Prayer is one of those words that is kicked around and tossed around and used in so many ways today that very often we aren’t sure what it really means in any given context. Some people equate it to “wishing” for something. Others see it as a conversation. Still others look on it as some sort of religious magical mumbo-jumbo.
Prayer in its essence is our interaction with God Himself. It is an act of faith, enacted by both speaking and listening. And as we grow in our spiritual lives, it tends to become more and more about simply listening. We speak, but we begin to speak not simply to be heard. We begin to build a framework for actually listening for God’s words to us. As we see in the example of the holy prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19 (or III Kings in the Septuagint), when the Lord speaks, it is typically in a still, small voice. Elijah was troubled and discouraged and sought out the Lord. The Lord sent him to a cave to wait on Him. Three things happened, as the scriptures tells us: a great wind tore at the mountain side, an earthquake shook the rocks and a fire came burned. Each of these things were impressive and even shocking. We expect God to be big, impressive and shocking like wind, earthquakes and fire.
And yet, as we see, God was in none of these things. Rather, after the wind, earthquake and fire passed, Elijah heard a still, small voice speaking. This was the voice of God. Likewise, we must make an effort to quiet ourselves and find a quiet place where God— who feeds himself to us in small, digestible portions so that we are able to bear His glory— can speak. Do not expect fireworks or great signs and wonders, though He may send them. Expect rather the still, small voice.
As we pray, we must quiet ourselves. We must find words to speak, or (at the very least) heart-felt “groanings” of our spirit, when we cannot find the words or when grief and distress overtake us. The goal of all of this is to find peace: not simply a feeling of peace or peacefulness or some sort of psychological or emotional stability. Rather, we speak and listen to our Lord in order to experience His kingdom on this earth, here and now. His kingdom is not shaken by our troubles. Christ conquers all. His kingdom was revealed on the Cross, in the tomb, by the resurrection on the third day and by Christ’s ascension into heaven, where he (having taken all of our grief, sin, brokeness, and so forth with him to the Father) sits at the right hand of the Father. He has conquered by death, crushing death by dying himself and destroying the power of death.
All of this leads us back to the issue of prayer: how do we pray? Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote an incredible little book called Beginning to Pray. He speaks in it of this conversation that we have been talking about: this speaking and then this listening. We do the hard work of finding the words to pray: words that both have meaning to us and yet are somehow not totally dependent on our own understanding. It is a very good book, and well worth the effort to engage with his thoughts. In the book, he makes the point that one source for us to turn to when we are in need of words to pray is the Church itself. The Church has provided us with many words, that in turn provide us with the framework for our own prayers.
The Psalms are the pre-imminent source for all prayer, as we see each time a divine service is celebrated. We hear Psalms or portions of Psalms constantly. We do well to take time to read a Psalm when we do our daily prayers.
Likewise, the written prayers of the Church give us a resource in time of need, in our daily struggle, in our regular devotional times and when we simply need to turn to God and say, “Help!”.
And by using the words of prayer in a devoted and consistent manner, God is good and blesses us so that our very lives become a prayer. That is to say, from the most exalted and spiritual moments to the most basic, almost unconscious movements, we may experience true prayer. The Lord is good and faithfully reveals Himself to us— if we will only “show up”. Sadly, this is the reality behind the fact we feel like God never speaks to us. We were the ones at fault: we failed to “show up” and listen to His words.
But it all begins by beginning to pray. It begins simply and honestly, without trying to be something that we aren’t. We are sinners in need of God’s love which he freely offers to us. In prayer and by praying with our whole lives, we experience that love fully. And we do this by making a beginning of it; by turning toward God and opening the ears of our hearts.
A good resource for the prayers of the Church can be found here: Prayers for Orthodox Christians