The goal of the Christian’s life on earth is to attain union with God and eternal salvation of our souls. A primary means for union with God is prayer; for it is through prayer, the Christian is joined in one spirit with the Lord (I Cor. 6:17). Prayer is the focal point and foundation of our spiritual life and the source of our salvation. “Without prayer,” as St. John Chrysostom says, “there is no life in the spirit.” Without prayer a person is deprived of communion with God and can be compared to a dry and barren tree, which is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 7:19).
Prayer sanctifies our thoughts, desires and deeds and assists us in the acquisition of the grace of God. Nothing so helps us to grow in virtue as our pure and pious prayers. Thus it was the shared opinion of all the Holy Mothers and Fathers that prayer is the foundation of all virtues. By repeated and fervent prayer, a person obtains mercy and immeasurable bounties of grace bestowed in accordance with the Creator’s infinite loving kindness for each of us. The Christian dutifully prays not only for oneself, but for all, for we all are the children of God. Accordingly, we pray for the salvation of our neighbor just as we pray for our own salvation.
As with any spiritual endeavor, however, the Christian must learn how to pray properly. As St. Tikhon of Zadonsk cautions us:
“Of no value is that prayer in which the tongue prays but the mind is empty; the tongue speaks, but the mind lies silent; the tongue calls God, but the mind wanders amongst created things.”
We must, therefore, pray in humility and awe and try in every way to ensure that our minds are with our words, or, as St. John of the Ladder tells us, “to enclose our mind in the words of our prayer, so that the heart may respond to the words of the prayers.” The reading of prayers and prostrations are essential, of course, but prayer itself should come from the depth of our heart and soul.
St. John Chrysostom on Prayer
“The person who is able to pray correctly, even if one is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And the person who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if one sits on a royal throne” – St. John Chrysostom
In his earthly ministry, St. John Chrysostom was well known as a superb homilist and, for his efforts, received the well-deserved title Golden-Mouth. In his sermons, St. John was especially concerned for the spiritual and moral development of his flock and, as a result, he was especially interested in teaching them how to pray. As trees cannot live without water, so a person’s soul cannot live without prayerful contact with God, he taught. If you deprive yourself of prayer, you will do as though you had taken a fish out of water: as life is water for a fish, so is prayer for us.
To live in God means that one must always and everywhere be with God; and, without prayer, such union is impossible. Therefore St. John did not limit conversation with God in prayer to one set time of day or to one definite place. As he taught, one can say prolonged and fervent prayers while walking about the streets or while sitting and working in a workshop. While in public, St. John recommended one pray silently, for the power of prayer lies not in words uttered by the lips but by the heart. While not diminishing the role and importance of prayer set for definite hours, St. John, nonetheless, sees the time of prayer in much broader terms. We can obtain benefit from praying during our entire lives by devoting to it the greater part of our time. He even asked Christians to pray during the night, for he knew from experience what benefit such prayers bring. Prayers at night are often purer because the mind is more at ease and there are fewer worries. These prayers can be short and few, but, as St. John says, let us rise during the night. If you do not say many prayers, then say one with attentive concern and this is enough. I demand no more. If not in the middle of the night, at least towards morning.
St. John advises first of all to thank God for everything. Receiving all gifts from God, a Christian must constantly thank God for them. But, not all that is asked of God can bring benefit or be good for a person. Many prayers are not heard because persons ask for useless things, because they insist on the fulfillment of their own will and not God’s, show indulgence towards their own weaknesses, and do not gather spiritual treasure. A person must also be taught by reason of one’s limitations and sinfulness that one cannot always correctly determine what will bring benefit for what is asked in prayer. St. John also taught that fasting proves to be an invaluable aid in the achievement of noetic prayer. The Saint notes:
“While fasting, a person does not doze off, does not talk a lot, neither does one yawn or grow weak in prayer as often happens to many when not fasting.”
The Saint taught that whether we are heard or not when we pray depends upon the following:
- Are we in grace to receive?
- Do we pray according to Divine Law?
- Do we pray incessantly?
- Do we avoid asking for worldly things?
- Do we fulfill everything that is required on our part? and, finally,
- Do we ask for spiritually beneficial things?
When these conditions are fulfilled, prayer acquires truly ineffable power. It spiritualizes a person, renews one, inspires one, and carries one away to heavenly pastures. As St. John affirms:
“In truth prayer is the light of the soul, the true knowledge of God and humanity, the healer of vices, the physician of diseases, the peace of the soul, the heavenly guide which does not revolve around the earth, but which leads up to Heaven! Therefore, the beneficial devotion of prayer is the breath of life.”