What is prayer?

Surely there are many kinds of prayer, and whatever works for each person, to bring him or her closer to Christ, is a good kind of prayer. The word pray is related to the German word fragen, for “to ask.” Prayer has roots in the Latin precari, “to ask earnestly, to beg.” Its etymology reminds me that a spirit of exploration and humility is crucial to efficacious prayer. To be pray-ers, we have to risk repeatedly, ask unceasingly, and be on our knees in our souls daily, listening.

My life has been a journey of prayer and a continual and ongoing growth in my understanding of what prayer is. I love intercessory prayer, couldn’t do without praying for others whom I love, adore, and hug and kiss, and also for those whom I find unendingly difficult. I love the prayer for forgiveness for myself and for others. I love the prayer that is intense Bible study and memorization of Bible verses. I love the prayer that happens in church when we all pray the Lord’s prayer together and worship communally. I love the prayer of praising Jesus. I love the prayer where two or more gather in the name of Jesus and in an office at work or on a front porch at home a pair of clay-feeted humans sit and bow their heads and pray together. But my favorite form of prayer is the Jesus prayer and all kinds of contemplative prayer, where the focus is simply on Jesus.

From On the Prayer of Jesus by Ignatius Brianchaninov, from the foreword by Bishop Kallistos Ware:

Prayer of the heart is attained when not only does the mind or intellect recite the Jesus Prayer with full attentiveness, but it also descends into the heart and is united with it. In this way our invocation becomes prayer of the heart, or more exactly prayer of the mind in the heart. When the hesychast tradition speaks of the “heart” in this context, the word is to be understood in its full Hebraic sense, as found in Scripture: it signifies, not merely the emotions and affections, but the moral and spiritual center of the total human person, the ground and focal point of our created being, the deep self. Prayer of the heart, then, is no longer prayer of one faculty alone, but prayer of the entire person, spirit, soul, and body together. It is precisely at this stage that prayer becomes not just something that we do but something that we are—something, moreover, that we are not just from time to time but continually. In this way St. Paul’s injunction becomes a realized fact: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

Nor is this all. Since the heart is not only the center of our created personhood but also the place where Christ and the Holy Spirit dwell within us, prayer of the heart is not so much something that we do as something that God does; not so much my prayer as the prayer of Christ in me (Gal. 2:20).

Prayer of the heart leads the spiritual aspirant into the stillness and creative silence that is termed hesychia in the Greek mystical tradition. Although the Jesus Prayer is a prayer in words, yet because the words are few and simple, and because these few and simple words are continually repeated, it is a prayer that enables us to reach out beyond words into silence, beyond speech into the living stillness that is God himself. By silence or stillness is meant in this context not emptiness but fullness, not an absence but a presence. True silence of the heart is an attitude of waiting on God, of listening to him, of responding to his love.

It is not just the cessation of speech, a pause between words, but rather communion and dialogue. “This silence,” says Ignatius, “is at the same time a conversation, yet without thoughts, above every thought.” (pages xxix and xxxi)

About Carmen

I teach English at Shorter College in beautiful Rome, Georgia.
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One Response to What is prayer?

  1. Sharon says:

    Your words always lift me to new heights. I thank and praise God for your gift.

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