“PRAYER AS SPIRITUAL BREATHING”
Prayer, it seems, can be many things for many people. But for us as Orthodox Christians, prayer is the means by which we become one with God. In this way, prayer demands from us a progression from something rudimentary to something perfect, specifically, from something vocal (words from the mouth), to something mindful (that we understand rationally), to something that is an experience of something perfectly heavenly—beyond any human description (communion with God). In the final sense, prayer is the Holy Spirit crying within each of us, “Abba, Father!” “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15).
For this reason, the Holy Fathers insist that the task of prayer be given the utmost regard, that it be designated as the highest and most supreme of all human activities. In summary, the saints bear witness that prayer should be for us as natural as breathing. For it is the mystery by which we are infused with the Spirit of God which gives life to the inner man. ”Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). From this, the Church sees the human person not so much as a body that “contains” a soul, but a soul that carries a body.
The tragedy of the fall, however, is that we have lost this natural capacity to pray deeply, to experience prayer as a type of spiritual “inhalation” of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is one of those essential things, both constitutional and innate to our humanity, that has been forgotten. As such, we as human beings live in this world with a profound existential emptiness that deprives us of a connection with the higher life of the Holy Spirit. So, left to ourselves and living in this world which is both an “Egypt” and “Babylon” of absolute God-forsakenness, we human beings cannot know prayer in the way we must. Instead of filling our aching emptiness with the Holy Spirit, we allow the soul-killing spirits of the world to wreak their havoc. Instead of living in a state of Holy Communion with God, we humans—in our fallen state—exist (not live) in a state of unholy communion with ourselves. And because of this, our experience of life is one of isolation, loneliness, boredom, confusion, frustration, misery, and emptiness.
The only way to re-enliven the soul, to revive it from its withered and shriveled state, is to take up, once again, the task of reinvigorating a life of prayer. Just as a patient who has undergone orthopedic surgery must surrender to the process of physical therapy, so must the believer make a sincere supplication to the Holy Spirit for assistance in prayer. ”Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). This includes a promise to God that a firm “rule” (discipline) of prayer will happen—that is, time for prayer in the morning and evening that is dedicated solely to the task, uninterrupted by any other activity. It also includes full participation in the services of the Church. Because both private prayer (prayer “in the closet”) and the corporate prayer of the Church (“liturgy as the sacred work of God’s people”) are wholly symbiotic: the one gives life to the other and vice versa. Those who attempt to pray at home apart from the Church’s liturgical life will eventually fail to pray at all, and those who come to Church without praying at home will eventually become bored-out-of-their-minds by the “rote” character of the services.
In the beginning, this first step towards prayer may seem, for Americans especially, too pedantic and constrained: for instance, reading fixed prayers from the Book of Psalms or an Orthodox prayer book, and standing through the Lenten services which are longer and more repetitive than usual. There will be times when it feels like these formal prayers (at home and in Church) are having no effect; our inner spirit will grow listless, and our minds will start to wander back to thoughts of the world again. These obstacles are sure to be met by those who sincerely make a good beginning in their prayer and who beg Christ to send them the Holy Spirit as a help. But the Lord gives us the promise that if we are faithful and if we persevere, then we will once again discover how the soul can be resurrected to a state that is raptured by the unspeakable love and grace of God.
Fr. Paul Jannakos