Prayer in the Eastern Christian Church

“Remember God more often than you breathe.”
St. Gregory Nazianzus, +389

Prayer is more essential to us, more an integral part of ourselves, than the rhythm of our breathing or the beating of our heart. Without prayer there is no life. Prayer is our nature. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and think. The human animal is best defined, not as a logical or tool-making animal or an animal that laughs, but rather as an an animal that prays, a eucharistic animal, capable of offering the world back to God in thanksgiving and intercession.

Prayer is most specifically an encounter. It is a meeting between two living persons. It is a means of communion with God. It is where I meet God and He meets me…where I come to Him in my fragile brokenness. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8). It is our task to simply begin to pray. If we take one step toward the Lord, He takes ten towards us — He Who saw the prodigal son while he was yet at a distance and had compassion and ran to the edge of the property and embrced him.

The Didache (late 1st century) prescribes that Christians should pray three times daily: evening, morning, midday. (This is actually taken from the earlier biblical tradition of the Jews, carried over and fulfilled within the Christian community.) We see that even King David states “Seven times a day will I praise You.” (Ps. 119:164) It was from this that since the 4th century, many Christians punctuated each day with seven set times for prayer — especially (but not limited to) monks, nuns, solitaries and hermits.

Thus, the Church set forth a series of Daily Offices: Vespers at sunset; Compline at bed time; Matins at sunrise; the First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours with varioius biblical themes at 6:00 am, 9:00 am (see Acts 2:15), noon (see Lk. 23:44 and Acts 10:9), and 3:00 pm (see Mk. 15:34 and Acts 3:1), respectively. Much of the Daily Offices is comprised of the Psalter, the “Prayerbook of the Church” which are prayed or chanted in the Light of the Resurrection and seen as fulfilled in the Person of Jesus.

All prayer for the Eastern Orthodox is deeply Trinitarian. The three-fold invocation of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (whether explicitly stated, or simply implied as in the Jesus Prayer) sums up the very essence of our prayer. We do not simply address God. We pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. To pray is to be taken up into the inner life of the Holy Trinity: the communion of Love, the interpersonal dialogue which exitst within God. God as Trinity is the source and end-point of all our prayer. (See Romans, chapter 8 — esp. vs. 26)

The most important theme for the spirituality of personal prayer in the Christian East is taken from St. Paul’s statement to “Pray without ceasing” (or alternatively, pray continually; pray constantly) found in 1 Thess. 5:17. It was from this that “The Jesus Prayer” emerged. This is a continual invocation of the Name of Jesus, which assists us in keeping guard, keeping vigilant, and provides us with a powerful confession of our faith. (See Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 12:3; Eph. 1:21; Lk. 1:31; Acts 4:12; Jn. 13:13-14; Gal. 4:4-6; etc.) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

Continual invocation of the Name of Jesus is not to be confused with the Lord’s own admonishment against “vain repetitions” of Matthew 6:7, where He refers to empty, endless phrases of pagn prayers. (The Holy Trinity = implied because 1] to call Jesus Lord is a gift of the Holy Spirit; and 2] if we call Him “Son of God” we are de facto affirming our belief in the Paternity of the Father.)

However, even when we pray in secret, with the door closed (Mt. 6:6), we are never really praying “alone”. Prayer is communal — prayer is something that is of the total family, of the entire Church, invisible as well as visible. Prayer is our entry into the communion of saints (see Heb. 12:1-2), the angels and archangels, and the whole company of heaven (see Apoc. chapters 4 and 5). In the Lord’s Prayer (i.e. the prayer par excellence) the words “us” and “our” appear each four times, but “me” and “mine” never occur at all.

Finally, regarding prayer, we must remember that it is not simply a vertical issue (i.e., relative to us and God Who is “in the heavens”). It is also horizontal (i.e., we must think about our involvement with the rest of humanity “on earth”). We are called to pray for all mankind. The Church, whose very nature is missionary and evangelical, outward-looking and apostolic, does not exist for itself. It exists for the sake of the world; for the life of the world, and for its salvation.

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