All of the virtues and powers of God are attained primarily by prayer. Without prayer, there is no spiritual life. As the Russian bishop, Theophan the Recluse, has said, “If you are not successful in your prayer, you will not be successful in anything, for prayer is the root of everything” (Theophan the Recluse, 19th c., The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.).
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Mt 6.5–6).
Prayer must be in secret. This is the first rule given by Christ. The person who prays must do so in such a way that he would not be seen by men to be praying.
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, the words of Christ “go into your room” have been interpreted in two ways. First of all, they have been understood to be a literal commandment. The praying person must close himself off physically during times of prayer in order to pray secretly and to avoid being seen.
Secondly, these words of Christ have been understood to mean that the praying person must enter within himself, praying secretly in his mind and heart at all times, without displaying his interior prayer to others. Thus the “room” which one must “go into” is the “room of the soul.”
The room of the soul is the body; our doors are the five bodily senses. The soul enters its room when the mind does not wander here and there, roaming among the things and affairs of the world, but stays within, in our heart. Our senses become closed and remain closed when we do not let them be passionately attached to external sensory things and in this way our mind remains free from every worldly attachment, and by secret mental prayer unites with God its Father.
God who sees all secret things sees mental prayer and rewards it openly with great gifts. For that prayer is true and perfect which fills the soul with divine grace and spiritual gifts (Saint Gregory Palamas, 14th c., How All Christians Must Pray Without Ceasing).
Thus, in the spiritual tradition of the Christian teachers of prayer, the unification of the mind and the heart within the soul is seen to be the fulfillment of the basic condition of prayer as commanded by Christ (cf. The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.).
And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the heathen do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not he like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him (Mt 6.7–8).
God knows the needs of His people. Man prays in order to unite his mind and heart with God. He prays in order that God’s will would be done in his life. He prays so that whatever he needs from God would be given. He prays so that he would consciously and with full awareness express the fact that all that he is, has and does is dependent on God. It is man who needs to pray. It is not God who needs man’s prayers.
True Christian prayer must be brief. It must be simple and regular. It must not be many-worded. Indeed it need not have words at all. It may be the totally silent inner attitude of the soul before God, the fulfillment of the words of the psalmist:
Commune with your hearts . . . and be silent. Be still, and know that I am God (Ps 4.4, 46.10).
The teaching about brevity and silence in prayer is found in all of the spiritual teachers. Saint Dimitry of Rostov sums up this teaching when he says that the publican prayed only “God be merciful to me a sinner” and was justified; the repentant thief prayed only “Remember me . . .” and received paradise; and the prodigal son and the tax-collector, Zacchaeus, said nothing at all, and received the mercy of the Father and the forgiveness of Christ (Lk 15.20, 18.13, 19.5, 22.42; cf. St Dimitry of Rostov, 17th c., The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, ed.).
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened . . . If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in My name, I will do it (Jn 14.13–14).
Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in My name. Until now you have asked nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (Jn 16.23–24).
Whatever one asks in the name of Jesus will be given. This does not mean that man can ask God for anything at all. He cannot ask for what is not needed, or for what is evil. He can ask, however, and must ask for “good gifts,” for whatever can be asked in the name of Christ, for whatever is holy and sinless and good. If one asks for good things in faith, he will certainly receive them if God thinks that he should have them for his life and salvation. This is the promise of the Lord Himself.
If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15.7).
And whatever you ask in prayer, if you have faith, you will receive (Mt 21.22, cf. Lk 18.1–8).
Every prayer directed to God in faith is answered. This does not mean that what is asked is always given, for God knows better than the person who prays what is good for him. For this reason the spiritual teachers warn man against being too long and insistent in his concrete demands of the Lord. God knows best what is needed, and in order to prove this to His servants, He may at times yield to their insistent demands and give what they want, but should not have, in order to show them quite clearly that they should have trusted in His wisdom. Thus it is always best to be silent and brief in prayer, and not too specifically demanding. It is always best to pray: “Give what is needed, O Lord. Thy will be done.”
How many times have I prayed for what seemed a good thing for me, and not leaving it to God to do, as He knows best, what is useful for me. But having obtained what I begged for, I found myself in distress because I had not asked for it to be, rather, according to God’s will . . . (Saint Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer).
The Lord’s Prayer
When teaching men to pray, Christ said,
Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Mt 6.9–13, cf. Lk 11.2–4).
This is the usual translation of the prayer used in the Orthodox Church. It begins with a petition to God as “our Father.” There was no such prayer before this teaching of Christ. The Old Testament people did not address God as “Abba: Father” (Rom 8.15, Gal 4.6). This name of “Father” for God is given by Christ, the divine Son of God. Men can dare, “with boldness and without condemnation” to call upon the “heavenly God” with the name of “Father” only when they are made worthy to do so by Christ (cf. Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom). In the early church the prayer “Our Father” was taught only to the baptized members of the church.
The statement that the Father is “in heaven,” or literally “in the heavens,” means that He is everywhere and over all things. The heavens are over all and encompass all. Wherever man goes on the earth or in the air, or even in space, the heavens are around him and over him. To say that the Father is “in the heavens” means that He is not tied down or limited to any one location—as were the gods of the heathens. The heavenly God is the “God of gods” (Deut 10.17, 2 Chron 2.5), the “Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.5), the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). To say that God is “in heaven” is not to place Him somewhere; it is rather to say that He transcends all things and yet is present to all.
“Hallowed be Thy name” means that God’s name is holy and should be treated with respect and devotion. In the old covenant it was the custom of the Jews never to say the sacred name of God: Yahweh, the I AM (cf. Ex 3.13–15). This was to guard against defilement of the divine name, and to safeguard against transgressing the commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Ex 20.7).
In the New Testament, God gives Jesus the “name which is above every name” (Phil 2.9) and in making the name of the Father holy, Christians do so in the name of His Son.
“Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer is first of all the prayer for the end of the ages. Christians want the world to end so that God’s Kingdom would fill all creation with divine glory and life. “Come Lord Jesus; Marantha!” is the prayer of the faithful, the last prayer of the Scriptures (Rev 22.20, cf. 1 Cor 16.22). It is the calling for the final appearance of the Lord.
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, the prayer “Thy Kingdom come” has also been understood as an invocation of the Holy Spirit to dwell in God’s people. In his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, Saint Gregory of Nyssa says that there was another reading for this petition which said “Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Thus he says, following the scriptures, that the presence of the Holy Spirit in man is the presence of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
For the Kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14.17).
. . . it is God who establishes us with you in Christ . . . He has put His seal upon us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee (2 Cor 1.22).
In Him . . . you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it to the praise of His glory.
. . . do not grieve the Holy Spirit in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Eph 1.13–14, 4.30).
The seal of the Holy Spirit on men’s hearts is the pledge and guarantee of the Kingdom of God still to come in all power and glory. In the prayer “Thy Kingdom come,” believers in Jesus ask that the Kingdom of God “not coming in external signs of observation” for the faithless to behold, might dwell powerfully and secretly within the faithful (cf. Lk 17.20–21).
“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is the center of the Lord’s Prayer, the central desire of Christians. The whole purpose of prayer, the very purpose of man’s life, is to do the will of God. This is what Jesus prayed and did (cf. Mt 26.42). And this is what His followers must pray and do. There is but one purpose of prayer, say the spiritual teachers, to keep God’s commandments so as not to sin, thus leading to deification and divine sonship with Christ.
The only thing that God demands of us mortals is that we do not sin. But this . . . is merely keeping inviolate the image and rank we possess by nature. Clothed thus in the radiant garment of the Spirit, we abide in God and He in us; through grace we become gods and sons of God and are illumined by the light of His knowledge . . . (Saint Simeon the New Theologian, 10th c., Practical and Theological Precepts).
To pray “Thy will be done” according to the spiritual teachers, is a daring and dangerous act. This is so, first of all, because when one makes this prayer, he must be ready, like Christ, to follow where it leads. God will answer this prayer, and make known His will. The person who prays must be ready to obey, whatever the consequences. When asked why many Christians are frustrated and irritated, grouchy and mean, and sometimes even somewhat “unbalanced,” one spiritual teacher responded that the reason is clear. They pray “Thy will be done,” and continue daily to do so, while at the same time they resist God’s will in their lives and so are always ill at ease. Then they begin to justify their attitudes and actions, to explain and to rationalize their behavior, before their own consciences and others. A person in such as state can never be at peace, for “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God” (Heb 10.31).
The second reason why it is said that the prayer “Thy will be done”—and prayer generally—is daring and dangerous is because the devil ferociously attacks the person who prays. Indeed one of the greatest proofs of demonic temptation, and the reality and power of the devil, is to be fervent in prayer. For the devil wants nothing so much as for man to fail to accomplish the will of God which is the purpose of all prayer.
If you strive after prayer, prepare yourself for diabolical suggestions and bear patiently their onslaughts; for they will attack you like wild beasts . . . Try as much as possible to be humble and courageous . . . He who endures will be granted great joy (Saint Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer).
The prayer for our “daily bread” is normally understood to signify generally all of our bodily needs and whatever we require to sustain our lives in this world. In the spiritual tradition however, this petition, because it literally says our “essential” or “super-essential” bread, is often understood in the spiritual sense to mean the nourishment of our souls by the Word of God, Jesus Christ who is the “Bread of Life;” the “Bread of God which has come down from heaven and given life to the world” (Jn 6.33–36); the bread which “a man may eat of it and not die,” but “live forever” (Jn 6.50–51). Thus the prayer for “daily bread” becomes the petition for daily spiritual nourishment through abiding communion with Christ so that one might live perpetually with God.
The prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” has been especially emphasized by the Lord.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mt 6.14–15).
This is the point of Christ’s parable about the unforgiving servant (Mt 18.23–35). All men need the forgiveness of God and must pray for it. All men are indebted to God for everything, and fail to offer the thanksgiving and praise and righteousness that are due. The only way that God will overlook and forgive the sins and debts of His servants is if they themselves forgive their brothers, not merely in words and formal gestures, but genuinely and truly “from their hearts” (cf. Mt 18.35). In the prayer taught by Christ this is clearly acknowledged.
“Lead us not into temptation” should not be understood as if God puts His people to the test or brings them in to the occasion of evil.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God;” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death(Jas 1.13–15).
“Lead us not into temptation” means that we ask God not to allow us to be found in situations in which we will be overcome by sin. It is a prayer that we be kept from those people and places where wickedness reigns and where we in our weakness will certainly succumb. It is a prayer that we will be liberated from the deceit and vanity of our minds and hearts, from the carnal lusts that dwell in our bodies. It is a prayer that God Himself would be man’s shelter and refuge (cf. Ps 91).
“Deliver us from evil” says literally “rescue us from the evil one,” that is, the devil. The meaning is clear. There are but two ways for man: God and life or the devil and death. Deliverance from the devil means salvation and redemption from every falsehood, foolishness, deceit, wickedness and iniquity that leads to destruction and death.
Thus, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sorouzh has explained, the Lord’s Prayer shows the whole meaning of the life of man (cf. Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer). Delivered from evil, man is saved from temptation, in so doing he is merciful to all and receives the forgiveness of his own sins. Being forgiven his sins, by his mercy to others, he has all that he needs for life—his “daily bread”; and being nourished by God, he accomplishes His will. Having accomplished His will, God’s Kingdom is present, His name is sanctified and He becomes the Father of the one who shows himself to be in truth the child of God who can say, “Our Father.”