The Orthodox Leader

Reflections on Prayer

Thom Rainer, a prolific Baptist writer and former seminary dean, recently published an article titled “9 Reasons Why Church Leaders Struggle with Prayer.” I’ve thought about the article several times since it appeared about a week ago and decided to record some of those thoughts here. Read the article, then come back here.

In no particular order:

  1. I believe he’s fundamentally correct that many, and perhaps most, church leaders, including Orthodox clergy and laity, struggle with prayer. I know this has been true for me at several points, and I hear of it often from others.
  2. Point 8, “Some leaders have simply lost hope,” is prophetic. However, I think his point that “Unanswered prayer leads to faithlessness, which leads to prayerlessness” is better off reversed: “Unanswered prayer leads to prayerlessness, which leads to faithlessness.” In other words, I think it is prayer that is perceived inwardly as pointless that becomes the basis for not praying and that, ultimately, leads to a loss of belief. Really, this is the problem of estrangement, where short-term separation leads to long-term isolation, making return harder by the day.
  3. Point 4, “Prayerlessness can be hidden.” Indeed. This is an area where father-confessors of clergy (yes, we have them, too) and parish leaders need to hold their spiritual children accountable. Of course, this means father-confessors need to be praying regularly themselves.
  4. Point 6, “We have never been broken under God’s hand.” That’s a bit of coded language there, but Rainer is referring to the fact that the person who sees himself as self-sufficient has no need for God. If there’s no real need for God, why pray? Pride is at the root of things here. Truly we must come to see ourselves as chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), and learn to pray as the publican, “God be merciful unto me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
  5. Point 2, “We never learned how to pray.” Superficially, this should be less of a problem for the Orthodox, considering the ready availability of proper prayer books, akathists, and lectionary. We know not to fall into the “I just” prayer trap that plagues the extemporaneous prayers of many Protestants. (“Lord, I just want to thank you.” “Jesus, I just want you to come into my life.” “Lord, I just want to offer up this prayer to you.”) What we do lack is real instruction on how to begin prayer. Ideally, this would be done at home, as children. Do we clergy teach our own children and our adult faithful as diligently as we ought?
  6. Point 3, “Prayer has become more about ritual than relationship.” This is related to point 2, but I’ll say that I disagree with Rainer here. Prayer is something that has to be cultivated as a habit, as a regular discipline. No one claims that training for a marathon by running every day, according to a schedule, regimen, and diet is about “ritual.” Rather, it is the discipline that brings the desired end to fruition.Thus, when it comes to the life of prayer, there’s a certain amount of “fake it to make it” going on. It is the daily discipline of prayer that ultimately leads to the freedom of prayer.It is in the regular “motions” of prayer that our minds and bodies learn to be still, while making the prayer of our lips the prayer of our hearts, and opening our spiritual ears to hear the voice of our Creator. In establishing the ritual of prayer, we find ourselves liberated from the difficulty of wondering what to pray, or how, and instead can give ourselves over to the spiritual presence. And, when we are weak, it is that cultivated discipline that carries us into prayer, where our Maker bears us up.

    When I was a new priest, I was called upon to serve as the main celebrant at a Divine Liturgy in the seminary chapel. (I hadn’t served more than half a dozen times at that point.) At the conclusion, the rector of the chapel approached me. He peered down and said, “Father Basil, you are coming along. Pretty soon, you will be able to stand there [in front of the Holy Table] and actually pray.” What he meant, of course, is that, soon, I would have mastered the basic mechanics of serving as a priest (what to say, where to be, what to do) and could focus my deliberate efforts (that which requires thought) solely on being an intercessor before God. What he said was true of public prayer, and it’s emphatically true of private prayer. The ritual becomes an aid, not a hindrance.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them. (And, no, I’ve not forgotten about the articles on the challenges of preaching. More on that soon.)

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Written by Fr Basil Biberdorf

July 30th, 2013 at 8:30 am

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