Prayer as the Essential Need of Man
Prayer is the pious direction of man’s soul to God, or the communication of the heart with God, through which God is represented before man as man pours the feelings of his soul before Him. It is the lifting of the mind and the heart to God and with it man is carried to the angelic choir and becomes a member of their blessedness. Prayer is the incense most acceptable to God, that most secure bridge for the passage over the tempting waves of life, the indestructible stone of all who believe, the peaceful landing place, the divine garment which clothes the soul with great goodness and beauty. Prayer is the mother of all good deeds, the keeper of the cleanliness of the body (chastity), the seal of maidenhood, the secure fence against our eternal enemy, the devil. It drives away enemies through the name of Christ, since there is no means powerful in the heavens or on the earth. Prayer is the fortification of the world pleading for God’s mercy for our sins, that landing place which the waves cannot destroy, the enlightenment of the mind, the axe to spare destruction of sadness, the breeding of hope assuaging the wrath, the advocate to all those who are undergoing trial, the joy of those who are in prison, the salvation of those who are dying. It made the whale become the home of Jonah, it brought Ezekiel back to life from the doors of death, and it converted the flames to dew for the Babylonian youths. With prayer St. Elijah closed the heavens so that the rain did not fall for three years and six months (James 5:17). When the apostles themselves were unable to cast out the unclean spirits, Christ told them, “This one cannot go out , except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21).
There is nothing more precious in man’s life than prayer. It makes the impossible, possible; it makes the difficult, easy; the uncomfortable, it makes comfortable. Prayer is as important to man’s soul as breathing. Who does not pray is deprived of conversation with God and is similar to the tree that bears no fruit and is cut and cast into the fire (Matt. 7:19).
“When you direct your mind and thoughts to the heavens,” says St. Makarios the Great, “and want to unite yourself unto the Lord, then a great multitude of evil spirits, like a black cloud, lingers over you, that it might deter your path to heaven. But, just as the old walls of Jericho fell by the power of God, so too will these stones of evil which are deterring your mind be destroyed by the power of God. When you are in prayer, remember before whom you stand. Be deaf and dumb to everything that surrounds you, invoke the Lord for help and He will help you. It’s necessary to uproot all feelings of wrath and to completely cleanse ourselves of murderous feelings of bodily desires, regardless of who they might be directed to.”
Humility and a Contrite Heart
The teachers of the Church and the holy fathers advise that during prayer everyone have humility and a contrite heart because of one’s sins. For, if man doesn’t feel in his heart that he is a sinner, God will not hear his prayer. This is seen in the prayer of the Pharisee and the Publican. The prayers bedewed with the tears of humility and repentance are instantly heard. Poured out from the humble soul, as the wise Solomon says, it breaks through the clouds and doesn’t delay until it reaches the Lord.
When it is time for prayer do not occupy yourself with any sort of work, for the demons look to occupy us with any sort of work during our prayer. If your soul is sweetened with any words of the prayer, continue your prayer for know that at that time your Guardian Angel is praying with you. St. Nefon once saw a monk walking and praying. The monk went but also his angel went with him, escorting the monk with a fiery spear in hand, with which he drove the demons away from the monk.
“Pray ceaselessly,” says the holy Apostle, “that you do not fall in temptation.” This ceaseless prayer consists not only in our ceaslessly praying, but also in a consant remembrance of God and a feeling that he is always before us, watching all of our deeds, intentions and thoughts. Therefore it is a beautiful habit to call upon the Lord from the heart and to pray briefly at every opportunity and at every task, beginning with, for example: “God help me! Lord, bless!” When we have concluded: “Glory to Thee, O Lord! I thank Thee, O Lord!” In surprising dilemmas, whatever temptation might be: “Lord, save! God, be merciful to me a sinner! Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner! Holy Theotokos, save us!”
It is necessary to pray not only when we feel like praying but also then when we don’t have a specific longing or disposition for it; when laziness, sleepiness, forgetfulness and such, drive us away from prayer. If we are compelled and do battle with our own bodies in order to pray, not paying attention to the large collection of dark obstacles, then that prayer will take flight to the heavens and stand before the very throne of the Lord. Night is very suitable for prayer. It is at that time that everything is quieted, calmed and the prayer that is offered to God in the evening quiet, from the depths of our hearts, is heard and on our souls descends a twofold grace from God. It’s during these prayers that the all-evil devil, with particularly great power arises and strikes the man of prayer with temptations, fear and assaults, but it is also at this time that the grace of God for spiritual aid is multiplied.
According to the general thinking of the holy fathers, prayer is considered the daughter of the fulfilling of the gospel’s commands while, at the same time, it is considered to be the mother of all virtues.
That we might protect ourselves from the distraction of our thoughts in prayer, the holy fathers advise that the mind cling all the more to the words of the prayer. From this it is better that we read the prayers from the prayer book and not from memory. This is especially necessary for the beginners and the weak. For this reason everything that is read or sung in the Orthodox Church, no matter how well it is known, is done from a book. Such an immersed mind in the words of prayer is not easily distracted by different sides. If the mind cannot concentrate and immerse itself in the words of the holy fathers, then one should read softly out loud so that one can hear oneself reading. This kind of prayer is especially helpful when one prays alone.
In prayer we shouldn’t work up our nerves, nor sigh too much, nor hold our head up, for all this is harmful. We should pray quietly, with deep, but silent sighs, our heads lowered to the ground, patiently, from time to time looking at the icon as those who truly feel sinful before God.
In public our prayer should be unheard that it might not interrupt anyone’s prayer.
If during prayer your mind wanders to other things and not to the heavens and God, do not be disheartened, but always bring it back and concentrate on the words of the prayer. After all, such a prayer will not remain fruitless even though it is not pure.
For a man in sorrow there is no greater comforter than prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13).
Sickness and other misfortunes which befall us are a result of sin. For this reason we are obliged to pray to the Lord that He might forgive us our sins, that together with that He might heal us from bodily sicknesses and tragedies of this world. When God allows hunger, war, heavy storms, droughts, hail, earthquakes and such, this comes from the sins of the people. For this reason does the source of evil lie in us. Here again is the need for us to pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins that we might free ourselves of this source of all tragedies, that we might be delivered from all natural evils that come to us in the form of terrible natural phenomena.
If it happens that one asks something of God and does not receive it, this can mean that God heard the prayer but in His providential wisdom He tests the man of prayer’s endurance, and when this man endures to the end then he will receive in greater amount than that for which he prayed; or, it means that the man of prayer did not receive what he prayed for because it might lead to some evil.
But praying to God individually, alone, according to the Lord’s command (Matt. 6:6), should not be considered to be sufficient. In different situations and need in life: birth, death, marriage, building a home, sowing, departure on a long journey, sickness, etc., besides the private prayers we should all upon the graceful and prayerful help of the church and the priests, for Holy Scriptures advises us to do so (James 5:14). Besides this we shouldn’t forget our regular participation in the communal prayer in the holy church, which the holy Apostles did as well as all the saints (Acts. 1:14, 12:12), as this is the will of God (Matt. 18:20).
The Sign of the Cross
We should not neglect to also mention the need for us to sign ourselves with the Cross when we begin our prayer. We should do this properly and not like those who are ashamed of the Cross of Christ and weave it before their face and chest not even placing their fingers in the appropriate place. Crossing ourselves carelessly saddens our Lord and is taken as a sin of the man of prayer. Such a Cross is not only powerless but it also gives joy to the demons, for then it is not the most terrible weapon against them. The sinner is less afraid of the place of punishment than the demons are of the Cross, for they tremble and flee in fear from the Cross, afraid to even look at its power (for the power of the Cross is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself) which burns them like fire. Armed with the Cross, the holy martyrs went to the most horrible tortures. The saints healed the sick, raised the dead, fearlessly drank poison, passed through fire and water by the power of the Cross of Christ.
One of the old Christian writers, from the first centuries of the Christian Church testifies that the Christians of that era, following the Apostolic constitutions and traditions, at the beginning of every task or journey signed themselves with the Cross. They did this at departure, putting on robes, putting on shoes, at washing, before and after meals, making fires, before lying in bed, sitting after a journey, in one word: at the beginning of every task, journey or event. Today’s Christians, however, taken over by some sort of a shame, even when they visit the home of a friend at their Slava, upon sitting for the meal won’t even think to cross themselves, as if they don’t know the words of the Lord: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
 Slava is the Orthodox Christian custom of honoring a family patron saint which is traditionally celebrated by the Serbs – Editor’s note