Source and copyright: Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church
The purpose of prayer is not to ask favors of God but to unite our lives with Him. For this purpose prayer with the Church and private prayer are both important. Some people imagine that because they go to Church they don’t need to pray at home, or vice versa. It is important for a family to have meals together regularly, and also important for each child to have time alone with his father and mother. We also may imagine that because we pray at odd times throughout the day (which is good), we don’t need a specific time of prayer. Doesn’t God deserve some time when we give Him our full attention?
In the Orthodox Church we have a tradition of prayer which accumulates the insights – inspired by the Holy Spirit – of thousands of praying Christians over the nearly two thousand years of our Faith. This is expressed in the written prayers and services of the Church, and in the teachings of hundreds of people of prayer whose writings have been accepted by the faithful as reliable.
According to this Tradition, liturgical or public prayer and private prayer are completely different. It is well known that the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church are lengthy, complex, and repetitious. This is because they “manifest the Church” in all her glory as the Body and Bride of Christ and they set forth and pass on the whole teaching of Christ. But the traditional recommendation for private prayer is just the opposite — that it be as simple as possible.
For most of us, to pay attention in prayer is extremely difficult, because the Devil opposes it. The moment we begin to pray, a dozen distractions arise, and to focus one’s mind on the prayer is a great effort and struggle–part of the “unseen warfare” we wage as Christians. Over time, we can gain strength to focus for longer periods, but when we first begin a very short prayer is best. The Fathers say that in private prayer, to utter one word with the whole heart is better than to make long prayers without attention. A person beginning to exercise begins with short workouts. What is important is regularity. By doing it every day, we grow in faithfulness.
What is not important are feelings. There may be days when we feel the presence of God very strongly and other days when we do not. Some people then grow discouraged and stop praying because they don’t have the feeling they expected to. But to continue to pray even when we don’t feel like it is an act of faith and God will honor it. This is one reason written prayers are helpful; I can choose to say the prayer even when my own words are dried up.
Here are some specific practical suggestions for those who have never undertaken to pray regularly before:
1. Find some time when you can be alone every day. Married couples may wish to agree on times when one will care for the children while the other prays. Try not to give God your sleepiest time of day. For some people, the lunch hour may be a possibility. Begin with a short time frame, a little as five or ten minutes. This way you won’t be tempted to skip it for lack of time. Most beginners can’t pay attention to prayer much longer than this anyway.
2. Have a definite place to pray, maybe a corner with an icon and perhaps a candle. This way you express your intention to pray just by standing there. Do stand; you pray with your body as well as your lips. If you have privacy say your prayers out loud.
3. Take any of the popular Orthodox personal prayer books and pick just two or three prayers that you can make your own and say them every day. Always include the Our Father — the only prayer the Lord specifically told us to say (Luke 11:2). When you have established a habit of prayer and can pray these with some attention you can add more prayers and Bible reading. It is good to keep a short list of people you are praying for every day. Saying their names is sufficient; you don’t have to give the Lord a diagnosis and prescription.
Prayer is powerful and has dangers as well as benefits. The greatest dangers are pride and vanity, and spiritual delusion, in which we imagine we have received some supernatural revelation which in fact comes from our own vanity or even from the Devil. For this reason anyone undertaking a regular routine of prayer should disclose this to their pastor or some other mature Orthodox Christian. Certainly if you ever think that you have experienced some direct revelation or vision you should check it out with such a person. Otherwise, do not speak much about your prayer because of the danger of pride and vanity.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (St. Matthew 6:5-6)