About this content: What 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.
How Should We Pray?
- Prayer by definition is:
- asking for something to be done
- True Christian prayer is asking that God’s will be done.
- Christian prayer results in living and actions according to the will of God.
- Christian prayer should be constant, continuous and unceasing.
- Church Tradition includes both fixed times for prayer and unceasing prayer.
- Fixed times are dedicated, quiet and uninterrupted times of prayer.
- Unceasing prayer occurs throughout the day, even during activities.
- No two people pray the same way.
- Our rule is to pray as we are able, as possible, as inspired; do not pray “as we ought”.
- Praying “as we are able” does not mean “pray any way we want” or “pray any way we feel like”.
- There is such a thing as wrong, unblessed prayer that God does not hear and certain ways of prayer can even be insulting to God if we persist in them.
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
- To pray as an Orthodox Christian, you must be:
- active in the liturgical life of the Church
- regularly confessing to a spiritual father
- regularly communing (partaking of the Eucharist)
- making sincere effort to observe the appointed fast and feast days throughout the Church calendar year.
- reading the Scriptures
- desiring to do the will of God
- active in the liturgical life of the Church
- It is recommended to seek guidance from your spiritual father to check your prayer rule [especially when beginning to pray].
- Don’t discuss your prayer rule with most people, it is typically a private, intimate matter discussed with your spiritual father and maybe a spouse.
- Your spiritual father does not have to be someone you like, but you can pray for one. There is a saying… “when the disciple is ready, the master appears”.
- Our Teachers of Prayer according to the Tradition are as follows:
- First teacher of prayer is the Holy Scriptures [the Bible]
- The Church Fathers [Apostolic, Ante-Nicene, Nicene, Post-Nicene, Desert, etc.] are second to teach us about prayer
- The Saints are third to teach us about prayer
- Any good spiritual teacher knows the real Teacher is the Lord Jesus, and that they are just facilitating His teaching.
- The goal of the spiritual father is to lead the spiritual child to pray as they should and then the spiritual father is needed less and less.
- St John Climacus says we must have humility and courage first, then God will teach us to pray.
- To remain steadfast in prayer is blood to the end.
- God will not leave a person who has courage and humility to pray.
- Keep asking, seeking and knocking.
- Desire to be taught by God, not your spiritual father.
How Do We “close the door” and Begin to Pray?
- Our intention is to do the will of God.
- Any words or silence have to be to want what God wants.
- Pray the Lord’s Prayer, which includes “Your will be done…”.
- Don’t heap up empty phrases.
- We don’t need many words or rhetoric.
- We are not trying to impress God with our eloquence [as if we could!].
- Most importantly, we need a pure heart that desires God’s will.
- Say what we believe to be God’s will and then entreat God’s will.
- Our asking should always be what we are convinced God is doing anyway.
- Remember God is good and doing the best that He can for us.
- Remember God is doing good regardless if we ask, but prayer is to ask God for what we are convinced that He is giving us anyway.
- Prayer is uniting our mind with God’s mind.
- The most used petitionary prayer in the Tradition is “Lord have mercy”.
- We pray “Lord have mercy” hundreds of times in Orthodox services.
- Monologia is prayer of a single word.
- “Lord have mercy” is also Orthodox dogma because the Lord does have mercy [and perfectly so].
- God has mercy on everyone whether they ask for it or not.
- The Protestant Calvinist notion of “particular atonement” is not an Orthodox Christian teaching. Christ died for everyone (John 3:16), but not everyone accepts the salvation and healing that He offers.
- Whether we like it or not, God is merciful.
- “Lord have mercy” means “we want what You want, and we know You are merciful, therefore, Lord have mercy!”
- Amen means “so be it” to what God is doing, it means we agree.
- Jesus is our “Amen” to the Father.
- Hallelujah means “praise the Lord!”.
- We proclaim “Glory to God!” in our prayers and in our daily lives as we respond to things that happen in life.
- We have the Trisagion prayer, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal”.
- We have the “Lord’s Prayer” also known as the “Our Father” which sums up best what we are to pray for.
- The law of prayer shows how one believes.
- How a Church prays shows how it believes.
- In the Gospel of Luke 11:1-13, the the disciples of the Lord asked Him “teach us to pray”, and Jesus taught them the “Our Father“.
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom
and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
– Matthew 6:9-13
How can We Pray and be Right with God?
- We should pray the Our Father.
- The Our Father is the heart of any rule of prayer.
- The Our Father is prayed seven times per day in the monastery.
- The Our Father is constantly prayed throughout history by Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians alike.
- The Our Father is always prayed before Holy Communion.
- The Our Father is the MAIN address to God for Christians.
- Every prayer must be informed by the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father).
- Every [sound Christian] prayer is either an abbreviation or elaboration of the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father).
- Any wordless, non-verbalized prayer must still be in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father).
- The Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) is the rule of prayer for Christians.
- A pure heart is only interested in what the Lord’s will is and asks for the Kingdom of Heaven.
- The gospel accounts in Luke 11 and Matthew 6 of the “Our Father” are not identical.
- The Our Father and the Jesus Prayer words themselves are not sacrosanct – but they do rightly [guide] the intention of the heart which is what matters to God.
- St John Climacus teaches that prayers can be short, even without words.
- The thief on the cross said “remember me in your kingdom” and was saved.
- The Publican simply said “Lord be merciful to me a sinner” and was forgiven.
- The Canaanite woman said nothing but simply touched the hem of the Lord’s garment and was healed.
- Zaccheus the publican even looked at Christ and was saved.
“Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
– Mark 11:24
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.
– John 14:12-14
“No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another.”
– John 15:15-17
“Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
– John 16:22-24
- True Christian prayer can only happen if one is believing (i.e. has faith).
- If you are asking for something “in Jesus name”, then you already have qualifications for what you will legitimately ask for and the things you will not ask for.
- “Ask in my name” does not mean to add “in Jesus name” to end of every prayer like Protestants practice in the West, rather this means to pray for whatever conforms with the reality of Jesus.
- Whatever is asked for in conformity with Christ, you will have it.
- The Gospel of Matthew chapter 6 clearly teaches us how to pray:
- The Our Father (v5-14)
- What should we pray for? (v25-34)
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
– Matthew 6:25-34
- Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, then you will have your requests [that your already Father knows you need].
- The only petition that can be asked “in Jesus Name” is the Kingdom of God. All other things are added if truly needed for our benefit and are provided already.
- Do not pray for food, clothes, long life and health – rather pray for the Kingdom of God.
- St John Cassian comments on Lord’s prayer:
- [Do not] petition for riches, honor, power, might, bodily health and temporal life.
- [Do not] ask for temporal things.
- [Do not] incur indignation by pettiness of prayer.
- St Isaac of Syria‘s Third Treatise on the Behavior of Excellence:
- Pray properly.
- Esteem God as worthy of glorious.
- Seek from God what is really valuable.
- The honor of the King is diminished when asking for contemptible things.
- We can insult the King when we ask for things that He gives to us anyways.
- Seek first the Kingdom of God.
- If God is slow to act, do not be distressed, you are not wiser than God.
- Shut your eyes to the things of this world then you will gain the peace of God.
What about Prayer for Healing, Unction and Many Years?
- Hannah prayed for child, the Lord heard her and gave her Samuel.
- The Lord’s Prayer is the center of the Christian prayer rule.
- Tradition and the lives of saints testify – be careful what you pray for, and it is always better to leave it up to the Lord.
- You must leave room that God has another idea, pray “nevertheless, Your will be done”.
- Make your honest desires known to God [for He already knows what you desire and what you need].
- First seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, then all other requests will follow according to the will of God.
What About the Parable of Persistent Prayer?
“Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’ ” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”
– Luke 18:1-8
- The “Unjust Judge” in this parable does not teach that God is unjust, rather it teaches us that God will not leave His chosen ones unvindicated, because God is vindicating even before He is asked.
Keep Asking, Seeking and Knocking
“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
– Luke 11:9-13
- If evil parents give good gifts to their children, how much more will your Father in heaven?
- God does not just give His children food for the body, but He gives us the Holy Spirit to nourish our souls.
Mature Prayer Results in Less Words
- Macarius the Great prayed like this:
- “..as You know and as You will, have mercy on me.”
- if [spiritual warfare] was fierce, St Macarius simply prayed “help”.
- [We need to be careful what we pray for, because] God may give us what we ask for to teach us a lesson, ultimately caring for us in His good providence.
- What about praying for every day things like business improvements, sports teams, parking places?
- The Tradition says God is kind, but we have to ask ourselves”is that the level we should be on”?
- Is there more to life than those things?
- [Are these the things we should be praying for if we are seeking first the Kingdom of God?]
- Seek first the Kingdom of God and the things that you need will be added – not necessarily the things that you want.
- St Paul prayed three times to God to have his “thorn in the flesh” removed, but God’s answer was “My grace is suffficient”. (II Corinthians 12:7-10)
- Our Lord said, a sinful and adulterous generation seeks a sign (Mark 8).
- It is better to live a longer life, Lord willing, so that one has more time to repent.
- Suffering born to the glory of God is a more effective witness than even healing.
- The saints did not pray to be healed, rather they prayed [in faith, hope and love in Christ] for death.
- If our main goal is health and physical well-being, then this contradicts the fact that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Seek first the Kingdom of God and it righteousness.
- In each and every case of every Christian martyr, God did not save His saints from physical death.
- Sometimes a saint would live longer on earth, sometimes shorter but all of this was in the [mysterious] providence of God.
- The providence of God is much more complicated and mysterious than petitionary prayer and earthly blessings.
- Real perfection in spiritual life and in petitionary prayer is found in one who has faith, hope and love in God without human consolation, or when no earthly gift of blessing is given.
- God will lead us eventually in this direction, maybe not at first, but eventually it is part of “growing up” spiritually.
- St Symeon the New Theologian defined theosis as “co-crucifixion with Christ”.
- “Pure prayer” goes beyond specific petitions and words and is mystical union with God.
- The Tradition does have prayers for healing like Holy Unction, but healing is not always guaranteed, rather we pray for God’s will to be done even in the midst of illness and disease.
- Tradition says pray the Lord’s Prayer, not what you want.
- Never begin prayer in your own words. Always begin with the Lord’s Prayer and then eventually go on to your specific petitions in your own words if need be.
As one matures in prayer, petitions become less specific, more spiritual and include less words. Prayer becomes more trusting God in everything and asking nothing.