The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 9 “On Prayer”

A small, brown book sits on our altar, beside our dining room table. The cover is engraved in gold with the simple words “Orthodox Prayer Book”.

It feels unfamiliar, the pages not yet worn. Our priest recommended this book to me in the late spring. “Sit with me” he said one day after Divine Liturgy. He didn’t waste time, no small talk. “What are you reading these days?” he asked. I stumbled a bit. Dare I tell him Man in the White Sharkskin Suit? Or Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest stunning novel?

Perhaps I could just start with saying “The Bible.” Evidently I said it with a question mark at the end, as though I didn’t quite know. Truth is — I dd know. At the time I was reading a slim but astounding paperback called The Incarnation. At times I had to put this down. My head would begin to pound with the layers of mystery that surrounded it. The Incarnation — a mystery we will never fully understand on this earth yet, if we are willing, we benefit from it daily.

The talk went on. I was moved that he was truly interested, he really wanted to know what I was doing to grow spiritually, how I was learning more about faith and God. One of the things Father Patrick recommended was the small prayer book.

“I encourage you to look at morning and evening prayers” he said. “There are many different prayers marking many different situations. You may find it helpful.”

Slowly, tentatively we began doing prayers. On our own in the morning; my husband and I together in the evening.

They began with humor. “Is this the right tone?” we would whisper to each other, as though our new Orthodox brothers and sisters would hear, miles away in their houses, tucked into beds. “No – I think we go lower on this part”.

We, who have been on a faith journey of many years, were hesitant, walking into this with some reluctance.

“O Heavenly King. Comforter, Spirit of Truth. Who art everywhere present. And fillest all things, Treasury of Good Gifts, and Giver of Life. Come and Abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity. And save our Souls O Good One.”

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – Have Mercy on Us. (x3 said the little, brown book)

So we began and slowly this is becoming an important habit. Some would say this is rote, they would argue that it is more meaningful speaking words of our own. But words of our own also become rote. Something is only rote when we make it rote, when we stop thinking about the meaning behind the words, the call to us through the words. Habitual repetition of anything can lose its meaning.

But habitual repetition can also move souls, and move my heart. As I walk through the streets of Boston, and day after day see the homeless, huddled together under thin, dirty blankets I can say the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, have mercy on them.” and it doesn’t feel rote. It feels like the only response possible. For I have nothing to give, nothing to offer that can change their situation.

So I clutch my prayer book with reverence, praying that I will learn more through these prayers that are right now unfamiliar. Praying that as we take on this habit we will be changed into people who reflect the icon above us – the Christ, Son of the Living God.

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4 thoughts on “The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 9 “On Prayer”

  1. The part I like about written prayers in prayer books (of whatever denomination) is the feeling of being a part of a huge multitude of other human souls that have had the same problems, desires and difficulties before me. They found comfort in these words, and that comforts me. The God of all comforts is /has been/will be the same god throughout all our history and beyond, and this ancientness (Ancient of Days) comes through to me clearest in the words of prayers others have first written centuries ago. I feel the same way singing hymns by Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance. There is a depth and texture in the singing that enriches my soul.

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  2. As usual, you have given me an entirely different perspective on the rituals of my own Catholic upbringing. It is the meaning we give to the words by not speaking them by rote but emphasizing each word like we mean it each time, with each repetition. And therein lies the challenge of any prayer. Thank you for this.

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  3. Ah, brings me back to when my buddy and I were the only Orthodox Christians (I wasn’t yet really Orthodox) trying to say Compline (evening prayers) in the school chapel. We would get to the 40 Lord Have Mercies and our minds would boggle. Neither of us being math majors, we didn’t realize that the best way to count these was 4 sets of ten. We thought we had to do everything in threes, and 40 cannot be divided by three.

    Another memory from that time. We used to use incense in the school chapel, the only group that did. Our Protestant friends would complain about the smell, and we would answer, “Read the book of Revelation, and get used to it. It’s what heaven smells like.” Gosh, maybe I’ll do my own post about this. Such a catchy title, “What Heaven Smells Like”.

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  4. It’s not rote if your heart is engaged, anything but. I too use liturgical prayers and am so moved as I read each morning in the Benedictus that God wants for me to serve him in holiness and justice all the days of my life in His presence, and that each night I can pray for a quiet night and a perfect end.

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