There has been a Q&A column on the website of FOMA Magazine for a long time. Every reader can ask a question and receive a personal response from a priest. However, there are questions that cannot be answered in a letter: they deserve a lengthy answer. A couple of weeks ago, we received an interesting question, “How can you tell a false prayer from the genuine one?”
We forwarded our reader’s question to Archpriest Pavel Velikanov, the rector
Archpriest Pavel Velikanov
of St Paraskevi Church of the Holy Trinity and St Sergius Lavra in Sergiyev Posad, and the editor-in-chief of Bogoslov.ru portal.
A good prayer always has a reliable source
Most prayerbooks contain prayers composed by saints and tested by centuries-long practice of church life. These prayers help to set one’s soul to the right pitch of conversation with the Lord and his saints. Unfortunately, people are often looking for “simple” and “easy” prayers and expect to resolve their problems through them.
There are quite a few prayers that aim to meet practical needs, e.g., childbirth, marriage, or career. It isn’t evident that the authors of these prayers are holy and spiritually advanced. Almost all “time-tested” prayers have an author. Recently, there has been an influx of “anonymous” prayers, composed by no-one-knows-whom and no-one-knows-where with grave dogmatic errors and wrong moral and spiritual teachings.
Books of prayer must have an imprimatur “Recommended for publication by the Publishing Council of the Russian Orthodox Church [or another canonical Local Church – Pravmir],” whereby the Church guarantees that the prayers fit into the tradition of spiritual life of the Orthodox Church. There is another kind of endorsement, which states, “Allowed for publication by the Publishing Council of the Russian Orthodox Church”, which means that there isn’t anything that disturbs one’s inner peace or contradicts the tenets of Christianity in that prayerbook but there might be some prayers that are not used by the entire Church.
Check if the prayers that you find online correspond to the printed books that have these imprimaturs. There are many websites that distribute prayers of dubious content.
Don’t be addicted to the search of new prayers
You should remember that the most important and the most essential prayer of every Christian is the Eucharistic prayer, i.e., the central and the most important part of the Liturgy, during which the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist is performed. It doesn’t ask God to grant any privileges for yourself and your family. It boils down to our participation in the building of God’s Kingdom here and now, which happens when we celebrate the Liturgy, when we take communion, when we become able to hold the Divine fire and to carry it into the world. Anyone who loves and understands church worship will never seek or invent new prayers because our church worship has everything that a human might request from God, and even more.
If you pray together with other people, do it in church
Joint prayers, or the so-called prayers of agreement, can happen outside the church in two cases. First, if it’s the prayer of the “home church”, i.e., the family. Second, if it’s impossible to pray in a church for some reason (illness, distance, etc.) If people gather in someone’s house to pray for no apparent reason and without a priest’s blessing, or agree to read certain prayers at a certain time, the question is why can’t they do so in the church, led by a priest?
It is worth mentioning that we literally pray in agreement when we come to church and take part in the service. We gather “in the church” (1 Cor. 11:18) and turn into a Eucharistic community by joint prayer and participation in the Liturgy. We must also remember that there are molebens, akathists, panikhidas, and other divine services performed in the church, and we shouldn’t disregard them, either.
True prayer results in humility and obedience, not self-righteousness and egoism
By its very nature, a prayer must bring a person closer to God. What does it mean? God is holy. Accordingly, getting closer to God means getting closer to holiness. The fruit of real and genuine prayer will be expressed in two ways. First, the desire to obey God, that is, obedience. Second, humility, that is, realizing that you are unable to get saved by your own power, and that you need God’s help badly in all other matters. Humility doesn’t mean self-deprecation. It doesn’t mean that you should enjoy being guilty of everything and at all times. Humility is the pursuit of God. It is when you commend yourself in God’s hands so that He could come and start managing your life as He pleases.
If someone becomes self-righteous and self-centered as a result of his prayer and the cocoon of his self-sufficiency doesn’t break loose, then his prayer is wrong and false.
Prayer must be free from self-excitement
If we become too emotional, sentimental, and affectionate during prayer, it may mean that we’re heading straight down the path towards the dangerous condition known in Orthodoxy as prelest (devil’s charm), that is being short-circuited on one’s own self and self-deceitful. When we fall prey to this devil’s charm, it might appear that if prayer makes us so enthusiastic, we must be spiritually sound and close to holiness already. The devil often warps one’s perception of reality in order to rob one of the saving fruit of a genuine prayer. Of course, there are special inspirational phenomena that happen during a real prayer, too. They happen when God’s grace touches a person’s heart. However, these phenomena can’t be predicted or achieved by artificial self-excitement.
Prayer mustn’t make you ecstatic
Needless to say, shamanic mumbo-jumbo is strictly forbidden during prayer. More importantly, we have to emphasize that we mustn’t repeat a prayer mechanically and aimlessly, without understanding its meaning and without a penitential feeling, as if it were a mantra or a spell, until you reach an ecstatic state of altered conscience.
Pray in front of the holy icons
Few people know that the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church discourages praying with closed eyes, if there isn’t a good reason to do so. Our minds can’t handle lack of visuals well. When we don’t look at anything, our minds start creating various images or visualizations. It may even be pleasant at times but if we pray in this manner, we can easily be carried away by these images, and our prayers will turn into dreams or fantasies. That is why there are holy icons. Looking at them, we direct our thoughts towards the Person who we pray to.
Your prayer must have a proper recipient
Proper recipients of a prayer include the Lord God glorified in the Holy Trinity, the Most Pure Theotokos, saints, and heavenly hosts. All other recipients are unacceptable. For instance, we don’t pray to the reposed: we pray to God for their blissful repose. We cannot address the “Mother Earth”, the Blue Sky, the Green Grass, the Fire, and everything else that can be found in pagan rituals. Even if you pray together with people who claim to be Orthodox Christians but encounter things like these, you have to stop and state that this kind of prayer is wrong in clear terms. Prayers like these have nothing in common with Christianity.
A true prayer cannot impose any conditions on God
A prayer is an opportunity to talk with God. Only humans have this opportunity. Sure, all creation praises its Creator but only sentient humans can communicate with God using words. A prayer is first of all an interaction between a human being and God. Nevertheless, if the human being starts demanding anything from the Lord, his or her prayer will be more like a magic spell than a truly Christian fear of God and reverence.
You must not rejoice at the misfortunes of other people in your prayer
There are three main modes of prayer: gratitude or praise, petition, and penitence. All other emotions that are rooted in our passions, such as anger or resentment, are absolutely impermissible during the prayer of a Christian. For instance, it is wrong to want revenge, to curse other people or to ask God to punish them. It is forbidden to rejoice at other people’s misfortunes and to thank God for sending them these or those trials, and so forth.
Prayer mustn’t be formal
You mustn’t read the holy words aloud just to mark them as read. If you don’t want to pray; if you feel that you don’t have enough time or energy for prayer, better pray less but call to God as sincerely as you can. However, it is worth pointing out that reducing the time of prayer must not turn into a habit.
Holy Fathers used to say that God won’t hear the prayers that we don’t hear as we pronounce them. It’s clear that the Lord knows all our petitions before we start praying but if we are careless and read the prayers halfheartedly, just to perform a certain ritual or a ceremony, the value of our words amounts to zero.
Prayer cannot be hollow
Before we pray to God or His saints, we ought to prepare by reflecting to whom we are going to pray and what we are going to pray about. More often than not, people who spend years in the Church get so accustomed to the prayers that they start reading them without thinking. Your prayer won’t be powerful if you simply repeat some words, the meaning of which you don’t know or to which you’ve grown insensitive. A prayer isn’t a magic spell that ostensibly possesses power of its own. It cannot be hollow and careless. Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (1 Cor. 14:15). You have to try and put your mind into the words of a prayer.