By Fr. Moses Samaan – Parish Priest from St. Marina Coptic Orthodox Church, California, USA.
The most important thing in the lives of the faithful and those inquiring into the Orthodox faith is prayer. It is the one thing that informs and sanctifies everything else in a person’s life. Every major event and decision in the life of Jesus Christ was preceded by prayer. Jesus Himself prayed often.
Prayer can be described as the vehicle of transformation. This happens in the most inner quiet space of the human being. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psa. 46.10). “God speaks in a still small voice,” (1 Kings 19.12). Prayer at its purist is devoid of wants, desires, ideas, and concepts, but rather it dwells on the One Who Is. It is akin to deep intimacy and not conversation per se, yet it is communication. Prayer is a place where the notion of self, the desires of self, are lost and communion and union begin.
Prayer is a vivifying activity in the midst of our life. Prayer does not so much take us out of the context in which we live, but it makes us really present to the moment we are living.
Prayer is a source of power that connects us with God. It provides us with direction, illuminating our intellect, our will, and our heart so that we might do the work of God in the world, to do God’s will. Notice that in the midst of the hectic demands that Jesus’ public ministry placed upon Him, Jesus withdraws to pray. Rising early before dawn, He goes off alone and prays. Examining this movement, this dynamic, Henri Nouwen writes that the secret of Jesus’ ministry comes from His withdrawal to pray. The Holy Scriptures are full of promises regarding the power of prayer. In prayer the mysteries and power of God are revealed.
Prayer makes us productive Christians. The timely placed prayer energizes us and spurs us to do God’s work. Why have monks and nuns throughout the centuries have been so productive? They have a strong prayer life. The heart and prayer are connected. Another more poignant definition of prayer is the following: getting the mind to descend into the heart, “crowning one’s reason, one’s intellect with the heart.” We seek in this the ultimate combination: a faith that is a union between one’s head and one’s heart. We must learn to live out of our hearts, and we must learn to bring our intellect under the dominion of the heart. In our heart the prayer of our lips that has been developed in our reason receives the power of love.
There is a sense that prayer develops in this way. First it is something we say, it is on our lips. Then, it is enshrined in our intellect, the prayer is no longer the mechanical repetition of words but it is a reasoned, endowed activity. Next, prayer descends into our hearts; it reaches into the deepest recesses of our being and becomes part of who we are: we become prayer. In our heart, prayer becomes connected with the center of who we are and thus with God. Our intellect is crowned by the chief virtues of love, mercy, and compassion because it is connected and rooted in our hearts. Because our mind/intellect has descended into our hearts we find that our actions end up being dominated by love.
Our Lord chastised the Pharisees for their lack of action. He stated the following in the Gospel of Matthew: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23.23). For us, the tithing of mint, dill and cumin can represent the following actions:
- Our recitation of prayers;
- Our attendance of divine services;
- Our observance of Church tradition and law;
- Our strict observance of the Church’s prescribed fasts.
However, if all of this does not lead us to acts of love then we, like the Pharisees, stand under the judgment; we are nothing less than hypocrites. Our tithing and prayer must lead us to acts of love and mercy, and our intellect must be crowned by compassion so that our actions are filtered through the heart. If we stay in our heads, we will never be motivated by love and compassion to help the poor and those in need. If we stay in our heads we will never learn to live in the center of our true beings, the heart.
St. James writes in his epistle, “Religion that is pure is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1.27). And in another place, “What does is profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2.14-17).
St Isaac the Syrian wrote, “Capture the mother (that is prayer) and you shall have the daughters.” The daughters are inner peace, healing, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and union with God. This is an end in itself, for to be with God is our ultimate goal and destination and prayer brings us into union with Him, into His love. It is because of prayer that the mysteries of the Church become effective and alive. Prayer calls forth the Divine Presence of our Lord who sanctifies us with His presence. True theology comes from having our experience shaped by the power of prayer. The Fathers of the Church theologized from the experiences they had in prayer and in their prayerful reading of Holy Scripture. True theology does not come from a textbook but out of an experience of the Divine and Living God. Prayer not only leads to true theology, but the very prayers of the Church express her theology, her experience of the living God, and this is what becomes the life-giving doctrine of the Church. The measuring stick is to see whether your experience resonates with that of the Saints and Christ’s Church.
Enter eagerly into the treasure-house (the heart) that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure of heaven. For the two are the same, and there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and is found in your soul. Dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which you are to ascend 1.
The Jesus prayer comes to us out of an earnest desire to fulfill the words of St. Paul found in 1 Thessalonians 5.17, which urge us to pray unceasingly. Characteristics of the Jesus Prayer include that it is remembrance of God. To pray this prayer brings to mind God, it brings Him present to our consciousness. He has never been absent; rather, prayer brings us back to the reality of His presence. Others include its simplicity; its greatness for it calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ; its connectedness, for its true power is found in its connection with the mysteries of the Church; and it leads us to salvation.
Continual prayer happens through collaboration, thus true prayer is essentially communal. It is done within the Body of Christ. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
Three books to that are suggested to read:
- The Way of the Pilgrim
- The Philokalia
- The Art of Prayer