Our Aim in Prayer

An excerpt from the prayer of thanksgiving after Holy Communion to the Theotokos

Grant me compunction, and contrition of heart, and humility in my thoughts–translation from the Prayer Book Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, N.Y.

Our Aim in Prayer

The last two posts dealt with struggling with thoughts.  Although this struggle is ever with us occurs at all times, it manifests itself most at the time of prayer.  And since it is prayer itself that is our greatest weapon in this warfare, it seems natural to continue by touching upon the subject of prayer.  So then, starting with this post I begin to share some things I have learned about the practice of prayer.  Presently, I will give a definition of prayer and express some thoughts about our approach to God.  What follows here is a taken from the foreword of a book, Prayer of Repentance—which I self-published several years ago and is a translation of canons of repentance from the Octoechos (or book of eight tones) of the Orthodox Church.  There have been several small changes to fit the context of this post.    

In the last several decades, in the English speaking world, we have encountered a growing interest in prayer and meditation.  This is not only in our Orthodox Church and in confessions of Christianity outside the Church, but also in the non-Christian world.  An abundance of literature has appeared on this subject, and in the Orthodox World in particular most are translations.  The story of the anonymous Pilgrim(1) was perhaps a forerunner and has a unique and great popularity.  The classic ascetic anthology of the Philokalia (2) has had excerpts for about half a century and now the entire Greek is almost completed.  There is a lively interest in “prayer of the heart,” and indeed, there are also works of contemporary authorship that inspire one to move towards this state of grace.  In short, we could say that deification (3) is a favored topic among ascetics and theologians as the final fruit of prayer and the aim of our whole life in Christ.  For those, however, who lack experienced direction the foundation for all this is often overlooked.  And so, with the help of God, my hope here is to lay the proper foundation for prayer and the Christian life in general. I believe that our Lord Jesus Christ Himself has pointed out this groundwork with the first word of His public preaching: “Repent” (Mat 4:17).

As a starting point, I would like to offer a definition of prayer.  It should be emphasized that “a” definition of prayer is being set forth which is not the only way of defining prayer.  Nor do I claim that our definition is the best, but it is in harmony with my purpose.  So then, how do we define prayer?  Prayer is the expression of the relationship that exists between two reason-endowed personal beings.  By two reason-endowed personal beings, it is God the Creator of all and His creature, man, who are being spoken of.  

Prayer has a connection with theology.  This is because theology speaks to us of this relationship that exists between God and man.  Man was made “in the image and after the likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26), yet this was distorted by the sin of our first-parents, Adam and Eve.  In listening to the serpent, they were deceived and disobeyed the command-ment of God.  So they offended God and fell away from the life that they knew in paradise.  They distorted the original beauty of their resemblance to God and fragmented their relationship with Him.  As time progressed and generations of men have come and gone, sin has multiplied, the distortion of our original beauty has been augmented, and the same is true for our relationship with God.

So, now, several questions can be raised: How should this relationship between God and man be expressed? Who is God? And how do we approach Him? What is God’s attitude towards His fallen creature—man?  And of what should man’s response consist?  St. John the Theologian tells us who God is.  He writes: “God is love” (I John 4:8).  We know that with God there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). He has not changed His attitude towards us, but we have sinned and distorted both our being and our relationship with God.  God continues to be Who He is—Love.  And God’s attitude towards us is probably best expressed in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil the Great, which is a short history of the salvation God has wrought for us.  St. Basil prays thus:

When Thou didst create man by taking him from the dust of the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God, Thou didst set him in a paradise of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Thy commandments. But, when man disobeyed Thee, the true God who had created him, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death through his own transgressions. Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself…He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men, becoming incarnate of a holy Virgin; He emptied Himself taking the form of a servant, being likened to the body of our lowliness, that he might liken us to the image of His glory…He brought us to the knowledge of Thee the true God and Father.  He obtained us For His own chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.  Having cleansed us in water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. (4)

In St. Basil’s prayer, we see how God continues to deal with us in utter love although we have offended Him.  So now, how do we respond to this? How do we approach God? If it were another human being we had offended we would approach with shame, a humble attitude, a desire for reconciliation, and readiness to make some recompense.  And if someone we may have happened to offend would continue to love us and do good, we would feel all the more embarrassed and humbled.  If we now apply this to our relationship with God Who is not our equal but infinitely transcends our being and has done so much good for us, what can we say?  Is it possible to express in words with what shame and humility, with what longing for reconciliation and readiness to make recompense we should approach Him!  That one word of Christ, the first word of His public preaching, “Repent,” sums up all of this, which was also expressed by our risen Lord in His first appearance to the apostles as follows: “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).

Therefore, above all else, we should approach God as humble penitents who seek remission of our sins and with an earnest desire to serve Him. And what is the means by which we may put this into practice? The Orthodox Prayer Book gives us an answer.  St. Theophan the Recluse writes: Psalms hymns and Church songs are spiritually inspired outbursts of feeling towards God.  The Spirit of God filled His elect, and they expressed the plentitude of their feelings in songs.  He who sings them as they should be sung enters again into the feelings which the author experienced when he originally wrote them. (5)  It is especially in the Morning and Evening Prayers of our Prayer Book that we see a humble spirit of repentance expressed.  So if we attentively make use of the prayers the Church has to offer us we can acquire this spirit of repentance as the foundation of both our prayer life and life in Christ.

 

(1)  The book referred to is The Way of a Pilgrim. This is the story of an anonymous wandering Pilgrim in Russia who was called to the practice of the Jesus Prayer as an unceasing prayer.

(2)  The Philokalia is a collection of writings of Holy Fathers from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. These teachings deal with the ascetic life and center primarily on prayer of the heart.

(3)Deification is a process of union with God whereby a man, as a gift of grace, becomes as God Himself.

(4)  Translation taken from, Service Books of the Orthodox Church, Vol. II, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, PA 18459, 1984, pp. 71-73

(5)  The Art of Prayer An Orthodox Anthology, compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, p. 57 

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