Prayer - the Breath of the Soul
Prayer - the Breath of the Soul
by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
What is prayer?
Food and rest are essential to sustain human life;
knowledge, art, and culture in general enrich the mental capabilities of men,
but only prayer reveals and expands our spiritual faculties.
God loves all His creations, and in particular He loves each of us since He is our Heavenly Father.
As it is natural for children to want to see and converse with their parents, so it should also be natural and pleasant for us to converse with our Heavenly Father and to want to be in spiritual communion with Him.
This conversation with God is called prayer. The soul, while uniting with God in prayer, simultaneously is united with the whole spiritual world — with the angels and saints.
According to Saint John of Kronstadt,
“Prayer is a golden bond of the Christian — a stranger and wanderer on earth — with the spiritual world of which he is a part, and even more so with God, the source of life.”
Prayer is frequently accompanied by devout words and other outward signs of piety: the sign of the Cross, kneeling, prostration, etc.
But prayer can also be offered without words, and without other external manifestations:
This is the inner or hidden prayer of a pious soul, which is familiar through experience to many earnest Christians.
Types of prayer
During prayer a Christian pours out his soul before God: he glorifies Him for His great perfection, thanks Him for His mercy and goodness, and makes requests for his needs.
Hence there are 3 main forms of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, and petition.
Praise (Doxology) — is the most perfect and selfless type of prayer.
The more pure and blameless a person is, the more the perfection of God is reflected in him, and through this he involuntarily calls forth happy words of praise and glory.
Thus the angels in the heavens unceasingly glorify God in hymns.
“Praise,” says Bishop Theophan the Recluse, “is not an indifferent contemplation of God's attributes, but a living experience of them, full of joy and exaltation.”
Thanksgiving is sent up to God for all the good things received from Him. It arises naturally in a grateful and sensitive soul.
God is merciful to all of us, but not many of us remember to thank Him. Out of the 10 lepers healed by our Saviour, only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank Him (Luke 17:12-17).
The most widespread form of prayer is petition, offered in acknowledgment of our weaknesses, infirmities, and lack of experience.
Because of sins and passions, our souls become weak and sick.
Therefore, it is essential in prayer to ask God to forgive us and help us to overcome our faults. Sometimes requests are made because of an impending danger hanging over us, a need, etc.
Petition in prayer is inevitable in view of our weakness and is readily accepted by the all-merciful Lord (Matt. 7:7; John 16:23).
But if our prayer has only a predominant character of request, if the voice of praise and thanksgiving is almost unheard, this indicates poor development of our spiritual life.
Often these various forms of prayer become combined in one:
A person begs the Lord about his needs and simultaneously praises Him for His greatness and goodness and thanks Him for being able to fearlessly address Him as to his merciful Father.
The most festive hymns of praise in the Church frequently turn into compounded petitions (“Glory to God in the highest,” “We praise Thee, O God”),
and sometimes the opposite:
tearful prayers to God for help resolve into a sublime harmony of grateful thanks and praise. Many Psalms reflect this type, for example, Psalms 146, 148, and others.
How we should pray
When praying, it is important to turn away from our usual cares and preoccupations, collect our scattered thoughts, as if closing the door of the soul against all that is worldly, and direct all our attention towards God.
Placing oneself before the face of God and bringing to mind His greatness, one who prays must necessarily recognize his unworthiness and spiritual poverty:
“While praying one should imagine all creation as nothing compared to God, and only God as everything” (St. John of Kronstadt).
An edifying example of the proper attitude of prayer was given by our Saviour in the parable regarding the publican who was justified by God for his humility (Luke 18:1-14).
Christian humility does not cause depression or hopelessness. On the contrary, it is linked with firm faith in the goodness and omnipotence of the Heavenly Father.
Only prayer of faith is accepted by God, as we read in the Gospel:
“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).
Warmed by faith, a Christian's prayer is very powerful.
The Christian remembers the command of Jesus Christ that it is necessary to pray always and not lose heart (Luke 18:1), and His promise:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
The Gospel has many examples of the great power of prayer:
the Canaanite woman who begged the Lord to heal her daughter (Matt.15:21-28), the defenceless widow who persuaded the unjust judge to take her side (Luke 18:5-8 and others).
One should not despair if his prayer is not answered immediately: this is a test, not a refusal.
“This is why the Lord said `knock,' to show that if He does not open the doors of His mercy immediately, we should nevertheless remain waiting with the light of hope” (St. John Chrysostom).
The true Christian will continue his prayer with uninterrupted effort until he convinces the Lord, and until he calls down upon himself His mercy,
like the Old Testament patriarch Jacob who said to the stranger wrestling with him, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!” (Gen. 32:26) and indeed he received God's blessing.
Because the Lord is our Heavenly Father, we are all brothers:
He will answer our prayer only when we have a true, brotherly, benevolent relationship with each other, when we have vanquished all strife and enmity and have shrouded all offenses with forgiveness and made peace with everyone.
“Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).
What to ask for?
Regarding how to pray, St. Isaac the Syrian writes:
The greatest teacher of prayer is our Saviour. Prayer accompanies all the important events of His earthly life:
The Lord prayed, receiving baptism from John (Luke 3:21).
He spent the whole night praying before He chose the Apostles (Luke 6:12).
He prayed during the Transfiguration (Luke 22:41).
He prayed on the Cross. The very last word before His death was a prayer (Luke 23:46).
Being impressed by the inspiring image of the praying Saviour, one of His disciples turned to Him with the request: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
And in answer to this Jesus Christ gave the prayer, short in form, but rich in content, that wonderful, incomparable prayer which to this day unifies the whole Christian world, the “Our Father,” the Lord's Prayer.
This prayer teaches us about what and in what order to pray:
Having turned to God, “Our Father,” we acknowledge ourselves to be His children, and in relation to each other, brothers, and, therefore, we pray not only for ourselves but for all people.
With the petition “Hallowed be Thy name,” we ask that His name might be holy for all people, that everyone might glorify the name of God by their words and deeds.
“Thy Kingdom come.” The kingdom of God begins within the believer, when the grace of God, having filled him, cleanses and transfigures his inner world.
Simultaneously, grace unites everyone, people and angels, into one great spiritual family called the Kingdom of God or the Church.
For the good to be spread among people, one should ask:
“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven;” that is, that everything in the world should be done according to the all-good, all-wise will of God, and that people should as diligently fulfil the will of God on the earth as the angels do it in heaven.
“Give us this day our daily bread;” give us today all that is necessary for our daily sustenance.
What will happen to us tomorrow we don't know; we need only our “daily bread,” i.e., every day that which is necessary to sustain our existence.
“And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
These words are explained by St. Luke who states them thus:
“And forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4) — our sins become our debts because in sinning we fail in our duty and become debtors before God and man.
This petition with special emphasis admonishes us to forgive our neighbour for all offenses. Having refused to forgive others, we dare not ask God to forgive us our sins and say the words of the Lord's Prayer.
“And lead us not into temptation” — a test of our moral powers by means of an inclination towards some sinful act. Here we ask God to protect us from falling into sin if such a test is necessary.
“But deliver us from the evil one” — from every evil and the cause of evil, the devil.
The prayer finishes with the assurance of fulfilment of our request, for to God belongs an eternal kingdom, power, and glory.
Thus the Lord's Prayer, unifying within itself all for which it is necessary to pray, teaches us to place in proper order all our personal desires and necessities.
First we must ask for the highest good — for God's glory, for the spreading of good among people and the salvation of our souls, and only then we make requests for our daily needs.
In relation to our requests “Let us not teach Him how He should help us,” says St. John Chrysostom.
“If we discuss our business with those who defend us before the judges, and leave the way of defence up to them, all the more should we act likewise in relation to God. He knows well enough what is beneficial to you.”
Besides this, we should completely deliver ourselves to the Lord's will: Thy will be done!
An example of such a prayer has been left to us by the Saviour Himself. In the garden of Gethsemane He prayed:
“O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me,” and immediately added: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).
When to pray?
The apostle Paul teaches us: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
It is necessary to pray during those bright, exalted moments when the soul experiences a visitation from above and soars towards heaven and feels a need for prayer.
It is necessary as well to pray at all other times assigned for prayer (in the mornings and evenings) even though we are not in the mood to pray. Otherwise, the ability to pray will be lost, just us an old iron key rusts when it is not used.
For our soul to preserve a pious freshness, it is necessary to set as a goal to pray regularly, despite the fact that we might or might not be inclined to.
Orthodox Christians pray daily in the morning, after awakening, and in the evening before going to bed. We should also pray at the beginning and the end of every important work. In this respect a prayer book is a necessary companion.
Besides private prayer at home, there is another form of communal prayer, performed in church. Concerning this prayer the Lord said:
“Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
Since apostolic times the most essential public prayer has been the Liturgy, performed in churches on Sundays, in which the believers with one heart praise God. The public worship carries with it a great spiritual power.
The fruits of prayer
Prayer, like a farmer, ploughs the field of our heart and makes it capable of receiving heavenly blessings and bringing forth fruits of virtues and perfection. Prayer attracts into our hearts the grace of the Holy Spirit, thus strengthening our faith, hope, and love. It illuminates our minds, directs our will to do good, consoles the heart in sorrow and suffering, and, in general, gives us everything that serves our true welfare.
Prayer, according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, is “the breath of the soul” and is a great blessing to us all.
The ability to pray with due concentration and with the whole heart, or to have the gift of prayer, is one of the most precious spiritual gifts. The merciful God endows a person with this ability as a reward for his diligence in prayer.