Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, we move into specifics of some of the various prayer traditions. Scot McKnight begins with Eastern Orthodox because it is arguably the oldest tradition. Orthodox prayers are also online here:

http://www.oca.org/ocselect.asp?SID=8

Scot notes in the introduction to the chapter something that simply needs quoting rather than summarizing.

“Eastern Orthodoxy has a singular theme in all its teaching about prayer: Union with God is the final goal of human existence. All of the prayer traditions, not the least of which is the Jesus Prayer, focus on this goal. By turning our hearts to God, whether alone in our own Portiuncola or with others in the church, we are joining ourselves together to strive for union with God.

“The Orthodox remind us of a central truth about prayer: The purpose of prayer is not to get good at it, but for the Church to become good through it. And the Church becomes good by utilizing set prayers at set times. The Orthodox use both the Jesus Prayer and, as we will show later in this chapter, a special prayer book.”

The Jesus Prayer was one of my most exciting discoveries in this chapter this past summer. You see, in my own effort to incorporate breath prayers and to begin to work toward prayer that does not cease (something I’m still a long way from), I had found that the simple phrase “Lord Jesus have mercy” did something profound for me. Though I might have no other words, I would feel that the words I might have used were heard. I found my racing mind and body would grow quieter. And as I said it in the midst of a busy day, I found it would by itself alter my perception of what was around me. I would shift from working with no awareness of God to seeing that reality color everything.

And yet all through this long period of discovery, I was completely unaware that this simple prayer is one of the oldest continuing prayer traditions of the church. Very early in the history of the church, in an effort to make Paul’s exhortations about prayer a reality, many in the church had arrived at two ideas. One group learned they could say the name Jesus over and over again throughout the day, perhaps in rhythm with their heart and thus remain prayerfully focused on our Lord. Others took their cue from the story in Luke 18 and would repeat throughout the day, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or some variation. The Jesus Prayer took those two traditions and combined them. In one common modern form, it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In essence, I had independently rediscovered one of the oldest prayers of the church. Truly the preacher was correct, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But it was also a validation for me that I wasn’t simply wandering somewhere off in left field discovering things that merely “worked for me.” I live aware of that strong tendency in everything I do. This discovery gave me greater confidence in the guidance of the Spirit and in the awareness that something can “work for me” and I can trust in that experience. It is not automatically syncretic or a perception-based distortion.

There are a lot of ways to vary this simple prayer. The one I used is a common one and among the oldest forms of the prayer. And it can be said with your heartbeat to incorporate your body into the prayer. You can also say it in a pattern. Add a word each time until the entire prayer has been recited. And then start over. Moreover, it’s a prayer for which you can never claim you had no time. It can fill the interstices of your day as well as it can fill a time of silence and solitude in the wee hours of the morning. The Jesus Prayer is probably the single best introduction into the prayer tradition of the church.

The second best, which Scot also mentions in the opening of this chapter, is the variation of the Shema that Jesus taught. Although I can’t claim to have reached the point where I automatically think of it each time I lie down or rise, it does come to mind fairly often. And using it with my eighth grade class at least has them now at the point where they have it memorized, even if they claim they don’t. (I listen to them carefully.) And again, this is a part of the ancient prayer tradition of the church that is not at all a difficult discipline to acquire. It simply requires the desire.

As with all prayer traditions, the Orthodox prayer book is grounded in the Psalms. However, in addition to those and the Jesus Prayer, “the Orthodox have produced out of their nearly two millenia of thinking and practice some of the church’s best known prayers.” And flowing from the practice of the Shema, the Orthodox focus on set prayers at morning and evening. In addition to prayers, the Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers is designed to be used with a lectionary to guide in the reading of the Bible.

Scot McKnight finds their tradition somewhat difficult over the long- haul because it is repetitive and, like a good American, he desires more variation in his set prayers. Yet it strikes me that the Jewish tradition was pretty repetitive and it was initially established by God. Moreover Jesus doesn’t seem to have offered a huge array of novel prayers. He modified the Shema and provided only one new recorded set prayer that I can recall. And even that one prayer he only provided in response to a direct request by his followers. So I know it cuts against our grain. (I like variation myself.) Nevertheless, that may be something within us that should be reshaped. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that the primary purpose of prayer is not to satisfy our craving for novelty.

Scot also notes that on days when he doesn’t feel like praying or his spontaneous prayers are shallow and empty, the prayer books and praying with the Church tends to bring life to his own private prayers and to fill his mind with prayers he should offer. The set prayers energize the private prayers. And I’ve experienced something similar, even though I don’t yet regularly use a prayer book. On days when I better remember to recite the few set prayers I use, I find I spend more time in prayer in general than on days when I don’t.

Eastern prayer is marked by three things: “an acute realization of man’s enslavement to sin, a deep sense of the Divine majesty and glory, and the frequent references to the Mother of God.” The contrast between our enslavement to sin and God’s great glory leads to an emphasis on God’s goodness and grace. References to the “theotokos” (Mother of God or literally God-Bearer) will probably make good Protestants uncomfortable. Scot also notes that Eastern prayers are deeply Trinitarian in nature. Lines are said three times. The Trinity is explicitly mentioned. The morning prayer tradition, for example, begins as follows:

“When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the Sign of the Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Once again, it’s a prayer practice that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily life. Can there be a better way to start the day than standing in prayerful contemplation before our Lord?

Scot then provides a number of examples from the Eastern manual. And they are all well worth reading and considering. But in his closing, he has a statement I just have to quote. I love it.

“I sometimes jokingly tell my Protestant students that when we get to heaven the first thing we will have to do is learn the prayer books of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. ‘Why?’ they often ask. ‘Because,’ I reply, ‘those are the prayers they know, and we’ll be asked to join in with them during prayer meetings.’ Such quips, of course, don’t tell the whole truth — but neither are they falsehoods.”

I want to add a present-day footnote to this post. Recently, Fr. Stephen published a post to the Memory Eternal of Donald Sheehan. In it, he included a link to this essay by him. The essay itself is interesting, but toward the bottom is an autobiographical section. There are many things that struck me in his life story, but the one most pertinent in this context and the one which brought tears to my eyes was his story of the way the Jesus Prayer came to him when he did not know what it was, did not about Orthodoxy, and was mystified. My own experience was not nearly as dramatic, but his story was the first time I had heard about someone else to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and previously unknown. I still pray it. I have used a variety of prayerbooks since I wrote the above and my prayer rule overall remains inconsistent. But the Jesus Prayer is never far from me. Since I read that chapter in Scot McKnight’s book I’ve learned a lot about Orthodoxy and much of the impetus behind learning about them has been the fact that “my” prayer is a deep tradition of their church. I don’t feel I’ve discovered much new in Orthodoxy. As with the Jesus Prayer, most of what they believe was already what I believed. I found better words, sometimes, in the ways that they say it. But nothing in Orthodoxy feels “new” to me. Beyond that, I’m largely at a loss about what I should do. For some reason, it was important to me to know that I’m hardly the only one to whom the Jesus Prayer comes without a context or traditional setting. If you pray at all, pray the Jesus Prayer in one form or another. Let it seep into your heart and shape who you are.

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