Pray without ceasing
In St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he advises us that Christians should “pray without ceasing”, along with thanksgiving and rejoicing. This is not a command so unachievable we end up hurling ourselves into despair and despondency; rather it is looking in hope and expectation towards our full union with God. It is an invitation to a full, constant and deeply personal relationship with the Risen Lord.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Everyone is a beginner
Even the greatest saints admit that they are only just beginners in prayer. Metropolitan Silouan once said that prayer is a struggle until one’s last breath. So how do we start to pray? We start as we are and where we are. We can start by trying to understand what prayer might be, and what it is not.
At its most simple, prayer is placing oneself in the presence of God, being silent, and listening.
Be still, and know that I am God…
Psalm 46: 10
It is important to note that our first aim in prayer is to listen, not to speak. Be Still! God knows you infinitely more than you know yourself. He knows what you need (which may not be what you want…) He knows what troubles you, and as a loving Father wants you to be with Him. A long shopping-list of wants and desires is not needed. He is much more interested in bringing you closer to Himself, then everything else will follow from that.
Sign of the Cross
Perhaps the first form of prayer a new Orthodox Christian learns, whether as a young child or as an adult convert, is how to make the sign of the cross. This is perhaps the most powerful way of praying without words… or in other words, praying with your body.*
Whenever an Orthodox Christian brings God into mind, he will inevitably make the sign of the cross: in church, at home, at work, in the street, on the sportsfield, where ever he happens to be. Making the sign of the cross is an offering of ourselves, and of those for whom we pray, before the unconditional and ever-flowing Love of God. We may make the sign of the cross as soon as we wake in the morning, before we start work, when we hear of someone who is ill, or when we see an ambulance race past us. Sportsmen and women may make the sign of the cross when winning a match or scoring a goal. The list is as long as all human endeavour, as it is an immediate way of offering up that particular part of our life to God in that very moment.
As Orthodox Christians, we make the sign of the cross with our thumb and first two fingers held in a pointed shape, with the other two fingers (the ‘ring finger’ and the ‘little finger’) folded inwards towards the palm. This way of holding the hand reminds us of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity and the Two Natures of Christ.
Holding our right hand like this, we then touch our forehead, the middle of our torso, our right shoulder and our left shoulder. In this way we are offering all of ourselves (and those for whom we pray) to God: mind, heart, good side and bad side.
Making the sign of the cross is the most fundamental form of prayer. It uses no words, but instead uses our bodies, given to us by God, to offer prayer back to Him.
*Our article Prayer III will look at other ways we use our bodies in prayer.
Later on, we may even start to speak in God’s presence!