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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • Orthodox worship: Feasts, fasts, and private prayer
      • Private prayer
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Private prayer

When an Orthodox thinks of prayer, he thinks primarily of public liturgical prayer. The corporate

worship of the Church plays a far larger part in his religious experience than in that of the

average western Christian. Of course this does not mean that Orthodox never pray except when

in church: on the contrary, there exist special Manuals with daily prayers to be said by all Orthodox,

morning and evening, before the icons in their own homes. But the prayers in these Manuals

are taken for the most part directly from the Service Books used in public worship, so that even

in his own home an Orthodox is still praying with the Church; even in his own home he is still

joined in fellowship with all the other Orthodox Christians who are praying in the same words as

he. ‘Personal prayer is possible only in the context of the community. Nobody is a Christian by

himself, but only as a member of the body. Even in solitude, “in the chamber,” a Christian prays

as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church. And it is in the Church that he learns

his devotional practice’ (G. Florovsky, Prayer Private and Corporate (‘Ologospublications, Saint Louis), p.

3). And just as there is in Orthodox spirituality no separation between liturgy and private devotion,

so there is no separation between monks and those living in the world; the prayers in the

Manuals used by the laity are the very prayers which the monastic communities recite daily in

church as part of the Divine Office. Husbands and wives are following the same Christian way as

monks and nuns, and so all alike use the same prayers. Naturally the Manuals are only intended

as a guide and a framework of prayer; and each Christian is also free to pray spontaneously and

in his own words.

The directions at the start and conclusion of the morning prayers emphasize the need for

recollection, for a living prayer to the Living God. At the beginning it is said: ‘When you wake

up, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the sign of

the Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Having

invoked the Holy Trinity, keep silence for a little, so that your thoughts and feelings may be

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freed from worldly cares. Then recite the following prayers without haste, and with your whole

heart.’

And at the conclusion of the morning prayers a note states: ‘If the time at disposal is short,

and the need to begin work is pressing, it is better to say only a few of the prayers suggested,

with attention and devotion, rather than to recite them all in haste and without due concentration.’

There is also a note in the morning prayers, encouraging everyone to read the Epistle and

Gospel appointed daily for the Liturgy.

By way of example let us take two prayers from the Manual, the first a prayer for the beginning

of the day, written by Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow:

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon

Thy holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Thy 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 Thy 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

Thee. 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, pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.

And these are a few clauses from the general intercession with which the night prayers close:

Forgive, O Lord, lover of men, those who hate and wrong us. Reward our benefactors.

Grant to our brethren and friends all that they ask for their salvation and eternal life. Visit

and heal the sick. Free the prisoners. Guide those at sea. Travel with those who travel ....

On those who charge us in our unworthiness to pray for them, have mercy according to

Thy great mercy. Remember, O Lord, our departed parents and brethren and give them

rest where shines the light of Thy face

There is one type of private prayer, widely used in the west since the time of the Counter-

Reformation, which has never been a feature of Orthodox spirituality — the formalMeditation,’

made according to a ‘Method’ — the Ignatian, the Sulpician, the Salesian, or some other.

Orthodox are encouraged to read the Bible or the Fathers slowly and thoughtfully; but such an

exercise, while regarded as altogether excellent, is not considered to constitute prayer, nor has it

been systematized and reduced to a ‘Method.’ Each is urged to read in the way that he finds most

helpful.

But while Orthodox do not practise discursive Meditation, there is another type of personal

prayer which has for many centuries played an extraordinarily important part in the life of Orthodoxy

— the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Since it is sometimes said that Orthodox do not pay sufficient attention to the person of the Incarnate

Christ, it is worth pointing out that this — surely the most classic of all Orthodox prayers

— is essentially a Christo-centric prayer, a prayer addressed to and concentrated upon the Lord

Jesus. Those brought up in the tradition of the Jesus Prayer are never allowed for one moment to

forget the Incarnate Christ.

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As a help in reciting this prayer many Orthodox use a rosary, differing somewhat in structure

from the western rosary; an Orthodox rosary is often made of wool, so that unlike a string of

beads it makes no noise.

The Jesus Prayer is a prayer of marvelous versatility. It is a prayer for beginners, but equally

a prayer that leads to the deepest mysteries of the contemplative life. It can be used by anyone, at

any time, in any place: standing in queues, walking, traveling on buses or trains; when at work;

when unable to sleep at night; at times of special anxiety when it is impossible to concentrate

upon other kinds of prayer. But while of course every Christian can use the Prayer at odd moments

in this way, it is a different matter to recite it more or less continually and to use the

physical exercises which have become associated with it. Orthodox spiritual writers insist that

those who use the Jesus Prayer systematically should, if possible, place themselves under the

guidance of an experienced director and do nothing on their own initiative.

For some there comes a time when the Jesus Prayerenters into the heart,’ so that it is no

longer recited by a deliberate effort, but recites itself spontaneously, continuing even when a man

talks or writes, present in his dreams, waking him up in the morning. In the words of Saint Isaac

the Syrian: ‘When the Spirit takes its dwelling-place in a man he does not cease to pray, because

the Spirit will constantly pray in him. Then, neither when he sleeps, nor when he is awake, will

prayer be cut off from his soul; but when he eats and when he drinks, when he lies down or when

he does any work, even when he is immersed in sleep, the perfumes of prayer will breathe in his

heart spontaneously(Mystic Treatises, edited by Wensinck, p. 174).

Orthodox believe that the power of God is present in the Name of Jesus, so that the invocation

of this Divine Name acts ‘as an effective sign of God’s action, as a sort of sacrament’ (Un

Moine de lÉglise dOrient, La Priére de Jésus, Chevetogne, 1952, p. 87). ‘The Name of Jesus, present in the

human heart, communicates to it the power of deification ... Shining through the heart, the light

of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe’ (S. Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, pp. 170-171).

Alike to those who recite it continually and to those who only employ it occasionally, the

Jesus Prayer proves a great source of reassurance and joy. To quote the Pilgrim: ‘And that is how

I go about now, and ceaselessly repeat the Prayer of Jesus, which is more precious and sweet to

me than anything in the world. At times I do as much as 43 or 44 miles a day, and do not feel

that I am walking at all. I am aware only of the fact that I am saying my Prayer. When the bitter

cold pierces me, I begin to say my Prayer more earnestly, and I quickly become warm all over.

When hunger begins to overcome me, I call more often on the Name of Jesus, and I forget my

wish for food. When I fall ill and get rheumatism in my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on the

Prayer, and do not notice the pain. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the

Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all ... I thank God

that I now understand the meaning of those words I heard in the Epistle — “Pray without ceasing

(1 Thes. 5:17)’ (The Way of a Pilgrim, p. 17-18).




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