Our tradition of prayer tells us that the one who prays only when he or she gets up to pray is not really praying at all. Prayer is not what we do. It is not one activity that we do from time to time among our other activities. Prayer is what we are. Prayer is who we are all the time. Prayer is being.
St. Paul tells us to pray continually, unceasingly. Yet we also read in the first/second-century manual of church practice called the Didache that Christians are called to pray specifically three times each day: evening, morning and at midday. (This is simply an inheritance from Jewish daily synagogue and domestic practice of prayer.)
All of this is little more than a description (and a prescription) of living in the presence of God — abiding in the life of the Holy Trinity. But being in God’s presence demands a response from us one way or the other. As in the story of Luke 6:28-39, we can either sit quietly at the feet of the Savior or we ask Him to depart from our regions.
Bishop Kallistos writes that prayer is precarious. (The word “prayer” actually comes from the Latin “precaria” which means being vulnerable; subject to un-known or un-stable conditions; being dependent upon the will of another.) Metropolitan Anthony Bloom goes further. He writes that prayer — as an encounter with the true and living God — is dangerous, a judgement, a crisis. The Epistle to the Hebrews declares that it is a terrible, awe-some thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31). Awe-some and dangerous because my ego and will are effected. I will have to give up something of myself; a true and continual conversion of life; a change of direction. Prayer presupposes that I am willing to take off my shoes and stand on holy ground — God’s turf. Prayer presupposes that I place myself in the hands of Another — and not my own hands. Prayer presupposes that I am willing to turn and go in a new direction. “…Thy will be done…” This is very much against my so-called natural ego. St. Maximus tells us that this is really conforming myself to my “natural will” (as created originally by God, but subject to the downward spiral and consequences of the Fall of Adam and Eve.)
So why pray if it is so potentially unsettling? Why strive to abide in God’s presence if it is so dangerous? We are told that prayer is one of the most important ways home to our true native homeland. We pray because the Lord tells us to do so (“When you pray…” Mt. 6). We pray because it is related to other inter-dependent and mutually-inclusive steps on the pathway home. (These include such things as the study and incorporation of the holy scriptures, detachment and fasting, the sacramental life, works of mercy and love.)
We are called upon to go about establishing a moral and ethical condition for prayer. In the patristic literature, this is called practicing the virtues. This gets us in the proper condition to pray and the proper response in our lives as a result of our prayer. The command of our Lord to “go, first be reconciled to your brother” (Mt. 5:24) before making our offering is not only prescriptive. It is descriptive. I cannot pray well when I am at odds with somebody. “Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…”
Prayer takes on many forms. First, there is formal corporate prayer such as Vespers, Matins and the Divine Liturgy where we participate communally in the Liturgy of the Church. Second, there is formal private prayer such as the Daily Offices, the Psalter, etc., where (on our own) we employ text, words, images, concepts. For others we can intercede. For ourselves we can petition and confess. To God we can give thanks and praise. And finally, there is private, informal prayer where quietly we simply sit still: “I look at Him and He looks at me and we’re both happy.”
This can be considered to be “imageless” or “non-conceptual” prayer — where we drop below our scatteredness and frenetic, frantic existence to a prayerful presence: to be, to abide. Here is where we need to allow the bushel of the little monkeys of our thoughts to calm down (or at least not let ourselves dwell on their clamor). This seems to be the least-often employed type of prayer among us, though it is one for which Eastern Orthodox spirituality is very well-known. According to St. Nicephorus, the Jesus Prayer is the best way (not automatic, but best way) to do this. St. Augustine prayed that “Our hearts, O Lord, are restless until they rest in You.”
St. Gregory Nazianzus tells us that we should remember God more often than we breathe (i.e., ideally prayer should be as much a part of us as our breathing). St. Theophan the Recluse tells us that to pray is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, day and night until the end of life. Mind in the heart. This means that we see ourselves as a psycho-somatic, integral whole. And it is there where God meets our true self — our whole being: body, mind, heart. Me as I truly am: no facades.
But how often God appears to be absent when I am present. How often it seems that God is not there when I have finally gotten around to thinking about Him….during the few minutes out of the day that I have reserved for Him. Metropolitan Anthony, again: “But what about the 23 and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, our minds, our conscience, our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is..”
How seldom we are ever really present to anybody else. Stop and think of the last time you were totally attentive and completely, reciprocally there with the one encountered — be it your spouse, child, parent or friend. We usually rush here and there, doing this and that, peripherally touching base with those who happen to come our way. Our day-to-day encounters are the school, the training ground for our encounters with God. We may be bodily present with these persons, but are we mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and thus actually elsewhere? As with other people, so too with God. This is why we are called to lay aside our earthly cares — and that wheelbarrow-full of monkeys — and receive the King Who comes.
So, set about a daily of Prayer that is not too heavy — you can always modify it, if appropriate. Have a quiet place where you can go to pray. Your Bible, an icon, a candle, and some incense are suggested. Make a firm resolve to be regular and consistent (ask God to help you with this one). Work on those spiritual, ethical and moral conditions which are necessary for an authentic life of prayer: the Beatitudes, Matthew 25, etc. Let this time apart be something that punctuates your life, let it become habitual — practice makes permanent. And finally before you go out and buy manuals of prayer such as the 5-volumes of the Philokalia in order to learn about how to pray, take heed from an unlikely source. Nike has a good suggestion for us all: “Just do it.”