Prayer Spirituality

The Goal of Prayer Pt 3

“There is nothing you substitute for prayer in this Tradition.”

– Fr Thomas Hopko

About this contentWhat follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”.  With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have  a sincere longing for God. 

With Man This is Impossible…

  • The methods of prayer in the Christian Tradition are rather simple, but the [associated] terror of it – the devils, the temptations and what we are called to [in the life of prayer] is not only hard, difficult and impractical, but strictly speaking, according to the Scripture, it is impossible.
  • When Jesus was preaching and Peter said “Lord, who can do as you teach?” [Jesus] didn’t say “…it’s possible, just try harder Peter”, rather He says in the text “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible“.
  • In other words, the life that we are called to live – if we pray – is literally speaking impossible.
  • A person cannot humanly do it [without God]. It only becomes even possible by divine grace, by the Holy Spirit, by God.
  • This activity of divine grace is found within the Church, within the care of the Church, the teaching of the Church, the instruction of the Church, the wisdom of the Church and the guidance of the Church.

True Prayer is Grounded in the Church

  • St. Ignatius Branchaninov spends the first 40 pages of The Arena, instructing professed monks that the Gospel is their main book and unless they are willing to follow the grace of God, and to open themselves to the Spirit and be obedient to the Church Tradition… they better not even read the Church Fathers…a Christian must first be rooted in the Bible, be rooted in the words of the Lord, be rooted in the Divine Liturgy, and only then within that context can a person do the Jesus Prayer…
  • It is a historical fact that the Jesus Prayer was forbidden in Russia…because there was actually a heresy connected to the name of Jesus…where people thought that by praying the Jesus Prayer they became equal to the angels and there was power in the words themselves. [This is] total madness.
  • When Peter preached at Pentecost and the voice in the crowd said, “What then should I do?” Peter didn’t say “get chotki and start breathing”… rather he said “repent, believe, be baptized”.
  • Once they repented, they changed their minds, they believed, they were baptized, they entered the Church, only then did they continue in…”the teaching of the apostles”.
  • Entering the Church meant accepting a concrete doctrine that was the context of their prayer, [and being a part of] the communion or the community.
  • There was…the “breaking of bread” which meant the Eucharist at that time – you were part of a Eucharistic assembly…and they devoted themselves, they continued in the prayers they were given, prayers that were already there, many from the Old Testament.

“Now the point is this: Anyone who is going to practice personal prayer according to this Tradition, with the techniques, and all the methods and the rules and so on, does so in the context of Repentance, belief, Baptism, the Apostolic doctrine, the community, the Eucharist and the prayers that are given; and if you’re not in that context, technically speaking these books aren’t going to help you but they are going to hinder you.”

Essentials are not Substitutes

  • Beside actual liturgical participation, there are other things considered to be essential to the practice of personal prayer:
    • Striving to fulfill the commandments of God
    • Striving to fulfill the ethical teachings of the Church
    • Striving to fulfill the spiritual teachings of the Church

One has to struggle to keep the Commandments – this is absolutely essential for a person who prays, because that’s what you’re praying for…

  • What is necessary to [be a part of] the Communion of the Church?
    • Living the life of the liturgy as given in the Church and commanded by God
    • Celebrating the Lord’s Day
    • Being prepared for Holy Communion
    • Participating in the Holy Sacraments
    • Confessing sin which is part of the Church’s teaching; including public acknowledgement of sin (a person who is not confessing his sins is not going to be able to pray properly)
    • Hearing the Word of God,
    • Reading the Word of God (if you are not reading, you will not pray properly)
    • Some type of meditation in silence is necessary
    • Day-to-day struggle to keep the commandments
  • Prayer is a conscious act that’s done all the time everywhere in order to fulfill one’s humanity, but it is not the same as liturgy
  • The liturgy encompasses much more than only the conscious act of prayer
  • Liturgy includes the gathering, hymnography and singing
  • St. Ambrose said “he who sings prays twice”.
  • Yet singing songs and praying are two different things, so you should pray when you sing songs, but how does the song singing function in the spiritual life and its relationship to prayer?
Psalmody, Reading, Contemplation,
Meditation and Good Works
  • Psalmody [singing the Psalms] is a very important part of the Christian tradition of prayer and the teaching would be that every Christian should Psalmodize.
  • When you go to Church, you sing Psalms [throughout] the Liturgy as celebrated by the Orthodox Church.
  • The entire Psalter is sung once a week in a monastery
  • Nevertheless Psalm singing and prayer are two different things
  • You should pray when you sing Psalms and Psalm singing will help very definitely in our prayer, but they are not the same thing.
  • The claim is that if anyone’s going to pray consciously in the specific sense of prayer, they’ve got to have some Psalmody in their life…and the more intense their personal prayer, very often the more intense their Psalmody, it kind of goes together.
  • Reading is not praying. To read is one thing and to pray is another thing.
  • According to the Tradition people [that] are avid readers very often struggle with prayer because they are too interested in reading about it, and they think that reading about it is it. It’s not.
  • Contemplation and prayer are not the same thing.
  • Practicing some type of silent meditation and praying are two different things.
  • There is a teaching also that good works are essential to prayer, and that’s true. Unless a person is striving to do well, to do good, then they’re not going to pray properly.
  • To work is not to pray though and you certainly can’t substitute work for prayer.

There are many things that have to be done together with the act of personal prayer. Many things: liturgical participation, psalmody, meditation, reading, contemplation and good works but none of them are prayer by themselves and none of them may be substituted for prayer.

  • There is nothing you substitute for prayer in this Tradition.
  • Everything you do, you do with prayer.
  • Prayers accompany everything. When you meditate, you pray, when you do good works, pray, when you read, you pray, when you do liturgy, you pray, when you contemplate, you pray, when you sleep, you pray, when you eat, you pray, when you walk, you pray, when you die, you pray.

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