The previous article discussed what prayer is and why we pray. Now we turn to when and where we should pray, both important practical questions for living in an Orthodox Christian manner. Again, this article will draw heavily from the Church Fathers and Saints.
When do we pray?
Ideally, the answer to this question is unceasingly. That is what St Paul said in his First Letter to the Thessalonians. However, there is a great deal of work and spiritual ascesis (exercise or training) which is required before prayer becomes unceasing. We must want to pray and to love God more than we want anything else. Without that we will inevitably fail in our quest for unceasing prayer.
The words used for such unceasing prayer can vary, but the most common are those employed by Hesychastic monks since the fourth century. This is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. St Ephraim the Syrian, St John Chrysostom, St Isaac the Syrian, St Hesychius of Jerusalem, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, and St John Climacus prayed in this way. The use of this style of prayer was defended by St Gregory Palamas in the thirteenth century.
St Cassian repeated the first line of Psalm 70: ““Make haste, O God, to deliver me! Make haste to help me, O Lord!”. Another prayer which was historically prayed unceasingly by St Ioannikios was: “My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my protection is the Holy Spirit, Glory to You Holy Trinity.” This prayer is still said as part of the Small Compline.
But what do we do if we can’t pray unceasingly? Don’t despair. We have set prayers for different times of the day. There are many Orthodox prayer books which outline prayers for different times of the day. Some will have prayers for the morning and the night, others will have the Hours. Remember, it is a matter for you and your spiritual father to determine just how much you should pray. It is important to have a prayer rule, a set of prayers which are done each day. St Theophan the Recluse says that it should be set by your spiritual father and “not more than you can read unhurriedly on a normal day”.
There are also set prayers for different activities. There are prayers for before and after eating, before and after study, before and after reading the Bible and for many other actions that we do throughout the day. A book of prayers, such as the one published by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia (available here) can prove useful in this regard.
Finally, we pray whenever we go to church. The Divine Liturgy is communal prayer and involves the clergy and the people of the church. While many of the prayers done by the people are chanted by the (hopefully) musically talented chanters, they come from us in the congregation. When the chanters chant anything from “Lord have mercy” to the Cherubic Hymn, it comes from us. If we are not chanting it with our voices, we should be chanting and praying these words in our minds. A service book for the Divine Liturgy or any other service is helpful for concentrating on the words being prayed.
Where do we pray?
If we are praying unceasingly, the answer to that is everywhere we go. However, we have some guidance on places which are more conducive to prayer than other places.
Christ said at Matthew 6:5-6: When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
The church, filled with icons and the chanting is another place where it is good to pray as we enter an environment which is designed to be conducive to prayer. We see everyone around us praying (hopefully) and venerate the icons of the saints, smell the incense from the censor, taste the Holy Communion and the antidoron, and hear the chanting. In short, the church environment turns our five senses towards prayer. At home, the best way to recreate this is through a prayer corner with icons. Looking at the icons will yet again inspire us to emulate those represented in the icons.
Most of all, in our private prayers we need to have some solitude (Mark 1:35). Christ often fled to mountains to pray (Luke 6:12). If we are called, we can also live in such seclusion in order to assist our prayer. That is the basis for monasticism as developed by St Anthony the Great in solitude in the desert in Egypt, and St Basil the Great through the creation of a small brotherhood dedicated to prayer (a cenobium). Be careful not to rush into this, as there are great risks in rushing into a life of solitude if not spiritually ready or wary. This is definitely something that requires the consultation of a spiritual father before undergoing.
Next week we will turn to the most important question on prayer, which is how we should pray. If there are any questions on this don’t hesitate to ask in the comments or through the anonymous contact form.