Beginning to Pray

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I have always found the little classic Beginning to Pray, by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, to be one of the best introductions to prayer. I first discovered the book in college and used it in a small study group. It has never ceased to be relevant to my situation in life. His opening paragraphs are worth a short read (and more).

As we start learning to pray, I would like to make it clear that what I mean by ‘learning to pray’ is not an attempt to justify or explain this in a speculative way. Rather, I would like to point out what one should be aware of, and what one can do if one wishes to pray. As I am a beginner myself, I will assume that you are also beginners, and we will try to begin together. I am not speaking to anyone who aims at mystical prayer or higher states of perfection, because these things will teach themselves. When God breaks through to us or when we break through to God, in certain exceptional circumstances, either because things suddenly disclose themselves with a depth we have never before perceived or when or when we suddenly discover in ourselves a depth where prayer abides and out of which it can gush forth, there is no problem of prayer. When we are aware of God, we stand before Him, worship Him, speak to Him.

At the outset there is, then, one very important problem: the situation of one for whom God seems to be absent. This is what I would like to speak about now. Obviously I am not speaking of a real absence – God is never really absent – but of the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. We turn in all directions and He is not to be found. What ought we to think of this situation?

First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. The fact that God can make Himself present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person. A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom. If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is.

My love of these opening paragraphs is the honesty with which our lives and God are approached. The rest of the book continues with this same honesty; as a result it is truly a classic on the life of prayer.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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7 responses to “Beginning to Pray”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is a photo from Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas. If you enlarge the photo you will see that it is an enormous outcropping with a very small man (you can see him if you look closely) attempting a free climb. We waited as one would as though watching an ant. Not unlike beginning to pray.

  2. Steve Avatar

    Wow. What I am finding is that if I ignore God for 23+1/2 hours out of the day then it is very hypocritical/silly of me for God to save me in the hour of my trials. Not that He can’t, but I’ve disconnected from God to such an extent in that 23+1/2 hours that I have no sense of belonging to God by the time the heat starts to turn up.

    I cannot feel God for 24 hours out of the day, but if I work at praying, I can begin to have a more lasting sense of belonging to God, even without the emotionalism. And that will get me through the tough times with His joy.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar
    Fatherstephen

    The constant remembrance of God is not as impossible as you might think.

  4. Mark Avatar

    One of the many memorable passages in the book is Metropolitan Anthony’s reference to the western Catholic St. Jean Baptiste Vianney, who is said to have approached a local man who would frequently come and sit contentedly in the village church for long periods of time. When the saint asked what he was doing, the man replied that he had come to spend time with God: “He looks at me, I look at Him, and we are happy.”

    It reminds me of being exiled from the Orthodox parish church in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. We spent a number of months worshipping in a borrowed apartment in a nearby town until the church could be repaired and refurbished. When we first returned to the property for Liturgy, we worshipped in the parish hall until everything was finished in the temple.

    Our autistic daughter was very excited about returning to the familiar setting, but she was not satisfied with Liturgy in the parish hall. She marched right into the center of the room, looked up (where the dome should have been), and cried out, “Where’s Jesus?”

    Like the man in the story, she was accustomed to Him looking at her, she looking at Him, and finding contentment.

    “From the mouths of babes…”

  5. Jack Avatar
    Jack

    Father,

    I don’t mean to pry, but your statement has me curious.

  6. fishcracker Avatar

    Thank you again, father.

    Prayer has been my fixation (quite the wrong word, since the dictionary defines fixations and obsessions as something irrational, and I do not believe it so; but I cannot find a better one) of late, and I have been on the search for writings that clarify my muddled thinking on the matter. Most have been from here.

    I am learning so much, most of all, of how much I need to learn.

  7. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Stephen: “The constant remembrance of God is not as impossible as you might think.”

    Yes, that is what I’m learning, and that’s what is surprising.

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