Orthodox Christians typically pray a prescribed set of morning and evening prayers, along with some additional prayers in preparation for communion and other occasions. We refer to this regimen as our “prayer rule”. In the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, the “little red book” that contains these prayers has become rather iconic. Its entire contents are available on the Archdiocese’s website.
I was given a copy of this book when I started attending an orthodox church. I was initially resistant to having to pray a prescribed set of prayers. I saw prayer as simply talking to God, and it seemed inauthentic to use someone else’s words in a conversation.
I can’t remember who it was exactly that pointed me to this passage, Luke 11:1-4:
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
“‘Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
Here when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus prescribes a prayer for them, which we know now as the Lord’s prayer.
In the same way, the prescribed prayers in an Orthodox prayer rule are also a teaching tool. These are prayers from the Bible (like the Lord’s prayer or Psalms) or written by spiritual giants from Orthodoxy’s rich history, collected and preserved by the church ( St. Jonah Orthodox Church of Spring, Texas runs a large online collection of common Orthodox prayers). A lot of the prayers contain nuggets of profound theology. One of my favorite examples is this line from the Canon of Our Lord Jesus Christ:
From a virgin didst Thou come, not as an ambassador, nor as an Angel, but the very Lord Himself incarnate, and didst save me, the whole man. Therefore I cry to Thee: Glory to Thy Power, O Lord.
A single line affirms the virgin birth and the divine nature of Christ, his incarnation, his power and his saving work, with enough nuance to emphasize the holistic nature of salvation- the whole man, as opposed to just the soul or just the body!
Just as valuable is what the prayers teach us about our proper attitude toward other people and toward God. For example, there is a famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian that is said every morning during Lent. It ends with these powerful words:
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother.
In my spiritual immaturity, I could never imagine ever saying this prayer myself. But through the Lenten prayer rule I do, and I am reminded at the start of each day that I am in a season of repentance and that in this time of all times I have to refrain from judging others.
The Orthodox are definitely not opposed to the idea that in prayer we are “talking to God”. Indeed, in the little red book are plenty of places where we are asked to “use our own words”. Rather these traditional prescribed prayers supplement our prayer life and help us to pray better. In using these prayers, I have benefited greatly from how the collected wisdom of Christ’s church surpasses my own narrow understanding. I have learned by contrast how often my own prayers were often shallow and self-centered, and I have been able to repent from these wrong attitudes toward God.
One concrete way in which my prayers have changed is that I have become more focused on seeking to repent, rather than seeking new spiritual experiences. I used to see prayer almost as an opportunity to “summon” God when I was seeking comfort or inspiration. But almost all the prescribed prayers in Orthodoxy emphasize repentance- they bring to mind Jesus’ parable of the publican and pharisee, how the publican wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ This is a far more healthy attitude toward God and toward prayer- a continual understanding that we fall short, but through the mercy of Jesus Christ we rise again.