In Orthodox spirituality, we recognize two basic types of prayer: liturgical (that is, worship); and personal prayer. In our Church both of these types of prayer are understood as corporate acts — they are carried out by believers as a single body, the body of Christ.
Liturgical prayer is obviously corporate. A group of brothers and sisters in the faith gather together in one place to offer hymns and prayers to God. However, even when we pray in private, we do not pray alone. Rather, we join our voices to the countless other Orthodox Christians throughout the world who are also lifting their hearts to God in prayer at that time. Christianity is always lived out as a group, never as an isolated individual.
Liturgy and private prayer are interdependent. It is not enough for us only to pray by ourselves, because every human being has an innate need for community, a need to belong. Our liturgical worship also gives us the order and structure that we need to have stability in our spiritual lives.
At the same time, our liturgical prayer is truly vibrant and life-giving only when those present are “people of prayer” outside the services as well. Our faith is not “Sunday-only” and our prayer life shouldn’t be Sunday-only either. Each type of prayer, liturgical and personal, compliments and supplements the other.
In both worship and personal prayer, structure is important. Worship services have a set structure of fixed and variable parts. Although our private prayer can be much more simple and “customized” than worship services, we still structure it as part of our daily lives. In our personal prayer life, we need to develop a habit of praying regularly at certain times during the day. This habit of regular prayer is called a “rule of prayer.”
Ancient Christian sources instruct Christians to pray three times a day: in the morning, at mid-day and in the evening. In this way we keep God on our minds and hearts throughout the day — upon waking up, in the midst of our daily tasks and upon retiring for the night. This regularity is very important because, at its core, a life or prayer is a life lived in the constant remembrance of God.
The Saints teach us that our prayers should include the following four elements, in this order:
1 and 2) glorification and thanksgiving: the primary work of prayer is to glorify God and thank Him for His great blessings, both know and unknown;
3) confession of sins: we ask God for His forgiveness for when we fall short of the life that He calls us to;
4) supplication: we ask God to be merciful and grant our petitions for others and for ourselves.
This structure helps us remember that God’s blessing are giving to us not because we have earned them, but in spite of our imperfections and faults. It also helps us avoid looking upon God as a spiritual “bell boy” who is there merely to answer our requests — the last thing we do is ask for things, not the first.
Prayers do not have to be long or complicated to be effective. Some of the most powerful prayers in history have been sentences of only a few words. The Thief on the Cross merely had to say, “Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom”, to hear Jesus’ promise, “today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
When trying to develop a habit of daily prayer in your life remember this: it is far better to spend five minutes each day in private devotions, than to “bank” the time and take in 35 minutes of personal prayer once per week.