The outward expression of prayer

By Peter Drobac



“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Gen 3:7) From this first moment of creation, man has existed as a union of flesh and spirit, a co-mingling of dust and the breath of life.  While their wills were still attuned to the Will of God, Adam and Eve were free from sinful thoughts and actions. Their temptation to eat of the forbidden fruit was fulfilled first in the mind of Eve and then physically in the actual consumption of the fruit.  In this way they separated themselves from God and the Fountain of Life and became subject to sickness, pain and death. So it is with all sin. We first succumb to temptation in our minds, and then fulfill it in our actions. Consider, then, how pleasing it is to God if we try to remedy both of these aspects, not only to sanctify our minds and accept His will as our own, but to perform His will bodily. It follows that in whatever we do to bring ourselves closer to God, we must not only occupy one part of our being  in this endeavour, but our whole person. In this way, we contribute both our spiritual and physical natures in glorifying God (cf. I Cor 6:20).

Anyone walking into an Orthodox Church for the first time is struck with how believers are so physically involved in their prayers. They see people making the sign of the cross, bowing and prostrating themselves to the ground. They see people kissing icons, holy objects, and the priest’s hand. They hear the singing of the faithful and smell the heady aroma of incense. They witness people receiving Holy Communion and Baptism, and are present for the beautiful rituals in the service of Holy Matrimony. In short, they see all the external, physical manifestations of people’s faith in God. Some of what they see, however, must cause them consternation. How can adding physical components to internal, mental prayer make it any more pleasing to God? If internal prayer is absent, then the physical act which accompanies it is meaningless, becoming like the hypocritical prayers of the Pharisees that Christ so vehemently rejects (Mt 23:27-28; Isa 29:13, etc.). If, however, the physical motions are done as expressions of true spiritual prayer, then our whole being is involved in the act of worship. Since our body and soul together fell into sin, it is only logical that both body and soul act together in worship for our salvation.

Let us examine some common physical manifestations of prayer and the inner God-pleasing states that they reflect.  


• The Sign of the Cross – This is by far the most frequent of Orthodox actions, and a very powerful prayer in and of itself. The way in which we cross ourselves is very important; done improperly, it is a sign of great disrespect toward God and  an indication that we have not prepared ourselves for prayer. First, the thumb and first two fingers of our right hand come together. This is a physical manifestation of our belief in the Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit united in One God. Our last two fingers lay flat against our palm, representing the two natures of Christ, human and divine, Who lived on earth with us. Holding our hands incorrectly shows that we are not conscious of these fundamental teachings of the Church, creating a stumbling block in our prayer to God.

        When making the sign of the cross, we begin by touching first our forehead, then the area around our navel, then our right shoulders and finally our left. In this way we glorify the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with all our mind, heart and strength. We confess, in the figure of the Life-Giving Cross that we put on ourselves, that the crucifixion of Christ is also the promise of our own resurrection and the mercy of God in action. With this sign, we drive away the demons that tempt us, since by it we are freed from the hold that Satan has on us. If done quickly (as if shooing flies) or if performed upside-down, in the way Satanists mock the precious figure of the cross, instead of dispelling demons, it makes them rejoice and attack us more ferociously. Done with faith and love, this action is itself a prayer, but executed casually, it drives away our guardian angel and shows God how little is our faith. This is much like hanging up a vigil lamp in front of our icon corner, but never lighting it or praying before it.


• Metania: We often accompany the sign of the cross with a bow from the waist touching the ground with the fingers of our right hand (small metania). This action has traditionally been associated with an act of reverence and respect, and with it, we express an additional attentiveness to our internal prayers. In front of icons we bow to honour the holy person depicted, before a bishop to indicate the respect in which we hold him, and at such times in prayer when we are called to worship our creator and Master and Lord.

        To “metania” means, literally, to turn ourselves around in an act of repentance. This, in a physical way, is performed by falling to our knees, putting our hands on the ground, touching our foreheads to the earth and rising up to a standing position once again. In this way, we make a conscious decision to repent of our sinfulness and with God’s help begin on a new path, one in the opposite spiritual direction from our previous one. “Now have I made a beginning; this change has been wrought by the right hand of the Most High.” (Ps 76:10). In a spiritual sense, this act is a renewal of baptism, a rejection of Satan and a return to the narrow way that leads to God; it is a re-immersion into the font and a resurrection with the risen Christ. It is the realization that we have gone down a one-way street, have turned ourselves around never to return down that path again. This beautiful act of repentance is used throughout the year (except on Sunday Liturgy and great feasts), but mostly during Great Lent in preparation for the Resurrection of our Lord. 


• Dress:

The way we dress when we go to church must be carefully considered. We need to keep in mind that it is in a state of humility that we approach prayer, for “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart God will not despise.” (Ps 50:17). The shame that Adam and Eve felt at their nakedness before God in the Garden is felt by every one of us today, and when we enter God’s house to stand in His presence, we must take care to remedy our physical nakedness just as we do our spiritual ills. It is with covered bodies that we must approach the Garden from the outside; once inside, God will clothe us in splendid white robes of salvation of His own creating. In preparing ourselves to pray privately, we must take care not to be filled with worldly concerns, that our prayers are not in vain because we cannot concentrate on our supplications to God. But if we must take care of ourselves in this way, how much more should we be concerned with not causing our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray ineffectively by distracting them with worldly cares of our own creation. When we physically prepare for communal prayer we should first ask ourselves, am I preparing myself in a way to draw attention from those around me? What feature of my body do I feel is most attractive? What do I spend the most time on? Men and women should wear clothes that leave only their extremities exposed and they should in no way accentuate any attractive parts of their bodies with tight-fitting attire. Our clothes should be plain and without loud slogans or symbols plastered over them - they should be garments fit for the feast that we have been invited to attend. Women’s heads, as the Apostle Paul says, should be covered when in church – since hair arrangement  is perhaps the most time consuming part of a woman’s daily grooming practices. It stands to reason that any monument of our vanity should be covered in a place where humility is a requirement, and concentration in prayer a prerequisite. Jewelery, makeup, cologne, short skirts and tight jeans cannot begin to enhance the beauty with which God created us, and any attempt to make ourselves seem attractive and desirable to one another while in church, is a signal that we have not arrived prepared for prayer with our brethren. These rules are not gender specific, but apply equally to both men and women. They should not even be called rules, but rather expressions of spiritual maturity and concern for one another. God forbid that the person behind us is so captivated with our looks that they cannot stand in the presence of God with a prayer in their heart and on their lips! If we were stronger, we would not be bothered by how anyone dressed, but this is not the case. We have the opportunity, therefore, to help each other in our weakness, by dressing so as not to distract our brothers and sisters.

• Veneration of holy objects: In addition to the bow from the waist as a sign of respect, a kiss is also an ancient sign of veneration. When we approach an icon, we make the sign of the cross, bow, then offer the saint depicted on the icon prayers and veneration in the form of a kiss. Now, if the person whose icon we are reverencing was standing in front of us, would we dare to kiss them on their mouth as a sign of respect? Certainly not! But instead, we would kiss their hands and feet, and perhaps the cross or book of Scriptures that they held. The veneration that we show to the image on an icon is translated into veneration of the actual person – they are there in front of us, as far as we are concerned in our treatment of them, and we must be sure to behave in such a way as if they were standing before us. We should therefore place our kiss of veneration upon the saint’s hand or vestment, or object which they hold (cross, book, etc.).


These are but a few examples of physical expressions of inner worship which are the most obvious. There is, however, one supreme example which takes up all of the Scriptures and every word written by the hands of every Orthodox saint. None of us are worthy to write of this, but it is most simply stated, Love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind… Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Mat 22:37-39).

Love is the call to action.