There has been a Q&A column on the website of FOMA Magazine for a long time. Every reader can ask a question and receive a personal response from a priest. However, there are questions that cannot be answered in a letter: they deserve a lengthy answer. A couple of weeks ago, we received an interesting question, “How can you tell a false prayer from the genuine one?”
We forwarded our reader’s question to Archpriest Pavel Velikanov, the rector of St Paraskevi Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Sergius Lavra in Sergiyev Posad, and the editor-in-chief of Bogoslov.ru portal.
1. A good prayer always has a reliable source
Most prayerbooks contain prayers composed by saints and tested by centuries-long practice of church life. These prayers help to set one’s soul to the right pitch of conversation with the Lord and his saints. Unfortunately, people are often looking for “simple” and “easy” prayers and expect to resolve their problems through them.
There are quite a few prayers that aim to meet practical needs, e.g., childbirth, marriage, or career. It isn’t evident that the authors of these prayers are holy and spiritually advanced. Almost all “time-tested” prayers have an author. Recently, there has been an influx of “anonymous” prayers, composed by no-one-knows-whom and no-one-knows-where with grave dogmatic errors and wrong moral and spiritual teachings.
Books of prayer must have an imprimatur “Recommended for publication by the Publishing Council of the Russian Orthodox Church,” whereby the Church guarantees that the prayers fit into the tradition of spiritual life of the Orthodox Church. There is another kind of endorsement, which states, “Allowed for publication by the Publishing Council of the Russian Orthodox Church”, which means that there isn’t anything that disturbs one’s inner peace or contradicts the tenets of Christianity in that prayerbook but there might be some prayers that are not used by the entire Church.
Check if the prayers that you find online correspond to the printed books that have these imprimaturs. There are many websites that distribute prayers of dubious content.
2. Don’t be addicted to the search of new prayers
You should remember that the most important and the most essential prayer of every Christian is the Eucharistic prayer, i.e., the central and the most important part of the Liturgy, during which the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist is performed. It doesn’t ask God to grant any privileges for yourself and your family. It boils down to our participation in the building of God’s Kingdom here and now, which happens when we celebrate the Liturgy, when we take communion, when we become able to hold the Divine fire and to carry it into the world. Anyone who loves and understands church worship will never seek or invent new prayers because our church worship has everything that a human might request from God, and even more.
3. If you pray together with other people, do it in church
Joint prayers, or the so-called prayers of agreement, can happen outside the church in two cases. First, if it’s the prayer of the “home church”, i.e., the family. Second, if it’s impossible to pray in a church for some reason (illness, distance, etc.) If people gather in someone’s house to pray for no apparent reason and without a priest’s blessing, or agree to read certain prayers at a certain time, the question is why can’t they do so in the church, led by a priest?
It is worth mentioning that we literally pray in agreement when we come to church and take part in the service. We gather “in the church” (1 Cor. 11:18) and turn into a Eucharistic community by joint prayer and participation in the Liturgy. We must also remember that there are molebens, akathists, panikhidas, and other divine services performed in the church, and we shouldn’t disregard them, either.
4. True prayer results in humility and obedience, not self-righteousness and egoism
By its very nature, a prayer must bring a person closer to God. What does it mean? God is holy. Accordingly, getting closer to God means getting closer to holiness. The fruit of real and genuine prayer will be expressed in two ways. First, the desire to obey God, that is, obedience. Second, humility, that is, realizing that you are unable to get saved by your own power, and that you need God’s help badly in all other matters. Humility doesn’t mean self-deprecation. It doesn’t mean that you should enjoy being guilty of everything and at all times. Humility is the pursuit of God. It is when you commend yourself in God’s hands so that He could come and start managing your life as He pleases.
If someone becomes self-righteous and self-centered as a result of his prayer and the cocoon of his self-sufficiency doesn’t break loose, then his prayer is wrong and false.
5. Prayer must be free from self-excitement
If we become too emotional, sentimental, and affectionate during prayer, it may mean that we’re heading straight down the path towards the dangerous condition known in Orthodoxy as prelest (devil’s charm), that is being short-circuited on one’s own self and self-deceitful. When we fall prey to this devil’s charm, it might appear that if prayer makes us so enthusiastic, we must be spiritually sound and close to holiness already. The devil often warps one’s perception of reality in order to rob one of the saving fruit of a genuine prayer. Of course, there are special inspirational phenomena that happen during a real prayer, too. They happen when God’s grace touches a person’s heart. However, these phenomena can’t be predicted or achieved by artificial self-excitement.
6. Prayer mustn’t make you ecstatic
Needless to say, shamanic mumbo-jumbo is strictly forbidden during prayer. More importantly, we have to emphasize that we mustn’t repeat a prayer mechanically and aimlessly, without understanding its meaning and without a penitential feeling, as if it were a mantra or a spell, until you reach an ecstatic state of altered conscience.
End of Part I
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds