Monday, April 27, 2015

Christianity without Repercussions: Prayer

So far in this series I have slightly covered the topics of salvation, and faith, but I have yet to seriously look at prayer. I have mentioned prayer in two previous blog posts in this series, but I want to take more of an in-depth view of prayer in this posting.
The first thing I would like to say is that almost everything that we do is prayer, and one of the goals for Orthodox Christians is being able to pray all day long, without ceasing, while doing whatever it is that we have to do throughout the day. Our Divine Liturgy is one long litany of prayers, oft-repeated (with the homily being excepted). Our evening services, our Vespers, is a prayer service. Wedding services are prayers for the couple. Funeral services are prayers for the departed. Seriously, just about everything we do is prayer.

I can recall seeing on various church sign the hours of services, something along the lines of:
Sunday Worship Service 10AMSunday Evening Service 7PMWednesday Prayer Service 7PM
Of course, Wednesday may have just been a mini Sunday service, but I'm sure many of you have seen similar signs.

I can also recall when the pastor or whoever would tell us to remember that a certain service would only be a prayer service, no preaching or singing. As a child, I would be bored at those services of people just praying. Someone would go up to the pulpit and pray for something, then another would get up there and pray for other things, then there would be a gap where no one wanted to stand up at the pulpit and pray at people. This would last for a while until someone decided that enough time had passed for us to pray. People would ofttimes leave with teary eyes, having poured their soul out to God.

In Orthodoxy, there is no distinction between a "worship" service and a "prayer" service. It is the same thing! I'm sure if you went to a cradle (someone born into the Church, as opposed to converting) Orthodox and invited them to a prayer service that you might get strange looks. If you tried to explain what a prayer service is they would probably ask you why you separate prayer from worship. It's a very foreign concept because for us Orthodox prayer is worship, and our services are filled with worship that is prayer.

You may also remember that I have previously mentioned that there are set times for prayer (1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th). There are also Matins, Vespers, Compline, and Midnight. Technically the start of the day is at sunset of the previous day with Vespers, then Compline before bed, Midnight office at midnight, Matins in the morning (before dawn), and then the 1st-9th hours. Most lay people (non-clergy) do not usually say all of those prayers, many monastic communities do. As an oblate, I try to do what hours I can (starting from the 1st and working my way to Vespers), though lately I have been quite remiss.

Most Orthodox lay people that I know usually only do Morning and Evening prayers, and maybe some prayers around noon. That is not to say that they don't pray throughout the rest of the day, just that those are typically when they do formal prayers.

Ah, yes! Formal prayers! Why do we have such a thing as set times to pray? Why do we have a set way to pray?

Psalm 119:164 states, "Seven times in a day have I praised thee because of the judgments of thy righteousness." (LXX), and Acts 3:1, "Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour." (KJV) These passages show that there were set times of prayer in the older Hebrew religion, and with the disciples still going to the temple that this carried over to the newer Christian religion. The Didache (or the Teaching of the Twelve, circa AD 60) recommends praying the Our Father (Lord's Prayer) at least three times a day.

Let us focus on the Lord's Prayer a second. The Lord's Prayer can be found in Matthew chapter 6, and again in Luke chapter 11. In the second instance, in Luke, one of the disciples comes up to Jesus and asks Him to teach them to pray. In the first instance, in Matthew, Jesus seems to be instructing the disciples in a number of things such as almsgiving, and even prayer. In both instances, the Lord's Prayer is how the disciples are taught to pray.

You may stop and say that the Lord's Prayer is only a template, not meant to be prayed over and over again. I would tell you that you are half correct. Yes, the Lord's Prayer is a template, but that doesn't mean that we can not use it as an actual prayer; in fact, we see evidence from the Didache that it was used as a prayer.

To put the Didache into context for this particular conversation let us look at a few dates. The Didache dates to roughly AD 60, possibly earlier, possibly later. Saint Peter died about AD 64. Saint John the Apostle died about AD 100. Now obviously everything written down in the Didache is going to have to come from some kind of oral tradition, meaning that these traditions existed while some of the Apostles were still living. We also see that the Apostles are not above correcting those churches which need correcting (just read some Epistles), so it is not likely that this was some erroneous teachings that got passed around.

The Didache not only confirms the Lord's Prayer as use as an actual prayer, but it also confirms using the same prayers over and over again (being that the Lord's Prayer is to be prayed 3 times a day).

The Lord's Prayer also shows us a template not just for prayer, but for a set way to pray - a formal way to pray. It shows us this formal way to pray in it's similarities to existing formal Jewish prayers.

There are similarities between the Lord's Prayer and both biblical and post-biblical material in Jewish prayer especially Kiddushin 81a (Babylonian).[47]"Hallowed be thy name" is reflected in the Kaddish. "Lead us not into sin" is echoed in the "morning blessings" of Jewish prayer. A blessing said by some Jewish communities after the evening Shema includes a phrase quite similar to the opening of the Lord's Prayer: "Our God in heaven, hallow thy name, and establish thy kingdom forever, and rule over us for ever and ever. Amen." There are parallels also in 1 Chronicles 29:10–18. (Wikipedia)
 As mentioned above, Sts Peter and John were going to the temple for 9th-hour prayers. Why would they be doing this, and why is the time mentioned? In fact, you should notice that during Jesus's crucifixion and death there is mention of hours such as third and 6th. This is important because these are times that not only tell us the time of day, but were used for times of prayer as well. The writers used these allusions to prayer times because they knew their readers would understand these references.

The Jews had (and still do) times set aside to pray, which is why Sts. Peter and John were going to the temple at the 9th hour. Since the Jews had these set times to pray, then it stands to reason that these set times to pray also passed into Christianity; I have shown in previous posts that Christianity inherited liturgical forms of worship from the Jews, so it also stands to reason that they would inherit the prayer times as well.

The typical Evangelical may question the use of books to pray. Please question, it's how we learn.

As we can see above, set times and set prayers are not just biblical, but they were practiced by the Early Church. As the Church grew it started to accumulate writings and prayers from many saints. Many times these saints left us with prayers that are actually quite fitting for use in our daily lives. The Church also developed certain set ways to pray that show the theology of Christianity with every prayer. And ultimately these prayers teach us how to properly humble ourselves and pray.

Notice that I said humble ourselves and pray. Please don't mistake our praying for the vain repetitions that Christ spoke out against, or think of us as the proud Pharisee who prays pridefully. We come, much like the publican, very humble before our God.

These prayers in our books serve a few purposes, one - which I mentioned above - is to proclaim Christian theology, and another is to unite us. Think about it, we are all praying the same prayers. If at 6AM I start off with a set of prayers, and then an hour later in a time zone over someone else does the same set of prayers then we were just united in prayer, and also theology. But not only that, I can potentially walk into a Russian, or Greek, parish where English is not spoken and still roughly know what part of the service is going on, and join my prayers to the ones going on - I don't have to speak the language to participate or even know what is going on.

This is how a typical prayer starts off,

In the name of the Father, and the Son+, and the Holy Spirit
Glory to thee our God, glory to thee.
Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth who art every present and fillest all things, Treasury of every good thing and Bestower of life, come dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain and save our souls, oh gracious Lord.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us (x3 with a bow at the waist and crossing)
Glory to the Father, and the Son+, and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages, amen.
All Holy Trinity have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name's sake.
Lord, have mercy (x3)
Glory to the Father, and the Son+, and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto 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.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory of the Father, the Son+, and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages, amen.

Then, depending on the time of day, other prayers are offered. In the morning, we make mention of having just risen from sleep we humbly fall before God and ask that He gives us understanding and enable us to worship Him. At the end of the night - before we go to sleep - we thank the Lord for the day, ask that the night be sinless, and that the night and our sleep may be undisturbed so we may rise again in the morning and praise Him.

There are many prayers to be said that deal with different things. The most common theme throughout all of the prayers is humility and asking forgiveness of sins, even sins that we didn't know that we committed.

The one prayer in particular that I love the most is the Jesus Prayer. It is simple, but it is packed full of spiritual meaning. This is one prayer that is often heard about among Orthodox circles as being a great prayer for praying without ceasing, though that needs to be worked up to. Anyway, the prayer goes like this, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the (a) sinner." You should notice that the Jesus Prayer is very similar to the prayer of the publican who prayed, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."

In the Jesus Prayer we have proclaimed who Jesus is; He is Lord, He is the Son of God. We also, humbly submit ourselves to God by asking that He have mercy on us, who are sinners. To me, that is very powerful; we are acknowledging Jesus for who He is, and we are humbly submitting our sinful selves to His mercy.

To recap, just about everything we Orthodox do is rooted in prayer, from our worship services, to waking up, and going to bed. Having set times and a set way to pray are biblical (with Jesus Himself giving us a template), and was practiced by the Early Church. The way we pray unites us to others of the same faith.

In my next post, I'll cover some of the other different aspects of Orthodox prayer, such as praying to the saints, the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), and angels.

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