth.
I was always taught that prayer was important. In my home and school and in the churches I attended, prayer was seen as vital to the Christian life. The Southern Baptist tradition gave me a very good grounding when it came to the importance of prayer. But as time went on, I found that praying regularly was difficult. I had other priorities. I knew it was important, and it wasn’t as if I completely rejected my prayer life – I would pray even when I didn’t need something. In the end, I just left prayer (and even reading the Bible) off to one side while I took care of other things. I was an active kid in high school and I “knew” I had been “saved” and I thought as long as I took care of business and stayed out of trouble, then everything would work out – I thought God had it under control. He didn’t need me to tell Him what I needed or wanted or what I had done wrong or what I was thankful for all the time.
A basic pattern emerged over the years. I’d go off to camp with my church in the summer or maybe a special preacher would come to speak at chapel at school and I’d be “on fire for God” for a while amongst friends and classmates and even in private… but it wouldn’t last long. There was never any lasting change. I was always a pretty good kid – I never got in serious trouble at school or at home, but I never saw myself become really changed in a permanent way.
This pattern would continue until I discovered the Orthodox Church in graduate school. As I learned more about Orthodox theology, the lives of the Saints, and Orthodox practice, I eventually decided to try to take up praying the Orthodox rule of prayer in the mornings and evenings (at least a little bit of it each day). As I got started, at first I simply started reciting the words. But little by little, the words began to take on meaning – the prayers began to very slowly, but surely, take hold in my mind and soften my heart. The words started to become my own.
I thought this was very strange, how something that had been written many centuries ago by someone who lived in a totally foreign culture and time, living on the other side of the world, could affect me the way it did. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way – there was still that hesitance about formal prayers, but there was also something about them that made me see things differently. This form of prayer was changing me. Of course, it wasn’t the prayers themselves acting like a magic formula – it was the Holy Spirit who was working through the prayers; but I never knew how powerful this form of prayer could be. After more time spent studying the history of Christianity and Orthodox theology, I knew that this ancient tradition was full of Truth. It was positively saturated with the Holy Spirit and I had to see for myself what it was that the Eastern Christians knew – rather, what they had – that I didn’t. I decided to visit a local Greek Orthodox parish and I haven’t even thought of going anywhere else since.
You see, it was how those prayers affected me in a very subtle, but very real and noticeable way (a way that I’d never experienced before), that really brought me into Orthodoxy. It was the living Tradition of the Church – the life of the Holy Spirit – that brought me to the ancient, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I’m still struggling with a lot and I have an infinite way to go, but the changes I’ve seen, as small as they may be, are extremely significant and I cannot deny them.
You may ask, what’s so different about these prayers? And what has changed, exactly?
I think a good deal of the difference between the Orthodox rule of prayer and my earlier emphasis on spontaneous prayer is in the approach. Before, I saw prayer as important, but it was mostly a means of asking God for things and giving thanks and occasionally worship. It was a means of talking to God, which was and is a wonderful thing, but I never really fully grasped why it was so important. As I said earlier, I thought that I was eternally secure in my salvation – I was all set, so I thought it was fine to just turn on cruise control and let God make me move forward in my walk with Him.
The Orthodox have a different view of prayer. While it is true that prayer is a means of asking God for things, giving thanks, and worship, their approach gives one a deep understanding of the purpose of prayer. Orthodox see prayer as a means of grace – it is a way by which God heals our broken, self-centered nature and replaces it with His own nature, which is perfect and unselfish love. Apart from God, each human being is seen as “sick” (not totally depraved, as many Western Christians believe). When we are captive to sin, we are in bondage to our own ego and self-centeredness and this is truly what it means to be captive to sin. To be sure, there are evil beings in the world – the devil and his fallen angels use our broken nature against us and hold us captive to sin and death.
When we pray, it’s like getting a dose of medicine. This is true even of spontaneous prayer, but engaging in a formal rule of prayer can be especially powerful (especially when one prays with other Christians). These inspired prayers handed down through the ages are very powerful indeed and have had a very real effect on me. So when I read Orthodox theologians, monks, and the Fathers of the Church, I know it is true when they say that prayer is central to the life of each Orthodox Christian and an indispensable means of sanctification. When we pray, little by little, we are being healed and transformed into the creatures that God has intended us to be all along – creatures who are in His image and likeness.
But how does God use prayer as a means of grace? The Orthodox see prayer, like many other Christians, as a way to establish a relationship with God. And while spontaneous prayer is important in establishing and maintaining this relationship, a formal rule of prayer acts as an aide in helping the Christian attain a certain level of depth in prayer – a certain stillness of the mind and openness of the heart.
The goal of each Orthodox Christian is to attain perfect union with God – this is the Orthodox meaning of the term “salvation”. This union with God doesn’t mean that we are somehow absorbed by God as some Eastern religions teach, but we do seek to enter into a perfect and full relationship with God where we share in the life of the Trinity forever. So as each Orthodox Christian prays, he or she is seeking union with God – a perfect and unceasing relationship with the eternal and undivided Trinity.
Central to this journey to a perfect relationship with God is the ability to pray from the heart, with no distractions. In this way, prayer is more than talking to God – it is about being in the Presence of the Most High, opening our hearts to Him as He heals our broken nature and replaces it with His own, breathing Life into us once again.
A formal rule of prayer helps us focus on simply being in the Presence of God because we stop thinking about what we want or need or what’s happened that day or what our worries are – our minds are less prone to wandering. While God wants us to talk to Him about these things, it is also important that we take time to “be still” and simply acknowledge God for who He is. In praying the holy and ancient prayers that have been handed down to us by the Church over the centuries, we can allow the prayers to flow from our hearts and stand in the midst of God’s unending grace. I mentioned earlier that as I began praying the Orthodox prayer rule, there were three levels: prayer from the lips, prayer from the mind, and prayer from the heart. Over time, these prayers become personal to each Christian and then we begin to see the effects of God’s grace after we learn to be still and open our hearts to the Lord.
As I said, I can see some noticeable differences in my own life. My very perceptions are changing. I don’t mean my physical senses – I mean the way I see the world is beginning to change as it never has before. My mind is working differently. I’m beginning to understand what Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was talking about in that quote at the beginning of this piece. I’m starting to see everything and everyone in a different way than I did before. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll give two quick, concrete examples and then some words about C.S. Lewis to try to clear things up.
Not long ago, I saw a post online about the trial for the Ft. Hood shootings. A question was posed about the only suspect in the case – Nidal Malik Hasan. What should we do with him, especially given some complications that have arisen over conflicts between his religious beliefs and military regulations? More people than I’d care to say actually advocated torture and a brutal death. The barbaric ideas themselves were very striking, coming from people who I assume are college educated (and should therefore know about civil liberties) and they would probably also call themselves Christians (and should know about mercy). But what struck me the most was how it wasn’t long ago at all that I would have joined in the savage calls for torture and violent death. Now, though… I was horrified at what these people were saying.
My attitudes towards war have also undergone a similar change. It was only a few years ago that I wouldn’t have batted an eye if the American government had fire bombed the entire Middle East – “turn it into glass”, I’d say. But when Ron Paul advocated a foreign policy guided by the Golden Rule, I was heartbroken when he was booed at that Republican debate.
I’m not saying all this to hold myself up as one who has all the answers and I still have a lot of progress to make. St. Paul called himself the “first” amongst sinners. I think that description certainly holds true for me. I will say, though, that by God’s mercy and grace, I am beginning to see each human being as sacred – as one who has been made in the image of God. This has been one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed since I started using the formal rule of prayer of the Orthodox Church.
I’d also like to point out that C.S. Lewis, an “old Western man”, held a view of the world that was remarkably similar to the quote from Met. Kallistos. For Lewis, the barrier between this world and the spiritual world was very thin indeed. In his theological works and especially in his fiction, Lewis shows us that the whole world is filled with God’s Presence – his writing helped us to look beyond our normal perceptions of the world. The physical world and the spiritual are not completely divorced – they are part of the same created order in which God is everywhere present. In some especially thin places in the world, the lines between the spiritual and physical can become blurred. Doors can be opened to the unseen part of creation. It could be at a holy place like Iona… or even a wardrobe.
When we “take off our shoes” – get rid of our inner deadness, our perceptions inevitably change and I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit has worked through the ancient prayers of the Orthodox Church to change me at my very core. I know I have a very long journey ahead of me, but I trust in the mercy and grace of the Lord that He will continue to save me.