The Need for Prayer
“Why is it necessary to pray at home and to attend divine services at Church?” asks St. John of Kronstadt. “Well, why is it necessary for you to eat and drink, to take exercise, or to work, every day? In order to support the life of the body and strengthen it. So also it is absolutely necessary to pray in order to support the life of the soul, to strengthen the soul, which is sick with sin. The only means by which you can spend the day in perfect holiness, and peace, and without sin, is most sincere prayer as soon as you rise in the morning.”
What is prayer?
Blessed Theophan the Recluse says that “prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical.” According to a classic spiritual text, Unseen Warfare, “You should keep always a lively striving to serve only God in all things you do, and serve Him in such a way as is acceptable to Him. In order to make and keep this tendency alive, you must have conviction, and always hold it in mind, that every reasoning creature should render the Lord worship, praise and service, if only because of His wondrous qualities: His goodness, greatness, wisdom, and His numberless and immeasurable other perfections."
How Should We Approach Prayer?
“You must approach prayer with an attitude such that you desire only the divine Will, and not your own.... Why should this be so? Because your will is always mixed with self-love, is very often mistaken, and does not know what it should wish for. But the will of God is always good, wise, just, beneficent, and can never err. Thus, you must always desire, ask for, and seek only what is acceptable to God.” (Unseen Warfare)
St. John Cassian, an early Church Father, teaches that in prayer “anxiety concerning the things of the flesh must altogether be put away; we must not allow to enter our minds any thought or even memory of worldly cares or business.” He continues: “Before all else, that precept of the Gospel must be very diligently observed - namely, that we should enter into our chamber and shut the door, and so pray to our Father (Matt 6:6). This precept can be fulfilled in the following way: we pray within our chamber when we remove from our heart all disturbing thoughts and commotion, and secretly and privately pour forth our prayers unto the Lord. We pray with closed doors when, keeping strict silence, we shut the mouth and make our supplication to Him Who observes not words, but hearts. We pray in secret when, with earnest heart and mind, we spread forth our petitions to God...in deepest silence...lest we should distract our brethren who stand near us.”
Degrees of Prayer
According to Blessed Theophan the Recluse, whether we are at church or at home, there are three degrees of prayer:
1. The first is Prayer of Action. This is standing and reading prayers and making prostrations. Thus, St. John of Kronstadt also teaches that “the Lord does not forsake those who labor for Him, and who stand long before Him; for with what measure they mete, He will measure to them in return, sending into their souls a corresponding abundance of spiritual light, warmth, peace, and joy. “This kind of prayer requires much patience and hard work in order to keep one’s attention on the prayers. But everyone should do this kind of prayer every day, “in order,” as St. John of Kronstadt says, “that by fervent and prolonged prayer we may warm our cold hearts, hardened in prolonged vanity. “St. Tikhon of Zadonsk spoke of it in this way: “I advise you to convince yourself and force yourself to prayer and every good action, even if you do not feel the wish for it. God, seeing such labor and application, will give good will and zeal. “Thus, St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote: “When at prayer in church it is profitable to stand with closed eyes in internal mindfulness, and to open your eyes only when you become downcast, or when sleep should weigh you down and incline you to doze; then you should fix your eyes upon an ikon and the candle burning before it. “Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov advises: “Specially helpful in holding the attention during prayer is an extremely unhurried pronunciation of the words of the prayer. Pronounce the words without hurrying so that the mind may quite easily stay enclosed in the words of the prayer, and not slip away from a single word."
2. The second degree is Prayer of Thought. This is prayer with fully conscious attention, without allowing one’s mind to be distracted in the slightest way. The first degree of prayer leads directly to this degree, for, as Bishop Theophan says, in this prayer “the mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own.” “You should combine in your prayer the four actions of which St. Basil the Great writes: first, glorify God, then give thanks to Him for the mercies He has shown you, then confess to Him your sins and trespasses of His commandments, and finally ask Him to grant you what you need, particularly in relation to your salvation.” (Unseen Warfare)
3. The third is Prayer of Feeling. This is urgent and most heartfelt prayer. Full awareness of the meaning of the prayer is transformed into a true feeling that goes beyond the words. For example, an awareness of the meaning of the words “I repent of my sins” becomes an actual and profound inner experience of sorrow for our sins. This is the beginning of God-pleasing spiritual prayer. As Bishop Theophan puts it, “it is the soul within the words of the prayer that matters. “And St. John of Kronstadt: “Our heart dies spiritually every day. Only ardent, tearful prayer can restore it to breath and life."
Prayer in Time of Trouble
"Prepare beforehand a calm place in your heart where you are at the feet of the Lord. As soon as trouble comes, hasten there and call ceaselessly upon Him, as though exorcising some evil past. And God will help------everything will quiet down” (Blessed Theophan the Recluse)
“If despondency overtakes you too strongly, go out of your room, take a little walk, and in walking think of Christ and other things, and meditating, lift up your mind to God and pray. So will despondency pass away. The thought of sudden death, of the judgement and of eternal pain or eternal bliss drives despondency away. Think about them. Pray and sigh to God, that He may Himself give you zeal and willingness, for without Him we are incapable of any work.” (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk) .
“As soon as you begin to pray from your heart, at once you are no longer oppressed, for the Lord listens mercifully to such prayer” (St. John of Kronstadt).
The Fruits of Prayer
Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov teaches that “at first we must force ourselves to pray, [but] soon prayer begins to afford consolation, and this consolation lightens the coercion and encourages us to force ourselves. “But we must remember that “fallen spirits, knowing the power of prayer and its beneficial effect, endeavor by all possible means to divert us from it, prompting us to use the time assigned to prayer for other occupations.”
According to St. John of Kronstadt, prayer “gives rest to the soul and to the body.... Prayer refreshes and enlivens the soul, as outer air refreshes the body. The sign of the Lord’s mercy, or that of His Immaculate Mother, to us, after or during prayer, is peace of heart. By this peace of heart, and a kind of holy tenderness, we can also easily recognize that our prayer has been heard, and that the grace asked for in it has been granted to us."
The Power of Prayer
In the Lives of the Desert Fathers we read about a certain Elder who was “complete in all perfection, and he could see what was happening from a very long way off; and he said, ‘I once saw in a monastery a certain brother who was meditating on the study of God in his cell, and behold, a devil came and stood outside, and he wanted to go in, but he could not do so, so long as the brother was in prayer. Finally, however, the monk ceased his contemplation, and the devil was able to enter his cell, for his power in not able to vanquish those that converse with God.’ ”
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