It’s been a busy time. Apologies for not posting more often. Here is another excerpt my book on the Coptic Church that is taking forever to complete.
Among the most direct ways to experience a loving unity with God is the practice of prayer. Put simply, prayer is dialogue with God, the very food of an intimate relationship with one’s Creator and Saviour. Consider St Paul’s quote to the Greeks at the Areopagus:
He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being…
The reality is that God is everywhere, and there is no place we can go where we are away from Him. Prayer is the bringing to conscious awareness that presence of God. Most of our lives, we are so distracted by other things that we lose that awareness, we forget that “God is here!” In prayer, we focus on restoring that awareness, on opening the “eyes of our heart” to see Him, and therefore on communicating with Him, with all the love and blessing that entails.
What is the right time for prayer? It is always the right time for prayer. If the understanding of prayer just described is correct, then when would one possibly not want to be united with God? So, in fulfilment of St Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), the Orthodox Christian seeks to be in communication with God – aware of the presence of God with her – at every moment of the day. In this way, prayer does not become an activity that is separate from the rest of life’s activities. It is not that I leave my work to go to pray, and then I leave prayer to go back to work. Rather, I pray at all times, but it is just that at some times I leave everything else and focus on nothing but prayer.
Continual prayer may be practiced by reciting memorised prayers or Biblical verses, or it may just be a spontaneous ‘chatting’ with God in one’s mind, a sharing of one’s thoughts with God. Brief prayers are sometimes called Arrow Prayers, for they are ‘shot’ up to God whenever one feels the urge. Many would also consider contemplating the beauty of nature a kind of prayer, for in doing so we are contemplating indirectly the beauty of the master Artist who created it. Even acts of kindness towards others may be considered a kind of prayer, for when I help you, it is as though I am helping Christ Himself, and so I touch Christ in the person I help.
But it is important also to point out that there are some things that prayer is not, or at least, should not be. Understanding these will help us to understand what prayer is for the Coptic Orthodox Christian. For example, prayer is not a mere duty to be performed. It seems unlikely that God merely counts how many prayers a person prays, or for how long a person prays, and that is what impresses Him. What if those prayers are merely uttered with the lips while the mind and the heart are far from God? Surely such prayers do not fit the definition of prayer we have outlined? We cannot score ‘brownie points’ with God by praying more. He knows all that is in our thoughts and hearts, so how can we possibly fool Him by pretending to be ‘holier’ than we really are? Worse still, when a person prays for the wrong reasons, they will usually gravitate to a state where prayer becomes dry and routine. She prays only because she feels she should pray, but the love has gone out of the exercise. This is an indication that there is something seriously wrong with either that person’s practice of prayer, or with their whole relationship with God, and spiritual guidance is needed to heal this illness of the spirit.
Nor is prayer like a magic spell. It is not like some incantation, where if I can only say it right, or with the right feeling in my heart, then God will give me whatever I ask for. In fact, Jesus reminded us that God already knows all that we need, and that He is more than capable of granting us our needs, even before we ask, for He loves us. We cannot ‘twist God’s arm’ and in some way force Him to do something against His will. Nor should we want to, for we believe that God is far wiser than we are, and we pray, as Jesus taught us to pray, for God’s will to be done, not ours. Rather, when we request something of God in prayer, it is not to tell Him something He doesn’t already know, but rather to share with Him our needs and desires, as one might share one’s deepest needs with a best friend.
That is not to say that we should only pray when we ‘feel like it’. There are times when one is tempted to forget God, to put Him out of one’s thoughts. At such times a certain level of self-coercion or self-control is needed, just as self-control is needed to resist other types of temptations. Within the human being are different desires at work, and often those desires conflict with each other. Our free will allows us to choose which of the desires to encourage, but sometimes the opposite desires can be so strong that even that choice is not enough to overcome them. That is when we need to struggle and strive against our human weakness, our fallen nature that would drag us away from our continual and beautiful relationship of love with God.