What Do We Mean When We Say “Prayer?”

As Great Lent is approaching let us take some time to dwell on prayer. Lent is usually a time of greater concentration on our spiritual lives and a time of renewal and thoughtful reflection on where we need continued repentance in our lives. This should include more intensified prayer. We should make an effort to keep our prayer “rule” more consistent and to make more space to listen to God as he speaks to us through silence and the “Jesus prayer.” Prayer is so vital to our lives as Christians, and we hear much talk of prayer. There are many books written on the subject and many people ready to tell us the “secrets” of prayer. The one thing we don’t do that often is ask ourselves “what is prayer anyway?” What do we mean when we say “prayer?” This word gets thrown around so much that it can be confusing to understand what it is. There are many different ways to define prayer and theologically discuss it. All of these definitions are wonderful and articles could be written detailing all of these wonderful meanings of prayer. For the sake of focusing some thoughts on the subject, I think the best definition that I have found of prayer is the following: prayer is the remembrance of God in all things. We could also say that this is really the goal of all prayer.

The Fathers of the Church speak a lot about prayer and all seem to come back to this one point – that prayer helps us become mindful of God in the midst of every area of our lives. This includes not only intentional prayer at specific times throughout the day, but also in the midst of one’s tasks and responsibilities at work and home. St. Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17) is certainly a possibility with this expanded definition of prayer. Origen once said, “He prays unceasingly who combines prayer with necessary duties and duties with prayer. Only in this way can we find it practicable to fulfill the commandment to pray always. It consists in regarding the whole of Christian existence as a single great prayer. What we are accustomed to call prayer is only part of it.” Thus prayer can encompass our whole lives. Our whole life then can become an extension of unceasing prayer. St. John Cassian once said, “For whoever is in the habit of praying only at the hour when the knees are bent prays very little. But whoever is distracted by any sort of wandering of heart, even on bended knee, never prays. And therefore we have to be outside the hour of prayer what we want to be when we are praying.” Our lives become the “amen” and activity to our prayer. We become a living prayer always offering up ourselves to God in all things. In this way, whatever we are doing, we are continually praying. By doing our God-given tasks and fulfilling our responsibilities as unto the Lord we continue in our prayer.

It is this type of prayer that is less about words and more about action. The Monks of New Skete comment on this in speaking of unceasing prayer. They say, “We can only be faithful to the mandate to unceasing [prayer] when we seek it qualitatively, by reverently listening and discerning the presence of God in every situation in life; by conforming our hearts and minds and behavior with the words and attitudes we articulate in prayer; and by embracing our whole life and presenting it as a gift to God.” This is not to diminish personal prayer time or our corporate prayers in the liturgical life of the Church. Rather, it should encourage us to think of the totality of our life as a continual prayer being offered up as one who “hears the Word of God and keeps it.” We encounter Christ within prayer and we love Him and strive to keep His commandments in every area of our life. St. Maria Skobtsova calls this the “churching of our life.” This is where we become outside of our prayer what we are when we are praying.

The goal of prayer is the remembrance of God in all things. We do this not only through intentional prayer, but also through embracing what we may call “the sacrament of the present moment.” It is our ability to see the presence of God all around us. Christ Himself is present in all our tasks throughout the day. Paul Evdokimov says, “It is not enough to say prayers, one must become, be prayer, prayer incarnate. It is not enough to have moments of praise. All of life, every act, every gesture, even the smile on the human face, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering, a prayer. One should not offer what one has, but what one is.” May God help us to see the totality of our life as one ceaseless prayer especially as we enter the Great Fast. Let us be open to seeing the presence of God in all things. Let it be so, Lord, have mercy.

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