Lent Week 1: Prayer

So after not updating this site in nearly a year I am now going to write an article nonchalantly and act as if nothing at all is amiss.

Ever since I decided to once again participate in orthodox lent people have been bugging me to start blogging again. In particular, one minister from Mitchell. I messaged him this morning with an offer. I had two ideas for writing this week. One on prayer and one on scripture reading. Laying down these offers on the virtual canvas between us I slammed my hand down and declared “You shall choose!” To which my office mates looked at me funny and told me to sit back down. But I still got the answer I wanted from Mr. minister.

Probably the biggest fear I had about this lent was prayer. No, I didn’t fret over what I would be eating or how much studying I would do or how much church I would attend. The fear I had was actually praying to the power that created the universe and who has the final say over my salvation.

Perhaps a little background is in order. As many of you know, I am originally from a Church of Christ background. This is a big deal here because one of the few things that particular denomination does not do is teach you how to pray. A large section of my life was spent in CoC and I never knew how to pray. Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t pray, I just had no idea how. You see, most protestant denominations (especially restoration movement ones) are big into praying “from the heart.” It certainly sounds good and in truth that is what we should be aiming for at all times: to have our hearts constantly praying. But what it translated to in practice was no one really seeming to know how to pray except through impromptu.

Let me say that I have no problem with impromptu prayer as such. Meaning, I don’t have a problem with a random prayer to god welling up and coming out in honesty. What I do have a problem with is two fold. I have a problem with prayer that is planned for, for a group for instance, and the leader of the prayer gets up and makes it up as he goes. I also have a problem with prescribing this method of prayer to laymen at large for private prayer.

I am sure most of us have been in a congregation where it came time to pray and the leader got up and said something like this:

God, I just also lift up soandso to you, Lord, I just join all of us in asking, Father that you would just love us and Lord, we love you. Lord, and Lord, just pray over us, Lord, and Lord, bless us Lord. We don’t deserve your Love Lord. And Lord, thank you for Jesus Lord, because Jesus is Lord, Lord. Lord Jesus, Lord, you are Lord Lord Lord Jesus Lord Jesus Lord Jesus Lord Lord Lord. Amen.

OK, maybe that’s a little over the top, but I’m sure you can relate at some level. What is it about this prayer that is wrong? Well.. none of it really. It may genuinely be a prayer from the heart to God. My question though is this. We are in front of the god all mighty, maker of heaven and earth and everything in between and speaking for your congregation or group you say that. Imagine you saying that to a king on earth. Or perhaps imagine you saying that in front of a stadium of people you do not know. Would you be embarrassed? Would you perhaps want a chance to prepare your prayer first?

So there’s my nitpick section. Prayers lead by a designated person should be thought out for the group and not impromptu on the spot. Why you ask? Why should they? Why can not a man get up in front of his church family and open his heart to god? My answer is two fold. One, doing it impromptu means there is either undue pressure on the speaker to say the right things or no pressure at all to say anything significant. These are our petitions to the Lord. They should be handled with care. Second, impromptu without any knowledge of the structure of how to pray gives the impression that that’s how everyone should do it. Just open up and let loose to god.

There is where my big problem came from. My idea of how to pray was just let loose. Tell god how I feel and what I want. “Talk to Jesus as a friend,” I was told growing up. Yes, I know, god loves us all. However, we are also called to have fear of god. To know his power and glory. Years of laying in bed at night saying “Dear lord, please help with this and please do this for me. Oh, and let me have this. And please make so and so do this. In Jesus name, amen” was getting nothing done other than me treating god as though he were some advise column at best and salesman at worst. Years of treating god like a chum, like a pal, had slowly degraded him in my mind to something even lower than myself. I had relegated him to my co-pilot, the guy I turn to when trouble hits and who I ignore the rest of the time.

Then I went to the Pascha service at my Dad’s church (orthodox) last year. For the first time I saw a purely liturgical prayer. “Nonsense!” I thought, “Prayer like this has no soul behind it. They are just saying words on a page.” And so I left there thinking that impromptu was still the way to go, even if flawed. Then I read a book my dad gave me called “The way of the Pilgrim.” It is about a Russian man who wants to learn how to pray. He goes to his priest and asks him, “Father, how must I pray?” And he is told, “Pray the Jesus prayer until it flows from your heart unbidden.”

If you are asking yourself what the Jesus prayer is, it is this “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That’s it. He was told to pray this over and over until it became like breathing. The man did, and it changed his life. Every action he took from then on was exposed under the light of these words coming from his heart unceasingly. It was then, in that book that I discovered how to pray.

Prayers are not just petitions to god for ourselves. They are more. They are us speaking to the creator of all, who has power of life and death, who holds salvation in his hand. If we are to pray, we must hold that in mind. So with that in mind, I revisited the liturgical way of prayer. I realized they were not just words on a page. They were words of power written down by holy men who have prayed the same prayers for thousands of years. Praying those words was to commune with them in the presence of god. It was to understand what a holy petition was to god.

With that said, allow me to share two examples of this. The first are the Trisagion Prayers. These are said before private morning and evening prayers as well as various other prayers.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to You, Christ our God, our hope, Glory to You!
Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, present in all places and filling all things, Treasury of Goodness and Giver of life: come and abide in us. Cleanse us from every stain of sin and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal Have mercy on us.
Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal Have mercy on us.
Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal Have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen

All Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, forgive our sins. Master, pardon our transgressions. Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities, for the glory of Your name.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen

Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Yours is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

And one more, the prayer of St. Ephraim

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.”

“But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to me, thy servant.”

“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own failings and not to judge my brother; for  blessed art Thou unto the ages of age. Amen”

I do not have the time to explain the significance of these two examples. A book could be written on each. And that’s just the point. In these little petitions are the power of thousands of words.

And that is why I was scared. To say these words, even silently, while on your knees is powerful and moving. Perhaps most frightening, they are changing. Say them enough and they begin to stay with you all day. When you sin, when you fall, you can hear your own words come back to you, rebuking you and correcting you. You have no choice really but to change.

On the first day of Lent, it took me a good five minutes to work up the courage to actually do this. I stood there in an almost empty room, all alone, willing myself to kneel and say these kinds of words to god. It was so vastly different from what I was used to. It was like that time I was doing it for real for the first time, as though I was actually in front of god this time and beseeching his mercy for me being a screw up.

So in the end, it is changing me. Even though its only been 5 days, I can feel it. I have seen a more excellent way and I would ask that if you are doing Lent as well, even if you’re protestant (which I still am, technically) try praying like this. Reflect on what you are asking god and let it change you as well.


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