So much could be said about this topic. This article will start off by answering a couple of basic questions about prayer in order to get the ball rolling.
Just a short disclaimer here, this article doesn’t come from some great authority on prayer and the ascetic struggle. It comes from a struggling student. However, I will quote from real experts, saints who lived the words of St Paul to “pray unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
What is prayer?
St John Climacus writes in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Prayer is by nature a dialogue and union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.” St Ignatius Brianchaninov in The Arena equates prayer with loving God, writing: “Prayer is primarily the fulfilment of the first and chief commandment of those two commandments in which are concentrated the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel.”
Prayer is the reason why humanity was created. We were formed to communicate with God and to achieve a state of theosis. For this reason we were made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). For this reason, before doing anything else, Adam talked with God. If we do not engage in prayer, we cannot receive all that is good from God.
St John Chrysostom has spoken on this topic, with a homily titled “On Prayer”. Prayer, according to Chrysostom “is a desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God's grace.” It “is the light of the soul, giving us true knowledge of God. It is a link mediating between God and man.”
In short, it is something that we do when we communicate with God, the Theotokos, the saints and the angels in a spirit of reverence.
Why should I pray?
This question of why we should pray is intertwined with the question of what prayer is. We cannot pray without knowing what prayer is, but cannot know what prayer is without knowing why we should pray.
St Ignatius Brianchaninov in The Arena writes, “It is impossible for a person to turn with all his thought, all his strength, and with all his being toward God, except by the action of prayer”.
Prayer is done primarily because we need to communicate with God, the Source of Life. Flowing from this reason is one question: Why do we need to communicate with God?
We need to communicate with God, as well as the Theotokos, the Saints and the angels so that our souls might not grow cold. We glorify God, thank Him for all that He has done for us, seek forgiveness for our failings and seek His help. We can be saved through our prayers. Through prayer we unite ourselves in “one spirit” with God (1 Corinthians 6:17).
The spirit of prayer is that we have a continuous and close communion with God that leads us to the vision of His glory, as seen in the lives of the saints. Many modern saints have been elevated (spiritually and physically on occasion) through their prayer.
Prayer is not optional. When instructing the people on how they should pray, Christ said “When you pray” (Matthew 6:5-9). There is no choice, otherwise the word “if” would have been used. St Paul in his first letter to Timothy desires that men pray everywhere (1 Timothy 2:8).
It is best to conclude this section with a quote from St John Climacus: “Do not stop praying … for it may happen that never again in your whole life will you have such a chance to ask for the forgiveness of your sins”.
Next week we’ll examine when and where we pray, and after that how we should pray.
If you have further questions, these can be taken to a spiritual father or answered through the next Q&A article by the author of this article.