And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter in thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, Who is in secret, and thy Father, Who seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6: 5-6)
Recently, I chatted with a fellow Orthodox after liturgy. We had agreed that what differentiates the Orthodox Church from all the rest is prayer. For us, our services are all about praying. We don’t say, We were in church today. We say, We were praying today. Prayer is what we do several times every day and what we do the entire time that we are in church. It’s really all about prayer, and this comes directly from the Lord, who gave us much instruction on prayer and now let us listen to Him.
But the point of Christ’s utterances about prayer were about how to pray. First, we must avoid making a public statement of our prayers. “Christ is recommending us to avoid ostentation, when He bids us offer our prayers not only privately, but secretly,” says St. John Chrysostom.
Those who pray with their eyes not on God but on those who might be watching them; in other words, those who make a show of their prayer, on TV, or in front of their congregations, they are double-minded actors who have their eyes on the wrong observer. “These too again He calls ‘hypocrites,’ and very fitly; for while they are feigning to pray to God, they are looking round after men; wearing the garb not of suppliants, but of ridiculous persons,” writes Chrysostom. “For he, who is to do a supplicant’s office, letting go all other, looks to him alone, who hath power to grant his request. But if thou leave this one, and go about wandering and casting around thine eyes everywhere, thou wilt depart with empty hands.”
And that brings us to another perfection of the Orthodox Church: We are hypocrites who love to pray standing… Ahem, well, as an Orthodox, we do most of our praying on our feet, but I promise you, it is not a form of attention seeking. The reasons Orthodox pray on their feet are manifold: One, it is out of respect for God. Two, it helps keep us awake through long services. And, third, contextually, this verse assumes that people stood in prayer. It might as well read, And when thou prayest, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, in ways that they may be seen of men. Pray at the back of the temple, not at the front. Sit at the servant’s table, not next to the guest of honor.
Ultimately this advice by the Lord speaks to the mystical properties of prayer. Mystically refers to direct communion with the ultimate reality of God. It is something beyond the senses, and it is not something we attain through outward exertions. One of the Orthodox Church’s most beautiful songs, the Cherubic Hymn, found in the Eucharistic portion of the Divine Liturgy, goes like this:
Let us who mystically
represent the Cherubim
and chant the thrice-holy hymn
unto the life-creating Trinity,
now lay aside all earthly care.
The fact that instruction to mysticism occurs in the divine liturgy means that mystical prayer is both corporate and personal, but more on the corporate later. Becoming completely detached from this world and attuned to the things of God is the goal of mystical closet prayer. But as St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, there is a corporate aspect to mystical prayer as well. We are to love God, but we also need to love our neighbor. “For if it is proper mystically ‘in the closet’ to pray to God, it will follow that we are also to greet mystically our neighbour, whom we are commanded to love second similarly to God, within doors, ‘redeeming the time,’” he wrote. I take this mean, don’t just shout, “Whatzup! Hewaya!” to your neighbor, backslapping and offering beers, but pray for them. Greet them with an holy kiss (no eros whatsoever!). Live astride them quietly, listening for the leading of the Holy Spirit, providing alms when needed.
St. Chrysostom wrote, “Let us not then make our prayer by the gesture of our body, nor by the loudness of our voice, but by the earnestness of our mind: neither with noise and clamor and for display, so as even to disturb those that are near us, but with all modesty, and with contrition in the mind, and with inward tears.” Of course, there must be some exertions — but of the inward kind. “Out of deeps call upon God, for it is said, ‘Out of the depths have I cried to Thee, O Lord,’” Chrysostom added. “For not unto men art thou praying, but to God, who is everywhere present, who hears even before the voice, who knows the secrets of the mind. If thou so pray, great is the reward thou shalt receive.”
It also helps, of course, to conjoin prayer with fasting. It is easier to pray on an empty stomach. I will get to that in our next episode. But let me close with this concept: There is a sacrificial aspect to prayer that I believe gets missed by many accustomed to Western comforts and conveniences, an aspect that is often scorned by this western Orthodox Christian as well.