The Church Fathers on Prayer

We recently looked together at the Lord’s Prayer. That is such an important prayer, one of many prayers that we Orthodox Christians should pray regularly, or “without ceasing,” according to St. Paul in 1 Thess. 5:17. We all know that we should pray, and that we should do so continually. But in this busy era, how can we actually do that? What is the best way for us to pray? What should we pray for when we pray? Why is prayer so important? This week we will glimpse at the answer to those questions by studying the words of the Church Fathers. Although they were alive on earth in different time periods, all of them successfully lived Christian lives in a world that flew in the face of their faith. We can benefit from their wisdom, if we take a moment to ponder their words. May these words encourage us each to examine our own prayers. Better yet, may we apply them, begin to actually pray more, and lead our children to do so, as well!

How can we pray without ceasing?

“The other day one of our skete schema-monks came to see me. ‘I’ve fallen into despondency, Abba, since I don’t see in myself- in one who bears the exalted angelic habit- a change for the better. The Lord calls one strictly to account if he’s a monk or schema-monk only according to his clothing. But how can I change? How can I die to sin? I sense my total feebleness.’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘we’re absolutely bankrupt, and if the Lord judges according to works, He will find nothing good in us.’

‘But is there hope for salvation then?’

‘Of course there is. Always say the Jesus Prayer, and leave everything to the will of God.’

‘But what kind of benefit can there be from this prayer if neither the mind nor the heart participates in it?’

‘Enormous benefit. Of course, this prayer has many subdivisions, from simple utterance to creative prayer. But for us, even if we were to be on the bottom step, it would be salvific. The powers of the enemy run from one who utters this prayer, and sooner or later he’ll be saved all the same.’

‘I’ve been resurrected!’ the schema-monk exclaimed. ‘I won’t be despondent anymore.’

And so I repeat: say the prayer, even if only with your lips, and the Lord will never abandon you.” Elder Barsanuphius of Optina

Peaceful, night-time prayer is of great assistance with its calmness and is also more efficacious for our spiritual development, just as the silent, night-time rain is of great benefit to growing plants.”  Saint (Elder) Paisios of the Holy Mountain Athos

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What is the best way for us to pray?

“Prayer consisting of words alone does not help if the heart does not participate in prayer. God hears only a fervent prayer. Abba Zoilus of Thebaid was once returning from Mt. Sinai and met a monk who complained to him, that they are suffering much from drought in the monastery. Zoilus said to him: ‘Why don’t you pray and implore God?’ The monk replied: ‘We have prayed and have implored, but there is no rain.’ To this, Zoilus replied: ‘It is evident that you are not praying fervently. Do you want to be convinced that it is so?’ Having said this, the elder raised his hands to heaven and prayed. Abundant rain fell to the earth. Seeing this, the astonished monk fell to the ground and bowed before the elder, but the elder, fearing the glory of men, quickly fled. The Lord Himself said: ‘Ask and it will be given you’ (St. Luke 11:9). In vain are mouths full of prayer if the heart is empty. God does not stand and listen to the mouth but to the heart. Let the heart be filled with prayer even though the mouth might be silent. God will hear and will receive the prayer. For God only listens to a fervent prayer.” – Saint Nikolai Velimirovich

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“Prayer should not depend upon our mood or good will.  If we are in a bad state, it’s because we are filled with sin.  Thus, we need to repent.  Every day, examine your conscience and repent.  Force yourself to pray regularly every day.  If you don’t want to do that, then you need to repent of that.  You must understand how necessary this is.   Know that the devil lurks and waits to destroy your soul, and that you are always in danger.  Prayer alone will give your soul the strength to resist.  In order to acquire spiritual muscles, you have to go to the spiritual gym.”  – Elder Sergei of Vanves

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“If we want to ask a favor of any person of power, we presume not to approach but with humility and respect.  How much more ought we to address ourselves to the Lord and God of all things with a humble and entire devotion?  We are not to imagine that our prayers shall be heard because we use many words, but because the heart is pure and the spirit penitent.” – St. Benedict of Nursia

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“If you wish to learn how to pray, keep your gaze fixed on the end of …prayer.  The end is adoration, contrition of the heart, love of neighbor.  It is self-evident that lustful thoughts, whisperings of slander, hatred of one’s neighbor, and similar things are opposed to it.  All this is incompatible with the work of prayer.” – The Blessed Callistus, Patriarch

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“Purity of prayer is silence from the converse of bodily thoughts, and the uninterrupted movement of the things which give delight to the soul.” – Saint Isaac of Nineveh

What should we pray for when we pray?

“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God.  But pray as you have been taught, saying: ‘Thy will be done in me’ (cf. Lk 22: 42).  Always entreat Him in this way  –  that His will be done.  For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.” – Evagrios the Solitary (Ponticus)

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“Let us be mutually mindful of one another, of one heart and one mind.  Let us ever pray for one another, and by mutual love lighten our burdens and difficulties.  And if one of us should, by the swiftness of divine action, depart from here first, let our love continue in the presence of the Lord.  Let not prayer for our brothers and sisters cease in the presence of the mercy of the Father.”  – St. Cyprian of Carthage

Why is prayer so important?

The first condition for the attainment of true prayer is a fervent desire to be saved and be pleasing to God, a readiness to sacrifice all for the sake of God and the salvation of one’s soul. As Bishop Theophan the Recluse states: Consider prayer to be the first and foremost duty in your life and as such keep it in your heart. Go about your prayers as to the fulfillment of your primary duty, and not as to something to be done between tasks.” http://www.antiochianarch.org.au/OrthodoxPrayer.aspx

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“Amidst the racket and ridicule of people my prayer rises toward You, O my King and my Kingdom.  
Prayer is incense that ceaselessly censes my soul and raises it toward You, and draws You toward her.  Stoop down, my King, so that I may whisper to You my most precious secret, my most secret prayer, my most prayerful desire.  You are the object of all my prayers, all my searching, I seek nothing except You, truly only You.” – Saint Nikolai (Velimirovich)

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“Oh, what great happiness and bliss, what exaltation it is to address oneself to the Eternal Father. Always, without fail, value this joy which has been accorded to you by God’s infinite grace and do not forget it during your prayers; God, the angels and God’s holy men listen to you.”  – St. John of Kronstadt

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