Panagiotis Ν. Trembelas, The Orthodox Ethos, studies in Orthodoxy v. I ed. A.J. Philippou, Holywell Press, Oxford, 1964, p. 122- 132.
Trans. by the Rev. Z. Xintaras.
The Orthodox Catholic Church, while recognizing the great importance and power of prayer, does not include it among the special means by which sanctifying grace is transmitted; this property belongs to the divinely instituted sacraments alone. It disagrees in this respect with some Protestant Churches, which have accorded to prayer and preaching a position higher than that of the sacraments.
This view rests on the fact that the sacraments are a gift peculiar to the New Testament, because they derive their validity from the sacrifice on Golgotha, and constitute channels for the communion of the Holy Spirit, which those who believed in Christ were to receive: "for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John vii, 39). Both prayer and preaching, however, were certainly essential conditions for, and manifestations of, the religious life of Israel before the incarnation of Christ. This is evident from the fact that prayer was practiced not only in the common worship of the Jews, but was also offered privately by all the faithful of every class. The book of Psalms is a divinely inspired collection of prayers, which is also much used by the Orthodox in their worship and private prayers.
Her conception of prayer does not lead the Orthodox Church to disregard the great importance of prayer, since the very celebration of the sacraments is for the most part nothing but prayer. The Orthodox Catholic Church emphasizes that prayer on the one hand prepares the believer for the reception of grace and for worthy participation in the sacraments, and on the other guards and strengthens him after the reception of the sacraments in preserving the divine grace transmitted to him through them and in gathering abundant fruits from it.
The significance which the Orthodox Catholic Church has always attached to prayer can be seen from the fact that each day, during the 'canonical hours' which were instituted at an early date, even when the Divine Eucharist is not performed, religious services are conducted in its churches during which the Psalter is extensively used as a book of prayer. Furthermore, the history of the Orthodox Church at all periods reveals, as we shall see, many communities devoted to the Lord whose chief activity has been unceasing prayer.
As it is our purpose to expound in detail the Orthodox Catholic Church's doctrine of prayer, we may remind the reader that in all its teaching it preserves the Holy Tradition of the Lord and the apostles, as this is preserved in the words of the Lord and the apostles recorded in the New Testament, and in the unbroken and universal thought and teaching of the undivided Church of the seven Ecumenical Synods and its great Fathers. We shall follow this tradition closely in our exposition of prayer.
In this study of the meaning of prayer, a brief definition should first be given, and this according to the Fathers of the one and undivided Church.
St. Basil the Great defines prayer as ' a request for some good addressed by the pious to God (1), while St. John of Damascus sees it as a request addressed to God for what is proper (2). We ask God for what is proper, addressing ourselves to Him with words which either proceed from our mouth and are apprehended by our sense of hearing and by that of those around us, or are uttered silently, not by the tongue but only in the mind. Hence 'we truly speak to God at the time of prayer', adds St. John Chrysostom (3), and prayer is conversation with God' according to the description of St. Gregory of Nyssa (4). That is, we refer to, and communicate with, God. On the one hand we tell Him our aspirations, our needs, our feelings, and on the other hand God responds to us by the outpouring of His gifts and the granting of our prayers. Obviously God, Who is Spirit and Who transcends the corruptible world and the vanity of human things, is understood to be so far above us and in so super celestial a world that, in order that we may converse with Him, we must detach ourselves from the earthly and the sensible, and elevate our minds to the heavenly, lifting up our hearts and the eyes of our souls to the heaven of heavens. Hence St. Augustine defined prayer as the ascent of the mind to God, and as a rising from the earthly to the heavenly. St. Gregory of Nyssa characterized it also as 'the contemplation of the invisible', and as the union of the person who prays with God (5). And, to quote Origen (6), the words of the Psalmist: "To Thee I lifted up mine eyes, Who dwellest in heaven", and " To Thee I lifted up my soul', are only realized when the eyes of the.rational part of the soul" are detached "from preoccupation with earthly things", cease "to be filled with images of crasser objects", and are so elevated "that they transcend the realm of generated things, and rest thinking only of God, and converse with Him reverently and fittingly as He listens to them".
We have said that prayer is requesting from God what is proper. But if we limit prayer simply to petition, we distinguish it sharply from worship, despite the fact that the latter always takes the form of prayer and is very closely connected with it. For in worship, above all, we do not ask, but offer. Astonished by the divine grandeur, transported by the splendor and beauty of God, we approach as humble subjects, offering Him the submission, the adoration, the deep and unqualified reverence, and the warm and complete devotion which we owe Him. In worship, then, there dominates on the one hand the recognition of the divine grandeur, and on the other the consciousness of human smallness, which seeks to offer to the divine grandeur everything it has, in payment of its debt of service and devotion.
Prayer, then, is not only a petition. It is also a doxology. Furthermore, it is thanksgiving. To quote Origen again (7), prayer should begin with a doxology, which is placed in 'the proem' and addressed to God through Christ, Who is praised together with Him and the Holy Spirit. After this the person who prays must offer" common thanks" for the "benefactions to many", and also for those "which he in particular has received" from God. After thanksgiving, it is indicated, he should become "a bitter accuser to God of his own sins", asking firstly for the curing of the habit that leads to sinning, and secondly for the remission of his past sins. After "the request for great and heavenly things" and intercession "for one's relatives and dearest ones", one should end with "a doxology to God through Christ in the Holy Spirit", thus crowning the conclusion of one's prayer.
Besides, does not this recognition of the divine grandeur, which incites finite man to have recourse to the immeasurable riches of God's goodness with the trust of a small child, and to invoke the divine protection, does not this also take on the colouring of worship? Or when a person addresses his supplication to the Ruler of all, saying: "The eyes of all wait upon Thee; and Thou givest them their food in due season" (Psalm cxliv, 15), does not he weave into his prayer worshipful recognition? Or, when our request is granted, are we not impelled to offer grateful thanks to our Lord, Who in His goodness has listened to our voice?
From these considerations we can see why the Fathers who defined prayer as a request addressed to God for what is proper, characterized it as "equality to the angels with respect to honour " (8), and proclaimed that through it we are "united with the angels" (9), in spite of the fact that the work of angels is to sing hymns and praises to the divine grandeur "with never-silent mouths". St. John Chrysostom particularly emphasizes that in all other respects we are far removed from the angels. We differ from them in nature, in that they are immaterial, incorruptible and immortal, whereas we have, together with the soul, a body which is corruptible, material and subject to death. Nor do we resemble them in our mode of living, since we have need of material food, clothes and shelter, while they are fed and satisfied by the contemplation of the divine glory. Furthermore, we differ much from the angels in respect of wisdom and understanding and power, for they guide, guard and instruct us. Whereas, then, in these and many other ways, we differ from the angels, we come near to them in prayer, which constitutes something common to angels and men, "separating man from the beasts and uniting him with the angels" (10). One could, indeed, discern many respects in which the irrational animals and birds are superior to man: for example, in the power and keenness of their vision, smell and hearing. But the ascent from the sensible to the supersensible, the search for the divine, which cannot be apprehended by the physical senses, and the soaring up of the mind to commune with the divine, are the exclusive privileges of man, who was created in the image of God and bears within himself a kinship to the divine. It is rightly stressed by Chrysostom, therefore, that through prayer "we are united with the angels, and manifestly withdraw very much from communion with the irrational animals". Dwelling further on the fact that the prayer of angels is continuous praise and undiminishing doxology to the divine nature, but not conversation with God, he remarks that in prayer man surpasses even the dignity of angels, "since conversing with God is superior to the dignity of angels" (11). Consider, he says, what an honour it is, that 'while angels are present, while Archangels, Seraphim and Cherubim and all the other Powers stand by', lowly man can "come forth with much boldness" to converse with God (12).
As for the necessity of prayer, this is by no means diminished by the fact that our all-good Father "knows that we have need of all these things", and hence has no need of our making our needs known to Him. As St. Gregory of Nyssa (13) epigrammatically declares: "He who does not unite himself to God through prayer is separated from God". Chrysostom adds: "What water and sun are to the body, prayer is to the soul. How great a misfortune and loss to the blind is the inability to see the sun! By analogy, then, one can infer how incalculable a loss is suffered by the Christian in 'not praying continuously and through prayer introducing into the soul the light of God" (14). For this reason, the divine Father elsewhere tells us, "when I see someone not liking prayer and not having a warm love of it, I realize that such a person possesses nothing noble in his soul". Just as a city without fortifications is easily conquered by the enemy, "so indeed is a soul which is not fortified by prayer easily brought by the devil under his influence and readily filled with every sin". On the contrary, "when I see someone with an insatiable desire for worshipping God, I judge that such a person surely exercises every virtue and is a temple of God " (15).
Another objection to prayer could be raised on the basis of the great truth that God is unchanging and His eternally determined decisions are irrevocable. Through prayer we not infrequently seek to avert events which are about to happen of necessity, and we evoke the intervention of divine Providence to effect a change in the will of God or to modify the course of His established plan. Thus the mother who prays by the bed of her son, who has been abandoned by physicians as beyond all hope of recovery, and is already wrestling with inexorably approaching death, seeks the intervention of God to annul, through a miracle, the natural and apparently irreversible course of events. The sinner, who is under the threat of God's wrath, repents and prays that the Lord may relent and avert His wrath from him. Yet when the only son of the widow of Nain was being carried out dead, the desperate prayers and supplications of his lamenting mother were heard by the God-man, and moved Him to bring her son miraculously back to life. What are we to say? Did prayer change the will and decision of God, Who rules over everything, and bring about a change and alteration in God, Who is unchanging and ever the same? Or when, after the repentant cries and supplications of the Ninevites, the Lord recalled the destruction of Nineveh which Jonas had foretold would happen after three days, did a change in the mind of God actually take place?
We arrive at a satisfactory answer to these questions when we remember that the foreknowledge of God did not order and predetermine the government of the world without reference to the acts of free beings eternally known to Him. Before the all-wise eyes of the omniscient and unchanging God, all acts are eternally foreknown, and therefore all the prayers of men who at various times are called into being. It is in accordance with this foreknowledge that the events willed by God in His plan for the world are worked out, and these things have been ordained by God in all freedom, wisdom, justice and goodness. As Origen says (16) "each act within our power is known' by God and has been arranged beforehand by His providence. God, then, knows eternally what such-and-such a person thus believing shall say, and with what disposition". God has already decided that 'I shall listen to the prayer of this man, who shall say this prayer with understanding; to that of this other person I shall not listen, either because he will be unworthy of being heard, or because he will pray for what is neither beneficial to him, nor proper for me to provide. And during such-and-such a prayer by another person I shall not listen to him, whereas during a certain other prayer I shall listen".
Woe to us, if we should think that God, Who governs all things in His infinite goodness, remains deaf to the cries of His creatures when they invoke His aid. In that case He would cease to be their loving Father, and the assurance of the Lord would become altogether incomprehensible and empty of meaning: "The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew x, 30). Man's communion with God would no longer be real and living, but an illusion, and the very word "religion" would be meaningless.
From what has been said, both the value and the efficacy of prayer become apparent. Holy Scripture is full of assurances on this point. One need only remember the words which the Lord addressed to His disciples: "Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive" (Matthew xxi, 22) and "Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you" (John xvi, 23), in order to banish every doubt and hesitation about the efficacy of prayer. A concrete example from the Old Testament is used by St. James to convince us of the power of prayer. He speaks of the fiery prophet: "Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit" (James v, 17-18).
Hence Chrysostom characterizes prayer as "truly heavenly armour ", and as "alone capable of guarding securely those who have surrendered themselves to God" (17). And, describing by analogy the benefits of prayer, he remarks that "if those who converse with wise men, through the continual converse soon attain to a likeness of their wisdom", what ought one to say "about those who speak and pray to God?" (18)' They, likewise, become sharers in God's nature. Origen (19) explains more fully that he who prays in accordance with the commandment of God "becomes more fitted for union with God, Who fills the entire world". Such a person who converses with God reflects the glory of God, Whom he now sees face to face, and is transformed in His likeness from glory to glory. Thus he comes to partake of an intelligible emanation which is truly divine, in accordance with the saying in Scripture: "The light of thy countenance has been shown upon us, O Lord". For this reason St. John Chrysostom, employing another image, observes: "Not even a king, wearing his mantle, is as resplendent as he who is praying, adorned by converse with God" (20). And, emphasizing in particular the benefits derived from prayer, he adds: "Not only honour, but also the greatest benefit" comes to us through prayer, even before we receive what we ask through it. For when one lifts up his hands towards heaven and invokes God, then automatically and simultaneously "at once he has left human things behind and has travelled mentally to the future life and pictures the things in heaven", provided that he prays properly and with the appropriate disposition. Just as, when the sun rises, all the wild beasts flee and hide themselves in their dens, so also in prayer, when it begins "to proceed from your mouth and tongue", the intellect is illuminated and all the irrational, animal passions flee and depart, if we pray correctly, with an awakened soul and a watchful intellect. "Then, even if the devil be present, he shall be driven away" (21). To conclude with more words of Chrysostom, prayer is "a great weapon", "a complete treasure, wealth that is never exhausted, an unruffled harbor, the foundation of calm, the root, source and mother of innumerable blessings" (22).
In view of this one can understand the basis of the apostolic injunction: "Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians v, 17). Whole generations of monks and ascetics in the Orthodox Catholic Church have made incessant prayer their sole, continuous and exclusive work throughout their entire life, using a brief and comprehensive prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me"; or, more briefly: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me"; or, even more briefly, "Jesus, have mercy upon me". This prayer, which when practised mentally with deep concentration leads to divine ecstasy, they repeated incessantly, delighting in the continual repetition of the divine name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This constituted the mental prayer which sustained and uplifted the mystics of the Orthodox Catholic Church, and which produced a flourishing spiritual life in its famous monastic centres.
The force of the apostolic injunction, however, is said by the holy Fathers to extend to all members of the Church. They observe through their spokesman on this point, St. Basil the Great (23)), that "we must not fulfill the duty of prayer by means of syllables, but rather give it power by resolution of the soul and by acts in accordance with virtue, extending throughout our life". One prays incessantly when "in the whole conduct of his life he unites himself with God", so that his life becomes a "continuous and unceasing prayer". And, as Origen adds, he prays incessantly who combines prayer with proper works, so that his whole life may be described as "a great chain of prayers, part of which is prayer commonly so called" (24). Thus, unceasing prayer means remaining unceasingly in contact with God, either by prayer or by a disposition for prayer.
As to the manner in which we should pray, and what the content of our prayers should be, certain remarks made by Origen in his work On Prayer, to which we have repeatedly referred and which has been greatly praised in our time, are worthy of attention. Everyone who is about to pray, observes this celebrated Christian writer, must pause and prepare himself, so that "his prayer may become more strict and intense". One must remind oneself as far as possible of the greatness and grandeur of Him Whom one is approaching, and remember that "it is impious to approach Him languidly, carelessly and as it were contemptuously". He who prepares himself for prayer must put aside "everything alien", and thus come to the activity of praying, "lifting up his soul, as it were, before lifting up his hands; lifting up his mind to God before lifting up his eyes; and, before standing to pray, lifting up the ruling part of his soul from the earth and turning it towards the Lord of all" (25).
Prayer which is not accompanied by concentration of the mind upon Him to Whom the one who is praying addresses himself is not prayer. During prayer the mind must on no account be clouded "by other thoughts"; it should have forgotten without exception everything that is "external to the prayer" and has no connexion with it (26). Moreover, the person who aspires to prayer must bear in mind that he who prays only lifts up holy hands when he forgives each "of those who have offended him, banishing the passion of anger from his soul and being angry towards no one" (27). He must, then, "put away all malice towards anyone who seems to have committed an injustice against him", just as he wants God to forgive him, who has sinned against Him countless times, and has also committed injustices against many of his fellow men (28).
As far as the content of prayer is concerned, Origen recommends that in praying "we should not babble, but should theologize". We babble when, not examining and scrutinizing ourselves and the words of the prayer which we offer, we seek in prayer "perishable works, or goals that are low, worthy of censure and alien to the incorruptibility of God". Now he who asks of the Lord "Who dwells above the heights of the heavens" things which are unworthy of God, things mean and corruptible, "becomes like the heathen who engages in babbling" (29). Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, who interprets the word vattologia in Matthew vi, 7 as "babbling", all those babble in prayer who "do not ask from God what is proper" but for power, glory, superiority over enemies, wealth, and all other things which, according to Zigavenos, "neither benefit the soul nor are necessary for the constitution of the body". The heathens sought such things from their gods, repeating their requests persistently, because they thought that for their prayers to be listened to it was indispensable that the deity should be annoyed by their frequent and somehow magical repetition. But the Lord, dissuading us from acting like the heathens, commands us: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew vi, 33).
As for the posture to be adopted in prayer, Origen regards kneeling as necessary when one is going to censure "one's own sins before God, begging for the cure and remission of them". This is because bending the knees is "a symbol of falling down before one and surrendering". However, when the circumstances call for it, one may pray seated. Thus "one who suffers from an ailment of the feet" is permitted to pray seated; one who "is lying in bed because of a fever or some other such illness" is permitted to pray in bed. When we are living with others, or are on a journey with them, or when circumstances do not allow us to withdraw from them, in order that we may offer "the required prayer" in solitude, we are permitted to pray without appearing or affecting to do so (30).
Worthy of attention also are the remarks which Origen makes about the place which the Christian should choose in his home for praying. This must not only provide quiet and freedom from outside noise, but must also be "the most reverential place". To this end one must consider "whether at this place where he is praying anything unlawful or contrary to right reason has ever been committed" (31). Origen goes too far, however, in contending that, on account of the wicked deeds that were done on this spot in the past, "God's visitation has departed from there". One may recall that during the early Christian period altars of the true God were set up even in pagan temples, the devout officiators and faithful congregation being in no way hindered by the previous impious profanation of these places. But Origen's observation is not without some foundation, if one takes into account the fact that representations of the wicked deeds performed in those places may easily be called forth by the imagination of the person who prays, and may become an obstacle and a temptation during his ascent to God.
So much for private prayer. It remains for us to say a few words about common prayer, which the faithful offer together. The Lord has said that "if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew xviii, 19). Thus prayer performed by two or more together is represented as being of great efficacy. As St. John Chrysostom says, "The Church congregation has greater power, and what one cannot achieve by oneself alone, one can achieve when one is associated with others" (32). The Lord explains why prayer performed in company with others possesses greater power: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew xviii, 20). "I am amongst them", says the Lord, "and I inspire them, so that they know what to say in their prayers; and I encourage them, so that their hope and zeal may increase; and I strengthen them, so that they may be firmer in their faith. I hear them as a mediator and eternal high priest before the Father, and I accept their prayers and respond to their entreaties".
Hence the temple of God, as "a place where the faithful assemble for the same purpose", where common prayers are offered by them, has not only great solemnity and sanctity, but also great "charm that is conducive to benefit" (33). Not only is the Lord present in the midst of the faithful, both offering and receiving, listening and responding, but also great throngs of angelic powers stand by, "so that the congregation is twofold, one of men, the other of angels". If, indeed, as the Psalmist says, "the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them", it follows that, when many are gathered together for prayer, "the angel of each standeth at the side of the man whose protection has been entrusted to him" (34). Thus the congregation consists not only of the assembly of the faithful which is apprehended by our bodily sight, but also of the invisible gathering of angels who guard these believers.
Moreover, in addition to the angelic powers who stand by the gatherings of the faithful, there are "the spirits of the saints". That the Church militant on earth is in close communion and direct contact with the Church triumphant in heaven is a basic teaching of the Christian faith, and a natural consequence of the great truth that the Church is one, the one Body of Christ. That in the gatherings of the faithful for worship the spirits of the righteous made perfect are invisibly present, participating in their prayers, is confirmed by the prayers of entreaty which accompany the consecration of the holy gifts, in which the faithful who are struggling on earth pray for the deceased, and also beg for their intercession as persons who have pleased the Lord. This great truth is also rendered perceptible to the senses by icons, particularly those which adorn the dome and the ceiling of the church, showing the Church which is in heaven about the Pantocrator as united in prayer with the Church militant on earth.
(1) In martyrem Julittam, III, P.G . xxxi, 244.
(2) De fide orthodoxa, III, 24.
(3) De precatione, I, P.G. xlix, 776.
(4) De oratione dominica, I, P.G. xliv, 1124.
(5) Ibid., I, P.G. xliv, 1124.
(6 ) De oratione, IX, 2 (Library of the Greek Fathers, published by the Apostolic Diaconate, Athens ), Vol. 10, p. 247
(7) Ibid., XXXIII, 6 ( L.G.F.), Vol. 10, p. 307.
(8) St. Gregory of Nyssa, op. cit., I, P.G . xliv, 1124.
(9) St. John Chrysostom, op cit., I, P.G. xlix, 776.
(10) lbid ., II, P.G . xlix, 779.
(11) Ibid., I, P.G . xlix, 776.
(12) Contra Anomceos, VIII, P.G. xlviii, 776.126
(13) lbid ., VIII, P.G . xlviii, 776.
(14) St. John Chrysostom, De precatione, I, P.G . xlix, 776.
(15) Ibid., II, P.G . xlix, 779-780.
(16) Op. cit., VI, 4 ( L.G.F. ), p. 244.
(17) De precatione, I, P.G. xlix, 778.128
( 18 ) ibid., I, P.G . xlix, 778.
(19) Op. at., X, 2 ( L.G.F.), p. 248.
(20) ( Contra Anomoeos, VIII, P.G . xlviii, 776.
(21) Ibid., VIII, P.G . xlviii, 776.
(22) Ibid., V, P.G . xlviii, 743.
(23) Op. cit. , Ill, P.G . xxxi, 244.
(24) Op. cit., II, 2 ( L.G.F.), p. 252.
(25) O p. cit., XXXI, 2 ( L.G.F.), p. 302.
(26) lbid ., IX, 1 ( L.G.F.), p. 247.
(27) Ibid., IX, 1 ( L.G.F.), p. 247.
(28) I bid., XXXI, 2 ( L.G.F.), p. 303.
(29) Ibid., XXI, 1 ( L.G.F.), p. 266.
(30 )lbid., XXXI, 2 and 3 ( L.G.F.), p. 303.
(31) Ibid., XXXI, 4 ( L.G.F.), p. 303.
(32) Homiliae in Ada , XXXVII, 3 (Montfaucon edition), 9, 284.
(33) Origen, op. at., XXXI, 5 ( L.G.F.), p. 304.
(34) Ibid., XXXI, 5 ( L.G.F.), p. 304.