What is prayer?

‘Prayer is infinite creation, far superior to any form of art or science. Through prayer we enter into communion with Him that was before all worlds. Or, to put it another way, the life of the Self-existing God flows into us through the channel of prayer. Prayer is an act of supreme wisdom, of all-surpassing beauty and virtue. Prayer is delight for the spirit’ — St Sophrony of Essex 

What is prayer?

Prayer, in short, is our way of communicating with God. Prayer can take many forms — silence and song, formal and informal, formulaic and extemporaneous, public and private, at night and during the day, in church and at home.

Prayer is as essential to the soul as oxygen is to the body, it is the thing that makes us truly human, and constitutes our ultimate purpose and goal.


Types of Prayer

Corporate prayer — this is prayer as part of a group. In order to ensure that everyone can participate without distraction and confusion, corporate worship usually only takes place in the context of a church service — ‘For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints’ (1 Corinthians 14:33). Some services, like the Divine Liturgy, require the participation of a priest, others, like the Compline, do not.

Please see the Divine Services section on this website for an overview of the different services / daily prayers.

Individual prayer — strictly speaking, there is no such thing as ‘individual prayer’, because even when we are physically alone, prayer nonetheless connects us with the other members of the Body of Christ (we always pray ‘Our Father’, never ‘My Father’).

When we pray alone, we should also keep to a certain formal structure of prayer. By reciting the words of Scripture and prayers written by the saints, we learn how to pray — how we should see ourselves and what we should ask for — and we will often find that the prayers written thousands of years ago express the way we feel much better than we ever could. Using the same prayers as our brothers and sisters also helps us to feel that connectedness with the rest of the Church. Most prayer books will contain a collection of morning and evening prayers (usually based on the Midnight Office and Compline respectively).

That being said, we are also encouraged to pray freely, expressing to God with our own words (or no words at all) the state of our heart. Not only during the times we specifically set aside for prayer, but throughout the day, regardless of where we are or what we might be doing. Every moment is an opportunity for prayer!


The Icon corner 

An Orthodox household will normally have an icon corner (some refer to this as a ‘home altar’), though it needn’t be an actual corner. This is where the family will gather for their daily prayers. It should ideally face East, since this is the direction we face during prayer. The icon corner will usually feature a Bible, a Cross, and icons of our Lord, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the patron saints of those in the household. One will normally also have an oil lamp — lit during prayer, if not continuously — and a small incense burner. An icon corner can be very elaborate or very simple; the important thing is that it inspires in us a feeling of reverence and a desire to pray.


The sign of the Cross

Our prayers are accompanied by the sign of the Cross. The sign of the cross is made by joining the thumb, index finger, and middle finger on the right hand — this symbolises our faith in One God who exists as three hypostases: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the same time, we join our ring finger and little finger, and push these down towards our palm — this symbolises the two natures of Christ, divine and human, and His coming down to earth.

We then touch our fingers to our forehead, our belly, our right shoulder, then our left shoulder in order to make the sign of the Cross over ourselves. Besides being a confession of our faith in Christ’s saving work on the Cross, the hand movement itself also expresses the Gospel message: God in heaven (forehead) came down to earth (the belly), He who sits at the right hand of the Father (right shoulder) came to save us sinners on the left (left shoulder). 

The sign of the Cross is normally made at the conclusion of a prayer, when the Name of the Trinity is invoked — Father (forehead), Son (belly), and Holy Spirit (shoulders) — but there are no strict rules regarding when the sign of the Cross should or shouldn’t be made.


Bows and prostrations

Human beings are psychosomatic — a union of soul and body. For this reason, the participation of the body in prayer is essential. Bows and prostrations play an important role in this respect. In Greek, these are referred to as metánies (literally, repentances).

A bow (small metánia) is performed by making the sign of the Cross as described above, and then bowing forwards from the waist. We will often stretch our right hand toward the ground as an expression of humility, reminding ourselves that ‘All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

A prostration (great metánia) is made by getting down onto one’s hands and knees, and touching one’s forehead to the ground. We see this posture of prayer mentioned frequently in the Bible. Jesus ‘fell on his face and prayed’ in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 5:12), as did Abraham (Genesis 17:3), Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:6), Joshua (7:6), Ezra (Nehemia 8:6), Ezekiel (1:28), King David (1 Chronicles 21:16), etc. In addition to being an expression of awe and humility, prostrations also express a very basic characteristic of spiritual life: we fall and get up again.

In the context of common worship, prostrations are usually limited to certain moments in the services (such as the Prayer of St Ephrem during Lent, or at the Consecration of the Holy Gifts at the Divine Liturgy). In private, however, it is common to incorporate a number of prostrations into one’s daily prayer rule.

We do not perform prostrations on Sundays, but remain standing in honour of the Resurrection.


‘Lord, have mercy’ (Kyrie, eleison)

If you ever attend an Orthodox service, you will immediately notice how frequently the phrase ‘Kyrie, eleison’ (Lord, have mercy) is used. This is the response to almost every petition uttered by the priest or deacon, and in some services the forty-fold repetition of ‘Kyrie, eleison’ is used as a prayer in its own right.

In the Bible, the Greek word éleos (mercy) is used to translate two Hebrew words: ḥesed (חסד — steadfast love or kindness) and reḥem (רחם — compassion).

The second word, reḥem, literally means ‘womb’. The biblical idea of compassion, then, is that of a mother’s love for the child in her womb, and all that the unborn child receives from her: nourishment, warmth, safety, growth, and so on.

The prayer ‘Lord, have mercy’, then, is used so frequently because it is all-encompassing; it expresses our every need. It has been said that ‘Lord, have mercy’ is the only prayer of the Church; all else is commentary.


The Jesus Prayer

This prayer also comes in a longer form: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (or, commonly, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’).

This is what we know as the ‘Jesus Prayer’ (or simply, ‘The Prayer’), and it forms the bedrock of Orthodox spirituality; what we know as hesychasm (‘the practice of stillness’).

As we said above, prayer is the oxygen of the soul, and prayer should therefore be as constant as our breathing. When St Paul says, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17), we take this literally, and our goal in prayer is to attain to a point where the words of prayer become constant within us, even while asleep.

The same Apostle tells us, ‘Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him’ (Colossians 3:17). Therefore, this unceasing prayer consists in our unceasingly calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus — ‘the name which is above every name’ (Philippians 2:9) — and combining this with the all-encompassing prayer for mercy.

This, of course, not something that we can attain merely by human effort; it is a work of the Holy Spirit.

A prayer rope — similar in appearance to a rosary, but usually made out of woolen knots rather than beads — is normally used when saying the Jesus Prayer. The point of the rope is not so much to count the number of repetitions (which is not itself important), but to aid concentration.


The three stages of prayer

The tradition of the Church identifies three main stages of prayer:

  1. Prayer of the lips — reciting the words of the prayer.
  2. Prayer of the mind — reciting the words of the prayer with understanding and an awareness of what it is you are expressing.
  3. Prayer of the heart — this is the state of pure prayer, undistracted by images or concepts. It is, if you like, a ‘direct line’ to God.

The Lord says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. Everything in spiritual life is aimed at this purification of the heart. When we are far from God, the eyes of the heart are blinded by the fog of sin. As we turn away from sin and move towards what is good, through prayer and the keeping of God’s commandments, this fog dissipates, and we become increasingly aware of God’s presence in our life (as well as of our own shortcomings, which is why holiness is always accompanied by great humility).