Even in today’s secular world, we hear a lot about prayer. People tell each other, “I’ll pray for you” when something goes wrong. When something bad is going on in someone’s life, they may pray to God for help. Prayer for some people has become more of an exercise in positive thinking and visualization.
The Orthodox Christian Church has many beautiful prayers which developed mostly over the first eight hundred years of its existence since it was founded by Christ. Especially at a time when many were illiterate, the chants and prayers of the Church were one’s education in the faith, along with the images of Christ and the saints (icons). Even today, one finds Orthodox people who have committed large amounts of texts to memory from frequent attendance in the services.
Despite the beauty of these prayers, however, there are some that might object that these prayers are formulaic and that one is not really, “praying from the heart.” This objection, along with a criticism of the fact that some prayers are repeated many times in Orthodox worship, arises from a misunderstanding of the different types of prayer practiced by Orthodox Christians. In this essay, four major types of prayer will be outlined, to give a basic outline of the Orthodox Christian experience of prayer.
The Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy, the communion service of the Orthodox Christians, is the highest form of prayer. The service begins with petition for peace and well-being of the entire world, for the health and salvation of the Christians assembled in worship, and prayers for other intentions. This is followed by psalmody, and the readings from an Epistle and a Gospel. The homily or sermon serves as a bridge between this “liturgy of the Word” and the “liturgy of the Eucharist,” the second part of the service where the bread and wine are offered to Christ, and transformed in to His true body and blood, to be given to those receiving it that day to enable them to go out in to the world and truly make disciples of all nations. For this prayer, a priest is necessary, and it is the most commonly-attended service of the Church.
The Hours. Apart from the Divine Liturgy, there is a continuous cycle of prayer maintained across the world by Christians. These services are held at various times during the day, and accompany the worshipper in to each stage of the day and night. Vespers is the evening prayer, and Compline is a prayer said before retiring for the night. There is a midnight prayer for those inclined to rise in the night to pray, and then Matins is celebrated in the morning. Smaller hours accompany other parts of the day such as noon. While most parishes and Christians are unable to attend all of these services, they do exist and can be prayed either corporately in a Church or privately in one’s home. They are formulaic in nature, and incorporate variable or changing parts that are specific to the day and season. Especially on weekends and major feast days, at least Vespers and Matins are served, and it is during these services that many special hymns tell the story of what is being celebrated or commemorated that day. The Hours allow the Christian to intuitively understand that there is a cycle and rhythm to the day and week, which helps to ground us, especially in this age of short attention spans and hectic, ever-changing schedules.
Private prayer. Each Orthodox Christian is in turn encouraged to develop a personal rule of prayer with his or her spiritual father, usually the parish priest or another trusted priest who gives guidance and confession. The home of an Orthodox Christian is a “little Church” where Christ is honored. Therefore, whether one lives alone or in a family unit, in the morning and at night one should pray regularly for God’s blessings and in order to make progress in the spiritual life. In addition, a very special prayer, the Jesus prayer, is said in private. This prayer, which is a repetition of the formula, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” is normally prayed with a rope with beads, that helps to keep track of the number of repetitions. A certain number is done each day, to help the believer keep his or her mind focused on Christ as the center of one’s life.
Extemporaneous prayer. Finally, there is of course prayer that is offered by the believer in his or her own words, at his or her own time. This type of prayer is the form most known to non-Orthodox Christians, who are encouraged to “make the words their own” and “pray from the heart.” Orthodox Christians also engage in this type of prayer, seeking to know God’s will, offer thanksgiving to Him, repent of their sins, and intercede for the needs of their loved ones and others. Not much more needs to be said about this form of prayer, since it is such a personal and individual act, which is intrinsically understood by most people.
There is no division between the pre-formed, written prayers of the prayer books, and the extemporaneous, self-composed prayers of the faithful in private. Rather, they inform each other. A Christian learns about the proper history of salvation, relationship with God, and the associated beliefs of the Church through public prayer (an ancient statement was that that which is prayed is that which is believed). This allows the Christian to pray properly and appropriately in his own words. In turn, this intimate private prayer allows the Christian to further appreciate the public prayer of the Church and the opportunity to gather together with other believers, in fellowship. The culmination of both types of prayer is the communal celebration of the Divine Liturgy, where Christ is made truly present to those who commune, who thereby become one body.
Before finishing, we can make one comment about repetitive prayer. Some non-Orthodox cite Scripture against the practice of “vain repetitions” in prayer. They believe that repeating prayers such as the Our Father or Lord Have Mercy several times is rote and devoid of spiritual power. The Pharisees thought that by praying repeatedly, they were somehow garnering more favor with God. The Orthodox, then, are like the Pharisees for doing this, they reason.
Fortunately, this is not why we repeat prayers. We do not engage in vain repetitions for the purpose of trying to butter God up and make him more agreeable with our requests. Instead, prayers are sometimes repeated in the Church precisely because we have such short attention spans. The benefit is to us, the hope being that at least some of the prayers will “stick” in our sinful hearts. Over time, the discipline of the repetition forms the mind, and frees it from casual thoughts and distractions. The repetitions of prayer then are the construction of a scaffolding which allows for the development of the interior, in this case our interior life of prayer.
We recommend as a good prayer book the one produced by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. It contains morning and evening prayers, Vespers and Matins, the Divine Liturgy, and additional devotional services.