By Fr. Gabriel Wissa – Parish Priest from St. George & St. Joseph Coptic Orthodox Church, Montreal, Canada.
Today we will discuss one of the key elements of Orthodox Spiritual Life, without it, it is very difficult, or nearly impossible, to really have a meaningful relationship with the Holy Trinity.
When it comes to prayer, often people think or ask: “well, God knows what I need anyways, so why do I need to pray?” but like we mentioned in a previous video called “How should I pray?”, where we discussed what is quality prayer, prayer is not about asking for stuff. Let us first understand the objective of prayer as many of us need to rediscover this objective.
My prayer doesn’t make God happy, and if I don’t pray that doesn’t make Him unhappy. God loves me unconditionally, He doesn’t change and He doesn’t need my prayer. I am the one that needs prayer. Prayer is what connects me and unites me with God. My condition towards God is the variable here; not His condition towards me. I need this connection; not God.
This unity with God through prayer leads to my transformation and satisfies my deepest desires. Without this connection, I suffer.
The objective of prayer is transformation through connection with God. That is why St. Paul would tell us “pray without ceasing.” This verse expresses the need for the constant connection with God.
Again, St. Paul explains the objective of Christianity in one verse in 2 Corinthians 3:18 where He says
that we “are being transformed into the same image [image of God] from glory to
glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” So our objective is to be transformed into the image of God one step at a time. This transformation happens through deep, meaningful prayer and through the sacramental life of the Church.
That is why every Orthodox Christian ought to have a rule of prayer or what is commonly called “A spiritual canon.”
A spiritual canon is what we agree to with our spiritual father or father of confession
in terms of what we should be praying, on a daily basis.
For example, a spiritual father would say: pray this amount of time in the morning and in the evening using your book of the hours, or the Agpeya or the psalms and read this many chapters in the Bible daily; attend at least one liturgy per week; and you should finish this spiritual book within the next couple of months, etc. This spiritual canon is vital for our transformation. This is our daily spiritual food. Without it, we are disconnected and therefore spiritually weak and are unable to overcome sin. Instead of taking steps towards God, we are taking steps backwards through our lack of prayer. Unfortunately, many Christians talk about God but are not fulfilling their purpose which is to be like God; to put on Christ.
So like we eat 3 times a day and we are careful about what we eat, we ought to do the same spiritually. We need to be meticulous in our daily spiritual food. I can eat some meat, a bit of rice, some salad and a fruit for example; I also need to eat some prayer, I need to eat my Bible, I need the Eucharist at least once per week; I need to eat the Jesus prayer, etc. The KEY for growth here is to apply this rule of life on a regular basis; daily! This is the difficult part for many.
There are mainly 2 stumbling blocks that we need to overcome to be transformed through our spiritual canon. The first is when we say, “I don’t have time.” This is simply not true, we have 24 hours per day, we just choose to do something else with those hours. I know many people that wake up earlier to pray a good amount of time before heading to work or school. Others are late to meet their friends in the evening because they give priority to their union with God through prayer. These people create the time for God. It is not about time but about priorities! I’ll prove it to you right now by asking this question “when you go on vacation, do you find yourself praying more or less?” Being a spiritual father and a father of confession, I know that the big majority will say “we pray less.” But why is that? While you are on vacation, you have all the time in the world. But your focus is on relaxing; not on praying and that is why you pray less. Again, it is not about time but about priorities. Therefore, we need to overcome this false stumbling block and start giving priority to God. Please have a talk with your spiritual father and put an organized plan together on how you will achieve your spiritual daily canon.
The second stumbling block is when someone says: “I don’t feel like praying.” So, some people would say since I don’t feel like it, it’ll be a bad prayer anyway, God will not hear me, will not accept it, etc. Please be extremely careful about these thoughts. It is a big mistake to assume that proper prayer involves nice cozy feelings. This is a big lie and perhaps the biggest stumbling block to a good spiritual life. Specially for youth growing in western society, where we are used to a world of Netflix where I can watch what I want when I want, a world of Google, YouTube, a world where I buy things on amazon at 3 am if I want to or if I feel like it! But this is not real life!
We have to study, to write exams, to go to work, to do chores around the house. Do we feel like it? No. But we have to do them for life to go on. When a father or a mother comes and cooks after a long day of work, does he or she feel like it? No. But it must be done. It is the same with the spiritual canon, it is not about how I feel but about what I need to do. Since we need to unite with God through prayer on a daily basis.
To take that transformational step towards God, we ought to overcome this feeling and just do it. This is what St. Macarius teaches us; he says: “But the head [beginning] of every good endeavor and the guiding force of right actions is in perseverance of prayer”. So he is saying that the source of good action and the force that is guiding me in this action is perseverance in prayer. He then continues and says “for the person who daily forces himself to persevere in prayer is enflamed with divine passion and fiery desire from a spiritual love toward God, and he receives the grace of the sanctifying perfection of the Spirit.”
So what brings about this enflamed divine passion and perfection? Daily forcing ourselves to pray. Regardless of how we feel.
Let me conclude with this example, when you eat something it might taste good or bad, depending on what you eat. But this is not what brings energy and nutrition. Energy and nutrition happen through digestion and the remainder of the bodily process. Again, it is the same spiritually, if I feel like praying or not, if I am joyful or not, if I feel the Holy Spirit within me or not; all of these are symbolically related to the enjoyment of the food. This part happens in my mouth. But we agree that it is not the taste that gives growth. It is what my body does with the food. Even if I don’t feel like praying (if the food tastes bad), I still need to stand up and pray and give it all that I have because I will receive the benefits of this prayer regardless of how I feel!
Remember know your faith, live your faith and teach your faith.