My religious background might be described as “motley Christian.” I grew up in a United Methodist Church that was quite evangelistic and also included a cross-section of charismatic members. When I was in high school, some of my classmates were Episcopal, and occasionally I would hear references to their Book of Common Prayer. I thought that was odd. Why would anyone need a book to pray? Don’t they know how to talk to God?
Back then, and for most of my life, I considered written prayers to be “canned”—about as spiritually nutritious as limp, tinned vegetables. They weren’t “real” prayers, which I understood to be fresh, personal words prayed from the heart.
I’m sure my attitude goes back to my upbringing and surroundings. Although my church had liturgical services that included congregational prayer along with hymns, that practice of corporate prayers didn’t extend to the youth group, where many of the volunteer leaders were connected to Oral Roberts University nearby. ORU emphasized the charismatic gifts, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially healing. I was exposed to speaking in tongues, prophesying, and the practice of “claiming” physical healing and other divine gifts, but I was certainly not exposed to prayer books. The idea of utilizing a collection of written prayers also remained foreign to the churches my husband and I attended later in adulthood.
But after encountering Orthodoxy, I was introduced to various scripted prayer services like the Paraklesis (a supplication service), hymns called akathists for individual and corporate use, and written prayers for different occasions. The prayers for individual use were solid theologically and quite eloquent, but using them felt almost like cheating, as if I was saying, “Lord, I’ll just blab these words at You because I can’t come up with my own.” The written services at church were honoring to the Holy Trinity and to the saints (which raised a bunch of other concerns that we’ll talk about soon), but it was still hard for me to think of them as “real” prayer.
For me, learning to pray in this new way—which is actually a very old way, as old as the Book of Psalms—has been one of the greatest struggles in my Orthodox journey. Yet I couldn’t deny the beauty and deep spiritual truths in these written prayers. For me, the process of learning to love the prayers of the Church required me to get honest about my past experiences with corporate prayer and with the shortcomings in my own personal prayer life.
Not an Either/Or Proposition
The choice of praying with a written text or with personal words from the heart is not an either/or proposition. First of all, it’s important to emphasize that the Orthodox Church does not reject praying in our own words. For example, if you look at the evening prayers included in the back of the Orthodox Study Bible, there is a spot after the Prayer for the End of the Day that says, “Here may be added your own private devotions and intercessions, using your own words,” followed by a concluding prayer. Both spontaneous prayers and written prayers are useful.
But for those of us whose only exposure to written prayers is a congregational recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the natural question is, “If private prayers are okay, why do I need to follow a script at all?”
Last year a young inquirer posed a similar question on the Facebook page of Ancient Faith Ministries, and Marketing Director Melinda Johnson asked AFM content contributors for their responses. Their answers were so helpful that I am shamelessly stealing them to use (with credit given) as we consider the benefits of incorporating written prayers into our lives.
First let’s consider some of the problems with spontaneous praying in a group setting.
Group Prayer Often Lacks a Solid Foundation
My experience with spontaneous corporate prayer has been problematic on a lot of different levels. I’ve seen and heard some weird stuff over the years, such as rampant misuse of Scripture as people find a verse that fits the moment and then use it as a sort of weapon to remind God that He’s supposed to do what He promises. (Never mind that the verse is often taken wildly out of context.)
I have heard people make theological pronouncements in prayer that are not necessarily true. For example, when a person is wrestling with a particular sin or with illness, I have heard others pray against “the demon of fill-in-the-blank,” who is considered to be responsible for the situation.
Now, I’m not making light of spiritual warfare. It’s real. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The Church has many written prayers of exorcism—one from St. John Chrysostom and three from St. Basil the Great come to mind. But in group prayer, some people claimed victory over demons without regard for the possibility that other factors might be at play, like someone’s free-will choices, or the passions—a term we didn’t know.
I knew a man who constantly talked about “the Lord Jesus” this and “the Lord Jesus” that, and who led prayer by addressing “the Lord Jesus.” After a while I began to wonder if He believed in the Holy Trinity or had even a rudimentary understanding of one God in three Persons. I still wonder.
A few years ago an Evangelical friend of mine—I’ll call her Jill—shared a request with a Bible study group for God’s guidance in a decision she needed to make. Instead of praying together for God to reveal His will to her, a complete stranger informed her that “the Lord” had shown her that Jill should just give up—that God had already given her an answer through various disheartening events, and that His answer was a “no.” Two other women, also strangers, agreed.
How did they supposedly “know” this? I’m guessing that a thought entered the woman’s mind, or a feeling overcame her, and she assumed that these impressions were divine. For years, this has been a major pet peeve of mine, when Christians assert, “The Lord told me.” First of all, it’s a statement that shuts down dialogue, and the words assume that the speaker heard from God correctly, with no possibility of being wrong. Prayer that is birthed from that sort of prideful mindset is bound to be off-base.
It’s also a spiritually dangerous practice, lacking humility and a sober understanding of our own weaknesses. The arrogance of strangers asserting special knowledge of God’s will for Jill’s life direction is bad enough; the deep discouragement it caused her is even worse.
In group settings I have heard a whole lot of “claiming” of a whole lot of things, especially miraculous healings. Of course, the Orthodox Church affirms God’s ability to heal; we pray for the sick on an individual basis and corporately. The Church has prayers of healing as well as the practice of Holy Unction, which is a service of anointing with blessed oil for both spiritual and physical healing. I personally know people who have experienced healing through this type of anointing.
But many times, in group prayer situations in my Protestant past, those prayers for healing felt more like demands. I know of a situation at one church where the congregation gathered to pray over a man who had been diagnosed with cancer. The result was a mess, with some people “claiming” healing, others praying the “if it be Your will” prayers, and a whole lot of noise without unity.
In some churches, loudness and emotion define the level of sincerity in prayer. And if a microphone is made available during a service for those who want to share with the crowd, over time you will notice that the usual suspects always come forward to pray or offer some thoughts. They may be very sincere, but there is yet another spiritual danger in this practice: the danger of pride creeping in and a sort of spiritual grandstanding as the person at the mic demonstrates their knowledge of the Scriptures and their unshakeable faith. It’s a great temptation for many that distracts from a humble seeking of God together in unity.
Problems with My Own Prayer Habits
Well, I’ve been criticizing other people for a while, pointing out the specks in their eyes. But I have a plank in my own. So let’s look at problems with my own personal prayer habits.
I have seen, over and over, that when I pray about a personal need using only my own words, I tend to focus more on the need than on God. I explain the problem to Him, as if He didn’t know anything about it.
Often as I rehash the situation, I experience feelings of anger, hurt, and unforgiveness all over again, then I need to ask forgiveness for that and try to get back on track. Honestly, I waste words and time and wind up feeling more defeated than I did before I started praying.
Or if I’m praying for someone else, I tend to tell God what He should do, like I’m some sort of junior Holy Spirit. A few times in my past I too have claimed a healing He has not necessarily promised or trampled over someone’s free will because I “know” what they “should” be doing. I was often unaware of the subtle judgment in my heart.
The written prayers of the Church, compiled over the centuries, help us to avoid such pitfalls. In the Facebook discussion that I mentioned earlier, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, prolific AFR podcaster and author, wrote:
Spontaneity is fine, but it can really be very limiting if that’s all you’ve got. And entering into the words of a holy person’s prayer also teaches you to pray in a way that being limited by your own words can never really do. Being limited to immediate spontaneity is actually very restrictive and antithetical to spiritual growth.
In contrast to unscripted group experiences, the Church’s written prayers, her services of supplication for parishioners and their loved ones, and the orderly, reverent use of holy oil in her prayers of healing express a beautiful unity of belief and practice. The Church’s prayers help us to keep our focus on God and not on our own incomplete understanding.
Here are just a few of the benefits of incorporating the prayers of the Church into our own personal prayer lives:
1. When We Use Written Prayers, We Follow Biblical Practice
The Church’s longest prayer book is also one of the most influential texts in history and literature: The Book of Psalms. The psalms are simply prayers that are meant to be read—aloud or silently.
During the years when I objected to the “canned” content of written prayers, I didn’t consider the fact that the entire Book of Psalms consists of 150 canned prayers (151 in the Septuagint) and that the Book of Psalms is considered to be the prayer book of Israel and of the Church. I also conveniently forgot that when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He gave them—and us—a scripted prayer: The Lord’s Prayer. Jesus repeated a psalm verse on the Cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
2. Written Prayers Remove the Distracting Struggle for Words
Professor Jeannie Constantinou, host of the podcast Search the Scriptures Live! and author of the excellent new book from Ancient Faith, Thinking Orthodox, wrote,
I think that when we pray a familiar prayer it actually allows us to enter into the meaning of the prayer more deeply. This is the case with the Divine Liturgy as well. If we pray as in a Protestant fashion, only saying “spontaneous” prayers, we find ourselves spending time and effort trying to figure out what to say. We don’t have the depth of spirituality to pray like that.
Whoa. That was honest. How many of us are willing to admit, “God, I’m not deep enough to know how to pray right now”?
Sometimes I wonder if a lot of my own wordy prayers are really an expression of faith. Perhaps they actually reveal a lack of faith. Maybe I’m begging God over and over so that He’ll finally answer. Of course, persistence can be a good thing. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). I’ve often heard that this verse is better translated from the Greek as, “Keep asking,” “keep seeking,” “keep knocking.” And I think about Jesus’ story of the persistent widow in Luke 18, who kept asking for justice from the judge, who finally relented because he was so weary of her.
But in my own life, am I being persistent, or am I nagging God to see things my way and do whatever I want Him to do? Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I’m persistent or merely presumptuous. I look at the time and energy spent in trying to come up with the right words, then I contrast that effort with a simple, humble prayer to God, leaving troubles with Him and trusting that He knows and cares. I’m not sure that my tendency to yammer at God is the same as faithful persistence.
In his book Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God (from Conciliar Press, now Ancient Faith Publishing), Archimandrite Meletios Webber wrote,
Typically, in the Orthodox Church, we do not pray for specific outcomes, but simply make the act of remembering someone or something before God in prayer a gesture of love. “Lord, remember . . .” followed by a name or a situation is quite sufficient. . . . We do not rely on mental images here, nor are our emotions of any particular significance.
There is nothing showy or loud about such prayer, just a quiet confidence in God’s love and goodness. Nuns and monks at various Orthodox monasteries daily lift up a list of names sent to them by Orthodox believers around the world. In local parishes during a Paraklesis service, the priest will recite the names that people have written on slips of paper. These lists don’t include an explanation of the struggle involved for each person. The Church trusts that our loving, omniscient God knows all and does not need our color commentary. A “Lord, remember . . .,” offered with faith and simplicity, in church or at home, can be a powerful cry from a broken heart when grief overcomes the ability to form words. I can be persistent in prayer in this simple way and also while relying on the wisdom of the prayers of the Church.
3. Written Prayers Are a Gift from the Church, for the Church, through Time and Eternity
Angela Doll Carlson, poet and author of Nearly Orthodox and other books from Ancient Faith Publishing, wrote,
I like the idea that there are people all over the world uttering the same words, in a variety of languages, at any given time. It feels, to me, like an alignment with my greater community of faith in any moment of prayer. This makes a connection with my fellow humans, all while recognizing the connection with the One who made us.
The prayers of the Church did not come into being because one person wrote a book and promoted her teaching videos. Orthodox prayers do not “sell” because of a publisher’s strategic marketing campaign. True, the prayers are put together in various collections and sold. But they are often sold by seminary and monastery presses, and the money is rolled back into the work of prayer and instruction. These same prayers are also available online for free.
The prayers of the Church also are not imposed on the laity from above. Instead, they have bubbled up from the grassroots as laypeople, priests, monks, and bishops, guided by the Holy Spirit, have agreed together, across the centuries and continents, that “this is good stuff.” These prayers are not copyrighted by a famous speaker or publishing house; they belong to the Church and are a gift for all of us.
4. Written Prayers Are Love Songs to God
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick wrote,
The analogy I always use is love songs—no one assumes that they’re any less sincere for being written down beforehand. That said, what’s behind all this is the idea that spontaneity in religion equals authenticity. This is a relatively recent idea. . . . Flowing from that is the idea that prayer is limited to being a kind of informal chat with God.
So, the question I would ask, to bring it back to my analogy, is why an expression of love for someone ought to be limited only to what you can come up with in the moment? Shouldn’t love be expressible by much broader and more developed means?
Steve Robinson, host of the Steve the Builder podcast, expanded on this analogy:
It’s like sending a mixtape to your beloved of someone else’s songs that say it better than you can. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.
The love-song analogy is such a perfect example. Why didn’t I see this before? I don’t write songs, but I sing along with the lyrics others have written. Saint Paul urges us to constantly be singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, which have a text written by someone else. If I can memorize hymns and scriptures, why not prayers?
5. Written Prayers Shape our Minds and Hearts
Father Barnabas Powell, of the Faith Encouraged daily devotionals and other wonderful resources, wrote,
There is also the element of formation in learning the timeless language of prayer and worship from the Church. These treasures are given to us by the Holy Spirit in the life of His Church, and we need to train our language in how to “make His praises glorious.”
I never will forget being asked by an Evangelical friend to pray, and I simply recited Psalm 50. [You may know it as Psalm 51 from Protestant Bibles: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness . . .”] She was absolutely blown away that I could recite it by heart. It made more sense to her when I told her I prayed this prayer every day. These timeless words become my words, and I allow the Church to train me in speaking to and with God.
This aspect of spiritual formation is expressed in the Greek term, phronema. It refers to mindset or outlook; it is the Orthodox mind. Dr. Constantinou wrote,
The ancient prayers shape us and contribute to our Orthodox phronema. Rather than a shallow, “Lord, I just want to . . . ,” which I’ve heard many times from people praying “spontaneously,” written prayers teach us what real prayer is like. They teach us how to pray because they are deep and meaningful. They teach us contrition, repentance, humility, and so many other virtues. They give us the language of theology, of the Church, of the Fathers, of the Bible. They shape us, just as reciting the psalms or memorizing Bible verses does.
As I think about these words, one of the Orthodox morning prayers comes to mind. It is the prayer of the Optina Elders, 19th-century monks at a hermitage about 80 miles from Moscow, and it has deeply impacted my life. As you read these words, I invite you to pray along with them and imagine how praying this prayer daily might shape your own mindset.
O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of the day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. And, Yourself, pray in me. Amen.
Now, that is a powerful prayer. Several years ago I went through a period of difficult decision-making. My actions would affect multiple people, and the words of this prayer sustained me in a way that my own made-up words never could. I truly experienced a peace of soul, a surrender to God’s will, and a desire “to act firmly and wisely” in the situation. Shaped by these wise, Spirit-led words, I was much more careful about guarding my tongue than I would have been on my own. And the sentence, “In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You” gave me great comfort and a trust in God’s goodness that sustained me through many months of difficulty.
This particular prayer has also had a powerful, practical influence on my husband. On a daily basis Rob participates in conference calls with coworkers—he did this even before the coronavirus hit. Occasionally, someone will pitch an idea based on incomplete information or even say something that is simply wrong. Numerous times, as he wonders how to correct someone in a group setting, he seeks a way to speak diplomatically and to do so, as the words of the prayer ask, “without embittering or embarrassing others.”
Professor Gary W. Jenkins, professor at Eastern University and host of the new podcast The Path to the Academy, summarized the formative power of the prayers of the Church:
Literature, poetry, the Liturgy, [and] the psalter all train and form our vocabulary, syntax, and rhetoric and help us to graduate from the uninformed to the beautifully formed tongues of the angels and saints.
Learning to pray like angels and saints. Now that is a great life goal.
If you haven’t tried praying this way, or maybe you simply haven’t taken advantage of the many beautiful prayers available to us, try using a prayer book and incorporating the habit into your life. The Ancient Faith store (store.ancientfaith.com) offers many prayer and service books, and you can find them at monastery and seminary bookstores too. A basic prayer book will include prayers for various times of the day, prayers of preparation before receiving communion and before confession, prayers of thanksgiving and for special needs, and some beautiful prayers of the saints.
You can also pray the text of a prayer service at home in your own prayer corner. For parents, I can think of no better resource than the Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children, from the nuns at St. Paisius Monastery in Arizona. This wonderful booklet is filled with intercessions that our children grow in the virtues and in Christ, to be worthy heirs of His Kingdom. Various prayer books and booklets are offered in lovely bound form at reasonable prices, but you can also find them on the Internet and print them out for free, because these prayers belong to the Church, and many of them have been circulating for centuries.
If you’re feeling a little skittish about canned prayers, remember that you have probably memorized many hymns and worship songs to help center your thoughts on the Lord. This is no different. And we do not need to choose between either personal prayers or written prayers. It’s both/and. Pray your private prayers, and also allow your thoughts and desires to be shaped by the timeless prayers of the Church.
If you’re interested in some of the prayer resources I’ve mentioned, you will find them listed below.
I will close with some good advice about prayer from St. John of Kronstadt, from his book My Life in Christ (p. 417):
Pray sincerely to the Heavenly Father; especially say the Lord’s Prayer, reverently, peacefully, not hurriedly: in general, read all the prayers quietly, evenly, with reverence, knowing before Whom you are saying them.
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When we return to the series “Stumbling Stones on the Orthodox Road,” we will consider a concept that really caused me a lot of anxiety when I was learning about Orthodox Christianity: the Sacrament of Confession. My only knowledge of confession came from TV and movies, where Roman Catholic characters sit in a wooden booth, murmur their sins anonymously, and the priest assigns an unrelated penance. It turns out that the Orthodox way of confession is relational and focused on healing, not punishment.
But first we’ll interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special look at the Triodion period, which begins on Sunday, February 21. The Church gives us three weeks of preparation before Great Lent begins, which seems like overkill. But it isn’t. We’ll examine the reasons why in the next blog post, called “Extreme Prep: The Long Triodion Warm-up for Lent.”
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Here is a short list of prayer resources available from store.ancientfaith.com. Also, if you try an Internet search for “Orthodox Christian prayer books,” you can find many other resources, including free prayer services to print out.
Akathist to the Mother of God: Nurturer of Children
Hear Me: A Prayer Book for Orthodox Young Adults
The Ancient Faith Prayer Book
My Orthodox Prayer Book