Christian Practice, Theology

What Is Prayer?

Published on: April 14, 2020
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Man praying

“Heartful thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King.” So writes St John Climacus, seventh-century abbot of Mount Sinai, in his classic work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. I do not think that he intended to lay down an inflexible rule to which no exceptions could be allowed. It was rather his purpose to indicate the usual pattern, the normal sequence, to be followed in our practice of prayer. Thanksgiving, repentance, petition: such is the basic and primary succession that we should envisage.

To many it might seem that to pray is essentially to ask God for something, to bringing before Him the distress and the needs of others and ourselves. Alternatively, some of us might imagine that prayer should begin with an act of repentance. But this is not the perspective adopted by Climacus. On the contrary, before bringing before Christ the suffering and pain of the world, and before looking downward at our own ugliness and failings, we should look upwards at the beauty and glory of God. All too often our prayer can take the form of grumbling before God, of complaining and expressing regret. But that, so Climacus assures us, is not true prayer.

It is significant that in the Divine Liturgy we do not commence with an act of penitence but with a proclamation of the kingly rule of the Holy Trinity: “Blessed is the Kingdom of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Only after receiving a glimpse of this heavenly Kingdom can we then begin to repent as we should. In prayer we should start not with our own neediness but with the divine plenitude. The same priority is to be found in the daily prayers that we say at home each morning and evening. After the opening invocation “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” it is customary to continue: “Glory to You, O God, glory to You.” Thanksgiving, doxology, are where we start. As St John of Kronsdtadt used to say, “Prayer is a state of continual gratitude.”

This pattern of prayer, with thanksgiving and doxology in the first place, is to be found also in the cycle of liturgical prayer throughout the twenty-four hours of the day. According to the ancient Hebrew understanding of time, which is still followed by the Church, the new day commences not at midnight and not at dawn but in the evening. That is why in the Genesis account of creation it is said, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5): the evening comes before the morning. In this way Vespers is not the concluding but the opening service of the day, not an epilogue but a prologue. How, then, does the daily cycle of liturgical prayer commence?

Throughout the year, except in the week after Pascha, it begins in precisely the same way, with the reading or singing of Psalm 103 [104]. This is a hymn of praise for the variety and wonder of the created order: “Blessed the Lord, O my soul! Blessed are You, O God …. O Lord, how marvellous are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all.” In the words of Fr Alexander Schmemann, Vespers “begins at the beginning, and this means in the ‘rediscovery,’ in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation. The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called to life by God, opened his eyes and saw what God in His love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing, and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself … And if the Church is in Christ, its initial act is always this act of thanksgiving, of returning the world to God.”

Having thus expressed our joyful gratitude to God, we can then turn to the second stage in our prayer, “confession and genuine contrition of soul,” as Climacus puts it. But what exactly do we mean by repentance? Surely it is not just a feeling of remorse and sorrow, of self-disgust at our sinfulness. No: it is, in the words of a second-century text, the Shepherd of Hermas, “a great understanding.” It is essentially positive, not negative. The literal sense of the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, is “change of mind.” Repentance is a new and affirmative way of looking at God, at our fellow humans, and at ourselves. It is not just to look back on the past with regret, but to look forward to the future with hope. It is to recognize, not merely what we have failed to be, but what by God’s grace we can become. St Paul sums up the essence of repentance when he says, “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3: 13-14). 

“We are created for prayer just as we are created to speak and to think,” states the Orthodox writer Tito Colliander.  Prayer is our true nature; without prayer we are not truly human.  It is for this reason that St Paul enjoins, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5: 17). He did not mean that we are to say prayers all the time, for that is in fact impossible; we have sometimes to give our attention to other things. But he had in mind prayer as an implicit orientation, a hidden dimension or aspiration, that enters into everything else that we do. As St Isaac the Syrian observes, even when they are asleep the saints have not ceased to pray, for the Holy Spirit is always praying within them. That, indeed, is specifically what the world needs: not simply people who say prayers from time to time, but people what are prayer all the time, living flames of prayer. Such people transfigure the world. “Acquire inner peace,” St Seraphim of Sarov insists, “and thousands around you will find their salvation.”

Let me end with a story that sums up the essence of prayer more fully than the threefold distinction with which I began. When I was a boy, I heard a sermon which recounted an incident that occurred, so I believe, in the life of the Curé d’Ars, although the preacher did not mention his name.  There was an old man who used to spend several hours each day in church. “What are you doing all that time?” his friends inquired. “I’m praying,” he replied. “Praying!” they exclaimed. “You must have a great many things to ask from God.” With some warmth, the old man responded, “I’m not asking God for anything.” “What are doing, then?” they said. And he replied: “I just sit and look at God, and God sits and looks at me.”

When I was twelve years old, I thought that was an admirable description of prayer. And today, seventy-three years later, I still think the same. Prayer is not a request but a relationship.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University