Many believers have developed a great love for the prayers found in our prayer books. In our prayer books we find collections of prayers, written at different times in history for different situations, times of day and needs.
In the Orthodox Church, one of the most beloved prayer books is the Old testament Book of Psalms. The Psalms offer us a way of framing life’s varying experiences — good and bad — in prayer using very poetic and profound language. So important is the Book of Psalms that you will find the Psalms used in every worship service and rule of prayer.
Written prayers can be a font of wisdom and comfort. There are those, however, that do not feel that written prayers completely fit their personal “voice”. For these people, spontaneous prayer is an important part of their personal devotions. There is nothing wrong with spontaneous prayer. The only caution with spontaneous prayer is that the content of such prayers must not contradict the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Faith. For example, we would not pray that, after we die, God would reincarnate us as a better person, since we do not believe in reincarnation.
The Orthodox Christian approach to written and spontaneous prayers is one of balance. Our written prayers are truly a treasury of Christian spiritual insight, nurture and guidance. But at the same time even our prayer books instruct us to “take time to pray to God in your own words…” There is a place for both types of prayer, written and spontaneous, and each complements the other.
In the Gospels, Jesus gives the following warning about prayer: “when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matthew 6:7)” Based on this verse, some Christian groups teach that God is not pleased by written prayers; instead, they say, all prayer should be spontaneous. This teaching, however, does not make sense when we see that two verses later, Jesus gives His disciples a specific prayer to use: “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father Who art in heaven… (Matthew 6:9-113).”
The issue that Jesus addresses is not written prayer versus spontaneous prayer, but rather the how we approach prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus also teaches us, “when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you open.” The Saints teach us that there is a double meaning to the words, “go into your room.”
First, “go into your room” means keep a low profile when you pray. Do not use prayer to show off to others: “Look at me, everyone! I’m praying! I am SO holy!”
Second, “go into your room” means shut out distractions when you pray. We have to pay attention when we pray. We cannot simply rattle off the words of our prayers with our minds wandering to other things — our schedules, a song on the radio, a conversation happening beside us, the big play of last night’s game. We must focus on what we are saying.
Whether we are praying using words from a prayer book or in our own words, the key is that we put in the effort to do it right. No one likes the feeling of being in a conversation, knowing that the other person is not paying attention. If we would try not to act like this with another human being, then we should also put the effort in with God. Quite simply, He deserves nothing less.