In the Orthodox Church we are taught that the life of faith is dependent upon progress in prayer. Those who grow in the grace of God thus do so because their prayer is genuine, while those who “lose their souls” do so only for one reason: because they refused to give themselves over to God in a life of prayer. St. Theophan the Recluse says, “Prayer is thus the test of everything, the source of everything and the director of everything; for if our prayer is right, then everything else will be right as well.”
So what must we do in order for our prayer to be “right” as St. Theophan says?
First, we must make time for prayer on a regular, daily basis – in the morning and evening. The saints call this the “Rule of Prayer.” No one advances in the spiritual life without being obedient to this simple rule. Why is this important? Because prayer needs its own time so that we can devote body, mind and soul wholly to God. This is what Christ means in the gospels when He says, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father Who is in secret. (Mat.6.6).
Second, we must seek God throughout the day (and night) through the practice of unceasing prayer. We must mindful of God in everything we do. “I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall always be in my heart.” (Ps. 34:1) “Seek God and your soul shall live.” (Ps 69:1) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Mat. 5:6). So, whether we are at work, or at home with the children, or driving in the car, we pray by being mindful of the Lord continually. The fathers of the Church referred to this as the “unceasing prayer of the heart.” Those who have perfected the love of God are in constant remembrance of Him.
Third, we must commit ourselves to the Liturgical and Sacramental life of the Church. The Orthodox Church teaches that our personal prayer will never be true unless we gather together as the Body of Christ. Our corporate prayer, the prayer of Christ’s Body, and our personal prayer, go hand in hand. These two types of prayers are “symbiotic” in that they cannot live one without the other.
Fourth, we must cleanse our hearts of ill-will towards others. We must remove from our souls the presence of anger, malice, and judgementiveness towards our brother or sister. For as we say in the prayer of St. Ephrem the Great, O Lord, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother…” Here we learn that God accepts our prayer only as long as we forgive others the wrongs they have committed against us.
Fifth, we must be faithful to the fast days and the fasting seasons of the Church. Why is fasting so important? Because the Church knows that as human beings we are psychosomatic by nature – how we treat our bodies has a great effect upon the life of the soul. The deep meaning of the fast is simply to teach us about the necessity of moderation: we eat in order to live and not the other way around. Conversely, those people who have become slaves of their stomach and who “string together breakfast with dinner,” (eat all day long) as St. John Chrysostom says, will never be capable of prayer. Carnality and contemplation are diametrically opposed.
Lastly, we must surrender our lives in humble obedience to a spiritual father. For we will never progress in prayer without having somebody to help us along the way. In America today most Christians tend towards being “lone-ranger” Christians. They want do it on their own. “Me and Jesus, that’s all that I will ever need.” But this is a dangerous misperception. The Holy Fathers love to say that the person who has chosen himself as his own spiritual guide has chosen a fool.
Let us never forget this one thing: that the greatest treasure of our Christian Orthodoxy is its understanding of prayer. May God help us to see how valuable this treasure truly is! More importantly, may God help us to pray ever more sincerely, faithfully, and unceasingly. “Lord, teach us how to pray!”