I have written from time to time on the nature of prayer. I was recently asked by a reader to offer a reflection on “beginning to pray,” which seems to me to be an invitation to write about something that happens for me, by necessity, every day. I cannot write as a man of great experience in prayer. But I have had years of experience in beginning to pray. If the reader will bear in mind that I am an ignorant man – then he/she might find some word of help in these thoughts.
I remember the first time I saw someone standing stock-still before an icon in Church. It is the practice of Orthodox Christians, upon entering a Church, to “greet” the icons, offering an act of veneration (such as a kiss), and a prayer (usually accompanied by lighting a candle). What I recall about this particular instance, was the obvious concentration and self-abandonment of the parishioner. She was a visitor to our congregation and a Russian national.
There is variety within Orthodoxy, despite our common faith. The variety is often associated with different national groups. It is not the case that Russians always stand so carefully before an icon when entering the Church – but there was a spiritual “rapport” with the icon that I do not associate with American Orthodoxy – particularly in the convert-rich South.
My experience of watching the devotion of a Russian Christian within the Church is not itself an example of “beginning to pray,” but it is an example of how to begin to pray. In various editions of Orthodox prayer books (private) the following instruction can be found for morning prayers:
Having awakened, arise from your bed without laziness and, having gathered your thoughts, make the Sign of the Cross, saying: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Afterwards, stand in silence for a few moments until all your senses are calmed. At that point, make three prostrations, saying: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Then begin the Morning Prayers…”
My observation through the years is that the small instructions to “gather your thoughts,” and “stand in silence for a few moments until all your senses are calmed,” are very easily ignored, though they have ever so much to do with “beginning to pray.” All prayer is an act of communion with God. Taking time to gather our thoughts and enter in to the living communion with God that is His gift to us in the Holy Spirit has everything to do prayer itself.
There is no need for us to “imagine” God (this is not the purpose of gathering our thoughts). But there is a need for us to actually be present where we are and to be quiet before God. This is far more difficult than it sounds. The distractions of the mind generally carry us everywhere (mentally) other than where we are. Prayer then becomes an annoyance, an activity that competes with the wandering passions of our mind. It is little wonder that we experience this competition as boring or irksome – as almost anything other than what it is. How can we experience prayer for what it is if we are not there to experience it?
The simple act of being quiet, of gathering our thoughts within ourselves, is essential to the beginning of prayer.
I pray Matins each morning at the Church. Frequently I am alone or accompanied by one or two others. I leave the electric lights off and pray by candle light. Lighting the oil lamps before the icons is, for me, part of the quiet act of gathering myself for prayer. I have also noticed that rising early for prayer has a side benefit: I am frequently too tired for my mind to wander. It’s actually helpful. It is not for nothing that monastics often curb their sleep in order to pray.
A second simple act is of equal importance: meaning what you say. There is no necessary superiority to praying with one’s own spontaneous words rather than praying prayers that are written for you. It is possible to practice either form while giving no attention to what you are saying. I have heard “spontaneous” prayers that were as “rote” as the worst misuse of written prayers. In either case – whether prayers are read or “spontaneously” uttered – it is essential to mean what we say. Reading things (or saying things) that have no connection to our heart is a guaranteed way to force your mind to wander. How can you be present with words you do not mean?
It is thus useful to be familiar with the words of our prayers (if we are reading). Spontaneous prayer is another matter – which I’ll say something about in a moment. Most of the words of Orthodox daily prayers are taken from the Psalms (or are the regular pattern of “Trisagion” prayers and the like). Teaching our heart to understand and mean the words of the Psalms is a discipline of conforming our heart to the heart of God.
Of course this requires learning how to “read” the Psalms. If read on a literal level or on a historical level, the Psalms will never rise to the place of prayer. Hearing the Psalms in their Christological meaning (and learning to unite oneself to Christ in that meaning) are essential to meaning what we say.
Matins traditionally begins with the Six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142 LXX numbering). Psalm 87 (88) reads:
O Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is filled with evil,
And my life draws near to Hades.
I am counted with those who go down into the pit;
I am like a man without help, adrift among the dead.
Like the bodies of the slain who sleep in the grave, whom you remember no more,
And who are cut off from your hand.
They have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, and the shadow of death.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves.
You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out;
My eyes have grown weak from poverty.
I have cried to you, Lord, the entire day. I have stretched out my hands to you.
Will you work wonders for the dead? Or shall physicians raise them up so that they
might thank you?
Shall any in the grave speak of your mercy and your truth in the place of destruction?
Shall your wonders be known in the dark, and your righteousness in the land of
But as for me, I have cried out to you, Lord, and in the morning my prayer shall come
Lord, why do you cast off my soul, and turn away from me?
I am a poor man and in trouble.
From my youth, having been exalted, I was humbled and brought to distress.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me, and your terrors have sorely troubled me.
They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether.
You have put far away from me friend and neighbor, and my acquaintances because of
A literal treatment of this Psalm will rarely find an echo in our heart. Certainly there are times that we feel “cast off” and that God has “turned away” from us. But this is by no means a daily experience or one that is present each time we pray the Psalm. Literal gets you nowhere. Nor is it of any use to have deep historical knowledge of the Psalm or even great expertise in the “original” meaning of each word, etc. Of essential importance is the Psalm’s Christological meaning. It is the prayer of Christ from Hades (where He descended in His death to free us from death). A useful way to pray the Psalm is to unite oneself to Christ in His descent into Hades and there pray with Him to the Father. It is also the prayer for all of us who find ourselves “in Hades,” as well as for the whole world (“which lieth in the power of the evil one”).
There are many such ways to pray the Psalms where we have entered into the prayer by uniting ourselves to Christ. Fr. Patrick Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms is a useful book for such study and preparation.
Those are just a few thoughts on beginning to pray. Be still. Be present. Let the passions calm down. Mean what you say.
I have not, in this post, said much about praying with icons, or the sign of the cross, or prostrations and the like – though they are quite important as well. I’ll say more in a subsequent note.