Prayer and daily life

Ana Smiljanic


In the limited space of  "The Missionary" in this issue, we have tried to incorporate as many teachings on prayer as was possible . Teachings that the ancient, as well as contemporary fathers of our One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church have bequeathed to us, their spiritual offspring. We have attempted to bring our God-seeking readers closer to the different aspects of prayer life; to define prayer as precisely as is possible; to bear witness of its inseparability from life, and to demonstrate through examples of Orthodox prayers, what one should pray for and how. It is clear however, that prayer is not just another subject that can be analyzed, nor exhausted. As a living conversation of the soul with God, prayer is uncontainable and boundless, just as our God is uncontainable and boundless. It follows that we cannot  stop at only reading about prayer, but that praying is work, sometimes very hard work at that, requiring action.

We know from the Holy Scripture that the holy apostle Paul and through him, Christ Himself, teaches us: "Pray without ceasing." (1 Thess. 5:17). How do we incorporate prayer into our busy and stressful daily lives which are so full of commitments, deadlines and fatigue?  Is it possible to be with God in one's thoughts and heart when we are at work, in a crowded bus, on a jammed highway, in school, even at overdue times of leisure and rest? It is possible say the saints and fathers of our Church, and they prove this with awe-inspiring examples from their very lives. It is possible, but first a change of direction deep within us must occur.  A significant and radical shift that implies abandoning the habitual behaviors of old self-gratification, and at every moment, assigning God to the center place of our life. This fundamental change is essential because it is the only way to humility which is the prerequisite of true prayer. "O God, cleanse me, a sinner, for I have never done any good before Thee".  This is the humble cry of St Makarios the Great in one of the prayers that make up the morning rule for all Christians. It is never too late for this change of direction, as we are taught by the example of the prayer of the robber on the right hand side of Christ on the cross: "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom" (Lk.23:42). Nor is it ever too early, for we know "neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Mat. 25:13).

            We must bear in mind that anything we do, think or say is in the presence of God. God alone knows our hearts, our minds and our thoughts "from the womb", from the moment when we were still unconscious of our existence. Let us try therefore, to never forget, even for a moment, that we are always standing in the presence of the Living God.  In doing so we acquire an attitude of prayerfulness, which will in time enable us to turn to God at any moment. That sincere and contrite prayer may flow not only from our lips, but also from our hearts.

            Holy icons which we have in our homes can aid us in this effort to become ever-conscious of God's presence. These images of saints remind us at all times of God's omnipresence, of eternity. Sometimes in times of temptation, when we are beset with anger, impatience, sloth, depression, or any other passion of the soul, a simple glance at the icons will drive away temptation and encourage us to repent.  A lighted candle or vigil light in front of the icons will certainly help us, for this light will remind us of God’s eternal light.

            In order to live a life of prayer based on the Gospel, our spiritual nurturing is of utmost importance. Just as we feed our bodies with the fruits of the earth in order that we might live, so we must pay attention to how we nourish our souls. This is the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, especially the Holy Gospel and the epistles. Careful and prayerful reading of the Scriptures gradually reveals the Will of God and is a means of fulfilling us, while at the same time it nourishes and inspires prayer in us. It is also useful to read other God-inspired Orthodox literature, and the works of the holy fathers. These are not books we read as novels, but slowly, repetitively, all the time striving to understand the wisdom within and to apply it to our lives. The better we know our faith, the firmer we stand in prayer.

            Other than the Holy Scriptures, it is important to own and use a prayer book. The Orthodox prayer book is a  collection of morning and evening prayers, as well as prayers for specific needs (before and after meals, before and after study, in times of illness, etc.). The prayers of the morning and evening rule should never be omitted, even if shortened but uttered with prayerful attention. Imagine a day that begins with God's blessing: with glorifying the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity; with the Lord's Prayer, the Sign of the Cross; with the offering of the first fruits of the day to our Heavenly Father.  Imagine a day in which we strive to do God's will in all things, asking for His blessing before beginning any kind of work; a day in which we thank God for the fruits of the earth which He bestows upon us and feeds us, a day in which we direct our thoughts to God even with the shortest of prayers: "Help me, O Lord", "Lord have mercy".  Imagine a day that ends with the confession of our sins before God, that most intimate conversation of the soul with its Creator, asking for the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints and with the supplication for a quiet and easy sleep. This truly is a day in which everything is blessed, a day for which we say "This is the day which the Lord hath made" (Ps 118:24).

            But do our days look like this? Is such a thing at all possible in the world we live? Of course it is! We only need to try a little harder, to work more on it, for after all prayer is work and action. Is it too great a sacrifice for us if we try to get up ten or fifteen minutes earlier than we usually do, in order to begin our day with God? If we do this over a period of time, the day will come when we will not be able to start our day without the morning rule, the soul itself will long for prayer. Think about how we find time to sit in front of the television, to leaf through the daily press, to surf the Net, or to become immersed in the latest best-selling novel, especially in the evenings when we complete our daily work, the children are in bed and the telephone is quiet.  Sometimes we fight our fatigue to see the end of the movie, or to  finish the last page of the novel.  The very thought of prayer on the other hand, incites a sudden yawning reaction, we are "too tired" and suddenly prayer seems pointless.  Let us take the first step.  Let everything else become less important than our prayer to God.: "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Mat.11:12). When we pray, especially at first, all kinds of thoughts will beset us, as will fatigue, boredom, a feeling of pointlessness. Let us not forget in these moments to cry to God for help. Many of the prayers in the prayer books were conceived by saints, the fathers of our Church. Bear in mind that the words we read were uttered by many holy tongues, therefore it is fitting to turn to them and ask for their intercession.

            Besides private prayer, in order to live a full and complete life as a Christian, it is of utmost importance to regularly participate in communal prayer. There is no Christian life and no salvation outside the Church. For this reason we must strive that regular Church attendance become our second nature.

            Once we acquire the habit of starting and ending our day with God's blessing, when we become used to the knowledge that at al times in our life we stand before God, then prayer will flow more easily and naturally at any other time during the day. There are short prayers that we can say in our minds in any place, not attracting attention. The prayer of the publican: "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner"; the Jesus prayer, which is very similar: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner".  We can turn to the Theotokos in prayer: "Most Holy Theotokos, have mercy on us!" or to a Saint: "Saint _______, pray to God for us!" In this respect, the Psalter offers a plethora of brief prayers which will surely aid us in times of grievance, sorrow, or any temptation: "Incline Your ear, O Lord, Hear my prayer!" or "Lead my soul out of this dungeon", or one of the short prayers by St John Chrysostom: "O Lord, I, being a human being, have sinned; do Thou, being God, forgive me in Thy loving-kindness."

            Life without prayer is a superficial life, a two-dimensional life limited to time and space. Prayer is the means by which a third dimension is revealed to us, the means by which we discover that everything possesses a measure of eternity and infinity. Prayer, together with fasting and good deeds (done in God's name) are the most powerful tools which God bestowed on us to make us worthy of working out our salvation, in acquiring the Heavenly Kingdom, and Life eternal.

            Is there anything in this life that can even remotely compare to a sincere conversation with our Heavenly Father, confident that He knows our needs even when we ourselves do not know them, that He hears every sigh that is hidden within our hearts, and sees every unshed tear?  "Ask, and it will be given to you," teaches the Lord, "Seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you." And He adds: "What man is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give Him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?" (Mat.7:7-11)

            O Lord, Jesus Christ, who Yourself prayed before Your Holy Passion on the Cross with the words: "…that all who believe in Me may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be one in us…", in Your loving-kindness help us sinners make a good start.  Give us the gift of repentance, humility and wholeness, and deem us worthy of glorifying you in a life of prayer in all the days of our lives, that we too may, when the dawn of Your unending Day comes, be one in You.