Shaped by a life of service to Christ’s Church, Fr. Christopher has dedicated himself to using all the tools God has placed at his disposal to spread the light of Orthodoxy across America. As Founding Father and host of the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) and the “Come Receive The Light” national Orthodox Christian radio program, he shepherds a dynamic and rapidly expanding ministry bringing joy, hope, and salvation in Jesus Christ to millions of listeners on Internet and land-based radio around the world in more than 130 countries. Fr. Christopher lives in Brookline, MA and is the President of Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
In the second installment of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s 4-part Lenten series, His Excellency talks about prayer. Questions include:Why is such a fundamental thing so hard to do? If we believe that God sees into our hearts and minds, then why do we need to pray? Is it wrong to pray for specific things rather than simply saying “God’s will be done”? What are some simple tips on getting started with a prayer routine?
Transcript of Come Receive the Light: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the subject of prayer
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Prayer is something we hear so much about today, and it sounds for many people simple; there are many books on the shelves about it. But often when we actually try to do it, it becomes difficult. So, why is such a fundamental thing, so hard to do at times?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: Yes, indeed, it is difficult. I agree with you. But before I begin to make some comments on that, I’d like us to turn to a more fundamental question. What do we mean by prayer? And, at the outset, I think of the words of St. Paul. “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Paul’s words make it sound even more difficult.
Now, what is prayer? When I was twelve years old, I heard a sermon about prayer. The preacher mentioned how there was an old man who used to spend long time each day in church. His friends asked him, “What are you doing?”
And he said to them, “I’m praying.”
“Praying?” they said. “You must have a great many things you want to ask from God.”
And the old man replied with some warmth of feeling, “I’m not asking God for anything.”
“Well,” they said. “What are you doing then, all those hours in church?”
And the old man replied, “I just sit and look at God. And God sits and looks at me.”
Now, when I was twelve years old, I thought that was rather a good definition of prayer. I just sit and look at God and God sits and looks at me. Prayer is not necessarily asking for things, though it may sometimes be that. It does not necessarily mean using words. Fundamentally, prayer means “God awareness.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of prayer as a sense of presence. God awareness. The realization that I am in God and God is in me. And this can be something all embracing. That’s why St. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” It can be something that’s present in everything else we do–a sense that God is with us. So that prayer is not necessarily just an activity set apart. It’s something that can be intertwined with the whole of our life.
Now, if we look at prayer that way, why is it so difficult? To me, the answer is we humans are scattered. We’re fragmented. We find it very difficult to be gathered. To be concentrated, single-pointed. We suffer from wandering thoughts. I remember reading once in the Reader’s Digest the following apothegma: the people who get things done are the people who do one thing at a time. And I thought, how true! But then I also thought, that’s quite difficult–to do one thing at a time. And certainly it’s difficult in the case of prayer. This fragmentation that I speak of is not something that we’ve deliberatively desired for ourselves. I suppose it is a consequence of the Fall. But this means that, in prayer, what is asked of us is regularity, persistence, faithfulness.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: And that fragmentation is what’s causing that not to happen, isn’t it?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: I think so.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Yes, I think so too.
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: It’s a strange paradox. When something isn’t very important, it’s not so difficult to concentrate. When we’re watching television we don’t suffer particularly from an inability to concentrate and attend to what’s happening. If we’re reading a serious book, a biography, or a piece of historical writing, then the concentration is more difficult, but it’s not so hard. Prayer, which is the most important thing of all, then the concentration is hardest of all.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: And it’s also the issue, I believe, your Excellency, when someone is praying and they’re doing an introspection to communicate with God. It causes us to stop and see our brokenness. And we don’t like to be around our brokenness. So we say, we avoid the prayer. We say, look, that’s going to be too painful to do that. I think some people, not everyone, but some people do that. What do you feel?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: What you’re saying is true, in some cases. Prayer can be difficult. And one aspect of prayer, exactly as you say, is the ability to enter into ourselves, into our own inner realm. And some people don’t like doing that. So prayer is sometimes painful.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: If we believe–I’ve heard people say this to me and that’s why I’m going to ask you this– If we believe that God sees into our hearts and our minds, then some will ask the question, “Why do we pray? Doesn’t He already know what’s going on? Does He know what we’re struggling with?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: He does know what’s going on. He does see into our hearts But He wants us to tell Him. He wants us to bring it into the open, to be honest with Him.
And this would bring us to another point about prayer. The aim of prayer is not to change God’s mind. It is to change our mind. Some people say, why pray to God? He knows what is best for us. Why don’t we just leave it to Him? That’s true, He does know what is best for us and we don’t know. But, by praying, we are not so much making God agree with us, but, through prayer, we are helped to make ourselves agree with God.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Then, your Excellency, let me ask you this. I think these questions seem to follow each other, but is it wrong, then, for us to pray for specific things? Should we only be praying, “Thy Will be done. God’s Will be done?”
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: It is right, surely, to say, indeed, in all our prayer, “Thy Will be done.” But also it is good for us to pray for specific things. And pray not primarily for things. Our prayer is primarily for persons. So, yes, when we pray we bring to God our concerns, what is distressing us. And it’s important for us to bring this into the open before God. Our concern for other people, when we pray for another person–if our prayer is to have any real meaning–it must be a prayer of outward love for that person. We love the person and we know that God loves them. God loves them far more than we do. God wants what is best for them. He doesn’t need to be told by us what is best for them. But what we are doing when we pray to God for other persons is, we are associated our love with God’s love for that person.
God loves them. We want to say in prayer that we love them too. And we are joining, therefore, our love to His. So what we are doing when we pray for other people is not to give God information he wouldn’t otherwise have. Because he knows everything. And it’s not to change His mind. We are not to imagine that he wouldn’t want to help these people unless we prayed for them. But we are holding up these people in the stream of God’s love. We associate our love with His. That’s what we’re doing when we pray for others.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: And so people, of course, when they pray, they’re looking out and they’re wondering if God is going to “answer” their prayer. I have to tell you a little bit that this is a very serious topic, but is also a little bit comical.
Once when I visited a home to bless it, the gentleman asked me, he said “Father, would you bless my lottery ticket?”
And I said, “Are you serious?”
And he said, “Yes. I want to win. And if I win, I’ll give a percentage back to the church.”
So I said to him, “Well, that sounds interesting. I’ve never had that proposition before. I don’t believe I can pray for this, but let me see your lottery ticket.”
He said, “Well, I haven’t bought it yet. But I’ll buy it if you’ll bless it.”
And I said, “My friend, if you’re not in the game, whether you’re doing lottery tickets or praying, you’re not going to gain anything from it.” And the issue of prayer is something that it takes energy, it takes effort, doesn’t it?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: Yes. That’s an interesting story. Indeed you’re right. And, yes, if our prayer is not answered, perhaps it has been heard by God, but He feels that what we’re asking for won’t necessarily be the best thing for us.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Yes.
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: He knows better than we do. I remember a story told by the Russian bishop who was in England for many years, Bishop Anthony of Sourozh. Anthony Bloom, a very well-known spiritual writer. And he told us the story of how when he was a boy, he was traveling with his uncle. And before the uncle went to bed, he took his false teeth out and placed his dentures in a glass of water. And every night the future Bishop Anthony prayed to Christ, “Please give me this marvelous gift, of being able to take out my teeth and put them in a glass of water.” Well, later on in life, he was quite glad that prayer had not been answered.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Absolutely! Well, let’s talk a little bit, your Excellency, about “Spontaneous Prayer.” There are people who, of course, use their books, the Book of Prayer. I have that book, I use it. It’s a beautiful blue book. It’s rather tattered at this point, but it’s something that I go to all the time. But then, of course, there’s also the spontaneous prayer, where we fall before the awesome love of God and we offer our thoughts to Him. Can you talk to us about that? Spontaneous and also the reciting of prayers from a prayer book, how do we deal with that?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: First, reciting prayers from a prayer book is an excellent thing to do. We are then praying with the Church, using the words of prayer that the Church uses. And that can form a model for our own praying. So that is one way of praying, and it is important. And particularly valuable are the Psalms. These have always been at the center of Christian prayer.
But then, yes, there are other more spontaneous forms of prayer and forms of prayer that involve more waiting on God, rather than using a lot of words. And here, I think, or the prayer that is intermediate between prayer from the book and spontaneous prayer. And that is the “Jesus Prayer.” The short invocation of our Savior by His Holy Name Jesus. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” This is certainly a form of prayer widely recommended to Orthodox, widely used. The repetition of this prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” And this is mid-way, as it were, between prayer from a book and purely spontaneous prayer.
The danger with purely spontaneous prayer is it could be too subjective. It could be emotional, in a bad sense. So, there is a place for it. But I myself, when I want to have more the kind of prayer that doesn’t use many words, that is just sitting and looking at God, I use the Jesus Prayer.
Sometimes, our best moments of prayer are when we are entirely silent.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Yes.
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: But that is very difficult. Very soon our mind begins to wander and we begin to be assailed by distracting thoughts. And so then we need to take up again the words of prayer.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: And for those, your Excellency, this is a final question in this first segment of ours. For those who have no daily prayer routine. But they want to get started. What are some simple things or tips that they could do to begin their prayer life?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: An important thing is to find a slot–a particular place in our daily program–when we regularly pray. So that we don’t just depend on the whim of the moment–on our passing emotions. For example, in my own practice, when I wake up, I go and wash. I dress. And then I turn to prayer. And so, before I have my breakfast, before I look at the newspaper, open my letters, I have my slot for daily prayer. That may not be so easy–when I am retired–but when people have to go to work. But, they could still arrange their morning in such a way that they would have a slot for prayer before they start their daily tasks. Waking up, we are fairly gathered. And then it’s good to have a slot in the evening. Not necessarily last thing at night, when we may be very tired and drop off to sleep while we’re trying to pray. But, for example, returning from our work before having our evening meal. But to have a regular place for prayer. This is so important in prayer–faithfulness. We grow in prayer through constancy. We may not notice the growth. But if we pray day by day and find a particular place in the day when it’s natural for us to pray, then we shall make progress, with the help of God’s grace.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: Thank you very much.