Back to Basics: How do I kick-start my Prayer Life? by Fr. Anthony Mourad

November 13, 2019

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.

My beloved today we start a new series called Back to Basics. In this series we speak of the practical side of a spiritual life: the “how to” of the most fundamental elements of the Christian lifestyle. And we cannot possibly begin this series without first talking about prayer. And so in this first video of the series, we will attempt to answer the question of “How do I kick-start my prayer life?”


First let’s address a very crucial point in regard to the spiritual life. Always keep in mind that the Christian is called to be in a relationship with all Holy Trinity. We are called to know God, and to be known by Him. And so, the Christian must always keep at the forefront of his mind that all that we do is in pursuit of a genuine relationship with God. And so, as we discuss prayer, this is not in any way an attempt to teach you how to mechanically go about prayer – as if this were an instructional video on how to stretch or how to build a dinning room table. No! this is more an attempt at explaining the different ways and the different the tools our mother the Church has set before us to connect and be united to God in and through prayer.  


Before we begin, let me share three key things to consider:  


#1 We ought to know that prayer is not the repetition of empty ritual, rather prayer is the soul’s attempt at union with her Creator. It is a state of being, not merely an action of spoken words. While the words given to us by the Church are extremely powerful, they are of no use unless they pour out of a sincere heart.   


#2 Prayer does not need to be complicated; God isn’t seeking poetry and sophistication. David the psalmist says this clearly when he says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:17) Even  The Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the righteous tax collector who asked for forgiveness in his prayer and says:  


I tell you; this man went down to his house justified (Luke 18: 14) 


My beloved the Lord isn’t so much concerned with the quantity or quality of our words, but rather the state of our heart. He desires us, personally, more than anything else.  


#3 Prayer is not limited only to my bedroom, but to be spoken at all times and in all places as the heart desires. Now this in no way means that I ought to stop setting time aside to stand before His face in the privacy of my room, but it means that on top of this we ought to also have God on our hearts and minds everywhere and at all times. St Basil the great councils us and says that we ought to have God on our mind’s in every little thing that we do. Listen to what he says” 


“When you sit down to eat, pray. When you eat bread, do so thanking Him for being so generous to you. If you drink wine, be mindful of Him who has given it to you for your pleasure and as a relief in sickness. When you dress, thank Him for His kindness in providing you with clothes. When you look at the sky and the beauty of the stars, throw yourself at God’s feet and adore Him who in His wisdom has arranged things in this way. Similarly, when the sun goes down and when it rises, when you are asleep or awake, give thanks to God, who created and arranged all things for your benefit, to have you know, love and praise their Creator.” [St. Basil the Great, from Homily V] 


And so, in this we learn, while personal time in prayer in our bedrooms is essential, communication or rather communion with God at all times and in all things is necessary!  



Before we discuss some of the ways we can begin to pray, I would like to share with you one last and most essential idea about prayer. In order for me to succeed in having a consistent prayer life, I must see prayer as a nonnegotiable! Communion with God must be at the top of my list of priorities, not merely something I work towards if I have time… Think of it this way: we would never consider going to school or to work without first washing our face in the morning, or brushing our teeth, or even getting properly dressed. To us these are all non-negotiables – we will not face the world unless I have done these. Why then do I not see prayer or my standing before my God as just as important as these tasks. If I don’t dare go to work without putting on my work clothes, do I really believe I can face the day without first asking for His grace and His blessings? No, my beloved – prayer must be a non-negotiable! I must believe that I cannot begin or end my day without it!  


Now, what are some of the ways the Church sets before us to begin praying. Today we will attempt to briefly discuss 5 ways that can all be used when pursuing a relationship with the Lord.  


Let’s begin with the most communal and formal way; the Liturgical prayer life. Over the centuries, the Church, who is in love with her saviour has decorated her liturgical prayers with beautiful words, hymnology, doxologies, and even scriptural readings so that it can present to both God and the laity the best that has to offer. And so, in the Orthodox Church, where we celebrate Divine LiturgiesMatins and Vespers prayers, and other forms of Liturgical worship, the Christian person is exposed to beautiful prayerful language where one of the models of prayer is made accessible. This then becomes a school where we can learn the language and the demeanour of prayer, where we see before us the example of true offering and Eucharist, where we hear the Words of Holy Scripture, and we have set before us examples of the saints that have become victors in their relationship with the Lord.  


Another tool and model of prayer that the Church makes accessible to us is the canonical book of the hours. In the Coptic Orthodox rite, this is known as the AGPEYA. In this book, the Church offers its children a model of structured prayer. It teaches how we ought to begin with thanksgiving and then repentance in reciting psalm 51. It is then filled with the beauty of the psalms, readings of the segments of the gospels, and then litanies and other prayers that the Church handed down to us in order to elevate our hearts to God. And while some people may express that they have difficulty reciting words that are not their own, I urge them to adopt a different perspective. See this as you would see a greeting card: while the words were written by another, they often express what you could not put into words. And so, as we read the words of the psalmist or the words of the Church, let them inspire us to then add to them our own words and in so doing be in communion with God.  



Which then leads us to yet Another model of prayer…the free cry of the heart. This 3rd model is when the heart simply overflows. In thanksgiving, in supplications, in repentance and the pursuit of mercy, in the remembrance of others, and many other things. For some, this is difficult because in the beginning we lack the words to express what we want to say. The heart knows, but the tongue lacks the experience of expression. And this is where liturgy and the AGPEYA, or the prayers written by the Church can be of great use. They teach us the vocabulary to express what the Soul is seeking. For others, it comes easily. It flows naturally as simple prayer. Fr Matthew the Poor, a great contemporary teacher in the Coptic Orthodox Church says the following in his book called the Orthodox Prayer Life:  


“[Simple Prayer] is an intimate and fervent discourse in which the soul speaks with God, its creator, expressing its feelings. Such feelings may be glorification of his works, attributes, or wisdom, or thankfulness for his mercy and his transcendent and humble care. Here, the soul might be afire during this silent meditation and thus could not bear to keep silent any longer. It breaks forth into unchecked words that express love, worship, and submission, as a child expresses in his feeble words 

his strong feelings. The heart, which quakes with the touches of the hidden 

hand of God, is thereupon laid open before him.” [Fr Matthew the poor – Orthodox Prayer Life]  


The fourth model that the Church lays before as us a tool in prayer, is the repetition of short and very powerful sentences. A great example of this the very well-known Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have mercy on me a sinner”. Another short and powerful prayer is the one recommended to us by St Macarius the Great, who when his disciples asked him how they ought to pray he simply answered:  


There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and He shows us His mercy.” 


“Lord, as you will, ad you know, have mercy.” Indeed, a very powerful and helpful prayer to memorize and repeat throughout the day. And I believe the simplest of all prayers is that which our Orthodox Church repeats many times throughout her prayers: “Kyrie Eleison”: Lord have mercy! All of these are great examples of short and powerful sentences that a person can repeat and have on their heart all throughout the day: as they drive, as they stand in line for coffee, as they eat their supper, and even as they speak to others. This is how we can pray everywhere and at all times! 


Finally, the last tool and model or prayer that we will look at, is silence and stillness. This is when a person can simply sit before the Lord and from that stillness receive grace because of the awareness of God’s presence. Just as two lovers can sit quietly in each other’s embrace without saying a thing, and not feel the need to express a word because their presence is sufficient for them. And so even this, the silent and still heart, is yet another way that the Christian can commune with God in a perfect state of prayer.  


My beloved, as we have seen, our Mother the Church sets before us a collection of tools, all of which can help us build a sincere relationship with our God. Not one of these is more or less important than the other, and everyone is meant to use all of them at some point and all throughout their lives. And now that we have seen some vary basic ways on how to pray, I urge all of you to speak to your Spiritual Guides and Fathers of confession so that through their guidance and in a spirit of discipleship, you may be properly counselled as to which of these to begin using as you start your journey in prayer. 


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