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pray_hands.GIF (680 bytes) Prayer & Spirituality
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Orthodox Prayer
by Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios, Indian Orthodox Church

1. What is Prayer?

Prayer is like breathing. Without breathing we cannot live. When we breathe, air enters our lungs, cleanses the blood in our veins by relieving it of the carbon dioxide, and supplying it with oxygen. If I do not breathe for a few minutes I die. When I have hard physical work to do, I need more air than when I am sleeping or sitting in a chair.

Fortunately God has so ordained that we do not die spiritually just because we have failed to pray for some time. But when there is no prayer, sin accumulates and the proper functioning of the spiritual life becomes obstructed. And if you have important spiritual work to do, you need more prayer than otherwise. Only those who pray constantly are exercising their spiritual muscles.

Prayer is communion or communication with God - opening ourselves to Him and receiving His love. It is by living consciously in this relationship of love that we can be transformed into the image of God. By prayer, we become more like God, more loving, more wise, more powerful, more kind and good.

In prayer, we are cleansed of the accumulated impurities of our life and we are supplied with power to live a good, kind and holy life.

Prayer is not a matter of asking God for all kinds of things. Some teenagers speak to their earthly father only when they need money. We should not become like them in relation to our heavenly Father - going to Him only when we need something. The relationship is valuable in itself, as in all true love. It is not what we get out of it that matters, but the fact that we are in communion with our Heavenly Father.

2. Why Pray?

Does not God know what we need even before we ask him?Why does He want us to ask? Does prayer change God's will in any way?Can my prayer change the future that God has already determined?

These are legitimate questions that need to be answered.The Bible says clearly 'your Father knows what you need before you ask Him' (St. Matthew 6:8). But God wants that we know what is good for others as well as for ourselves.God wants that our will should not incline towards evil, but desire the good with deep yearning.Prayer is therefore a way of training the will to desire the good, as well as of turning our wills toward the highest concentration of all good, namely God.

Prayer is thus a way of becoming good by using our freedom to turn towards the good and to will the good.By prayer we become like God.God is good and wills the good.We should also become like God in willing and desiring what is good.By communion with God we also learn to desire the good which God also desires.

God said: 'Let there be light' and there was light.And God saw that the light was good (Gen. 1:3-4).What God willed became reality.We are to become like God.So we must also acquire the capacity to will the good, and it will happen as we desire, when we become more and more like God.Prayer is an expression of our will in desiring the good and realizing it.When we are delivered from selfishness, pride, and evil desires, our prayers will become more like the creative Word of God, which merely by saying 'let there be light' can create light.

God has made us partakers of His own divine nature.He has called us to share in God's own glory and excellence (2 Pet. 1:4).When we trust in God and live a life of discipline, prayer, worship, virtue, knowledge, godliness, brotherly affection and love (2 Pet. 1:5-8), we are transformed into God's likeness and share in His divine power.God wants us to have a part in the task of shaping this world through prayer and knowledge and work.

By prayer we do change reality.God has given us that power.But this power is not available to us until we become more godlike.That is why the prayers of the saints are more effective than our own prayer - because they are more godlike than we are. If the power to change the world by our will is in the hands of evil men, they will make the world evil.We have to grow in the capacity for prayer by developing the habits of prayer and loving service.

And our prayers should not be selfish.In prayer the first focus is God. The second focus is other people.Only in the third place should we ask things for ourselves.In the Lord's Prayer all the first petitions are focused on God - His name, His kingdom, His will.This is the way our prayer should also be.We pray that God's purposes may be established in the lives of all people, that evil may be banished from the earth, that all men may live together in peace and justice, praising God the centre and source of all good.Even in the prayers that ask for daily food, for forgiveness and for protection from evil, the first person singular (I, me) is not used in the Lord's prayer.We ask for things for us, for all men.

When we all pray with love and faith, without selfishness or pride, our prayer changes things.God has more laws than the laws of physical science. He can make prayer achieve 'miracles' of healing and transformation which cannot be explained by medical science.Our science knows only some of God's laws.Prayer is also subject to certain laws.It is the same power of God which operates in the scientific realm, and in the realm of prayer.

In prayer, we are never alone.Not even alone with God.Especially in group prayer, we commemorate all those who are members of the body of Christ, for it is as a member of the body that we pray, and the other members are always with us.This is why we commemorate the Prophets, Apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Martyrs, the Saints, the great Teachers and all the faithful departed and all the faithful living.

3. How To Pray?

Prayer has to be learned.  It is like swimming.  When you are first thrown into  the water, you may sink.  You then may think that the law of gravity is final and cannot be changed.  But there are other laws, like those of buoyancy and motion.  The mere knowledge of these laws cannot teach you to swim.  One jumps in and slowly, by repeated practice, acquires the skills of remaining afloat and of moving on the surface of or under the water.  And some people are more skillful swimmers than others, because they have learned the rules and acquired the skills by constant practice.

1. Do Not Give Up Easily

The first rule in prayer, as in swimming, is not to give up just because you do not succeed in the first three or four attempts.  Prayer is a spiritual skill to be acquired by constant practice.

2. Let Go

The second rule, again as in swimming, is to 'let go,' to let the water support you, to be unanxious and relaxed.  In prayer also we have to let ourselves go, relax, trust in God to support you and teach you how to pray.

3. Stay With It

The third rule is to keep up the practice, even if you do not feel like it, or enjoy it. In the life of prayer, our inherent love of sensual pleasures and our selfish love of laziness and comfort, will interfere to make us reluctant to keep up the practice, finding various excuses for not praying. There is no use saying 'I don't feel like praying' or 'I do not get anything from it.' It will take years before you get the habit of prayer and really begin to enjoy it. One must strengthen the will to have control over laziness of the body and desires of the flesh if one is to make progress in the art and skill of prayer. There is nothing like regular practice which can teach you to pray.

4. Develop the Discipline

A fourth rule, closely connected with the third, is: develop the discipline of prayer through fasting and self-control. Man does not become free and good like God until he learns to control his own inner drives and passions. Restraint of hunger and thirst, of anger and jealously, of sexual passion, of the desire for glory and flattery, of the desire for bodily excitement and for sensual stimulation, and of all inner turbulences which make us do things against our own free will, is a necessary preparation for prayer. As good athletes competing for the Olympic Games go through very rigorous self-discipline in order to keep their body, muscles and nerves in good condition, so should the man of prayer keep his body, mind and spirit in good condition and under conscious control.

Source: Appendix "What is Prayer? Why Pray? How Pray? (written for Orthodox young people in India)" pages 76-83 "The Joy of Freedom" by Paulos Mar Gregorios 1967 (republished 1986 by CLS, Madras, India)

Contributed By: Fr. John Brian, Wisconsin

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