The goal of the Christian’s life on earth is salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ and, at the same time, communion with God. The means for this communion is prayer, and through his prayer the Christian is joined in one spirit with the Lord (I Cor. 6:17). Prayer is the focal point and foundation of spiritual life and the source of salvation. Without prayer, as St. John Chrysostom says, there is no life in the spirit. Without prayer man is deprived of communion with God and can be compared to a dry and barren tree, which is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 7:19).
In prayer, the Christian concentrates together all his spiritual acts. Prayer draws down to him the grace of God and is an invaluable instrument of spiritual defense in the Christian’s struggles against the sinful passions and vices. By prayer our thoughts, desires and deeds are sanctified, for he who prays receives the blessing of the Lord on his deeds, for, as Holy Scripture tells us, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). Nothing so helps us to grow in virtue as our pure and pious prayers to God. Thus it was the shared opinion of all the Holy Fathers that prayer is the mother of virtues. By repeated and fervent prayer, man is made more worthy of God’s mercy and more capable of receiving the gifts of grace which God, by reason of His infinite goodness, is already to bestow on us out of His immeasurable bounties.
In prayer, the Christian prays not only for himself, but for all men, for we all are the children of God. We must pray for the salvation of our neighbor just as we pray for our own salvation, and the best means of correcting our neighbor is to pray for him, because prayer for our neighbor has far greater effect than denunciation of his sins. In addition, we pray not only for the living, but also for the departed, that God may forgive them their sins and grant them repose in the heavenly mansions of the righteous.
As with any spiritual endeavor, however, the Christian must learn how to pray properly. As St. Tikhon of Zadonsk cautions us: “Of no value is that prayer in which the tongue prays but the mind is empty; the tongue speaks, but the mind lies silent; the tongue calls God, but the mind wanders amongst created things.” We must, therefore, pray in fear and trembling and try in every way to ensure that our minds are with our words, or, as St. John of the Ladder tells us, “to enclose our mind in the words of our prayer, [so that] the heart may respond to the words of the prayers.”
The reading of prayers and prostrations are essential, of course, but these only express the state of prayer, while the prayer itself should come from the heart. And it is only such prayer, from the bottom of the heart and of the soul, that is the life of the spirit. True prayer, however, is a gift of God, and this gift is not granted to us without diligence and struggle. Therefore it is necessary for us to pray that the Lord should deem us worthy of this gift and grant us the grace to offer up to Him our sincere, pure and heartfelt prayer, for we are only able to pray when strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Therefore we must be mindful that the Holy Spirit is drawn to a soul cleansed of the stain of sin and worldly passions, and only in such a soul will He abide.
Our prayers will gradually grow more perfect as we improve the manner of our lives and cleanse our hearts of sinful passion. This banishment of sinful ways from our lives brings as its reward our success in prayer. At the same time, we must say that prayer cannot achieve perfection in isolation, but must be accompanied by all the virtues, for as we grow in virtue, so does our prayer grow ever more perfect.
Therefore we say that a Christian does not achieve true prayer at once, but only gradually, through various exertions and labor. All of life’s deeds require toil and patience, but nowhere more than in the striving after the supreme virtue — prayer.
Conditions for Prayer.
The first condition for the attainment of true prayer is a fervent desire to be saved and be pleasing to God — a readiness to sacrifice all for the sake of God and the salvation of one’s soul. As Bishop Theophan the Recluse states: “Consider prayer to be the first and foremost duty in your life and as such keep it in your heart. Go about your prayers as to the fulfillment of your primary duty, and not as to something to be done between tasks.”
A habit of absentminded, inattentive and careless prayer breeds a coldness towards God, dejection, a weakening of the faith and a darkening of the mind, and these in their turn lead to spiritual numbness. For prayer to be fruitful it must be fervent, offered up with an awareness of the need for what we are asking (Col. 4:2) and it must be untiring and relentless, pursuing its purpose with the firm resolve of the widow in Our Lord’s parable who seeks protection from her adversary (Luke 18:2-8). At the same time, however, we must ensure that our supplications be worthy of God and of His glory and not opposed to His divine will. Surely we must pray: “Lord, let Thy, and not my, will be done in all things!”
There are different degrees of prayer and for the beginner the effort of prayer consists mainly in attentively reading or listening to prayer, in standing, bowing and making the Sign of the Cross. Here a great deal of self-exertion and patience is called for, because our attention becomes distracted in this process and our heart may not feel the words of the Prayer. Through this verbal prayer — through the diligent exercise of it — the Christian, with the help of God, gradually trains his mind to collect itself, to understand and penetrate into the words of the prayer and to pronounce them without becoming distracted by outside thoughts.
The Christian must remain constantly mindful of God and must walk in fear of God. He is always before the eyes of God as God is invisibly with him always and everywhere. One’s Guardian Angel is also always by his side. One must also be mindful of the fact that earthly life is not eternal. Death, which passes no one by and carries us off in many ways, must always be brought to remembrance as well as the fearsome Day of Judgment, where we all shall have to answer for our every sinful word, deed and thought. We must always call to mind Hell and the eternal torment which awaits all sinners, as well as the Kingdom of Heaven prepared for the faithful who lived in righteousness. In this way we may lead our lives in the fear of the Lord.
When we pray we must remember that if our prayers will rise speedily to God, they must be said with charity, for prayer said without love is not heard. According to St. John Chrysostom, charity is the wing of prayer. As the Holy Fathers also teach us, we should begin our prayers with glorification of the Creator of all, with a sincere thanksgiving to God for all His mercies, for all the trials and sorrows sent down for our benefit and the benefit of our neighbors. Then we must make a confession of sins in repentance of heart after which we will be deemed worthy to entreat the King of Heaven in prayer.
To be continued…