Bishop Theophan the Recluse* used to say that praying only with words written by another is like “trying to speak a foreign language using only scripted phrases”. Like many other Church teachers, he said that we must “find our own words in order to pray”. Such prayer most often occurs in moments of desperate need or extreme anguish, either for ourselves or for others. In such moments we do not “recite” prayers, we simply cry out to God with childlike trust and love: “Lord, please help and comfort!” Saint Makarios said, “Love gives birth to prayer.” Therein lies the mystery and the meaning of prayer.
We can recite endless litanies, we can endlessly finger our prayer ropes, we can do countless prostrations; but unless we have love and have learned to co-suffer with others, we have not even begun to pray. Abba Antony said, “Let’s learn to love sorrow in order to find God!” Please note that he did not say, “Let’s look for sorrow,” but “Let’s love sorrow,” because sorrow is a cup offered us by Christ, and drinking it, we begin to partake of prayer. Unless we truly empathize with the suffering of others, we are merely fulfilling an obligation, not really praying. To observe a rule of prayer is good and necessary for the spiritual life, but it is just a means, not an end in itself.
Imagine a person fishing from the shore. Everything is fine and peaceful: the brightly colored float bobs on the water’s surface. The person does not realise that there is no baited hook attached to the line. The float is just a pretense, so actually there is no fishing taking place. Far too often a person’s prayer rule is such a baitless float, for it is only the hook of co-suffering love for our neighbor that can catch authentic prayer.
*St. Theophan the Recluse (Russian: Феофан Затворник) was born 10 January 1815 and died 6 January 1894. He is a beloved saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.