Prayer is the basis of our Christian life through which we come to know God. Prayer is the source and substance of our experience of Jesus Christ our the Risen Lord. Prayer is not an option; it is an indispensable necessity for every human being through which we come to know God.
Every human being yearns for grace and peace; but these come to us only in the knowledge of Jesus our Lord (cf. 2 Peter 1:2). Every human being has needs in this life and aspires to do good; but all things necessary to life and to godliness are given to us through knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Peter 1:3). Every human being ends this life and enters eternity; and eternal life is to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent to the world (cf. John 17:3).
The human condition cries out in pain and want, and it is fulfilled only in knowing Jesus Christ; the answer to all of our fears and desires is to know Him. And this is fundamental: we know Jesus Christ existentially through prayer.
The goal of the Christian life is théosis, the divinization of the human being through union with God. Théosis is the "exceedingly great and precious" promise given to us by God: that in knowing God we may be "partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust" (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).
The word "Theology" means "knowledge of God" and the true theologian is not someone who has studied and knows about God, but rather it is the Christian who loves and knows God. The Orthodox Christian theologizes: he knows the ineffable God, in a real, personal, and existential manner. We encounter God in prayer through which we come to know Him. We participate in Him through the Mysteries, or Sacraments, that are celebrated in prayer and which unite us ontologically with the incarnate God
Prayer is a living reality, a deeply personal encounter with the living God, and as such it cannot be limited to a prescribed set of "prayers" and "practices" although these are essential, especially in the beginning, in cultivating a prayer life.
Learning to pray, or growing in prayer, is an indispensable aspect of spiritual growth, and the phases of prayer are correlated with spiritual development. Orthodox spirituality evolves through the stages of purification, illumination, and théosis. Orthodox prayer similarly progresses from oral and interior to noetic prayer. It should also be noted that these stages and phases are not strictly sequential, but often take place concurrently.
When embarking on a spiritual life, we first endeavor to cleanse our soul and our body of passions and lusts. In this stage of purification we employ the many practices and traditions of the Church, such as fasting and vigils, to help mold us and prepare us for illumination. Likewise when starting to develop a life of prayer, we learn to pray by reading the prayers given to us by the Church, such as those in this book and in the divine services.
According to Saint Theophan the Recluse oral prayer is very important, even though it is still external, providing "verbal expression and shape" to our prayers. This Prayer Book was prepared specifically to assist us in learning oral prayer.
As we move from purification to illumination in our spiritual lives, the Light of Christ begins to enlighten our thoughts and actions. Similarly, as we practice the externals of a prayer life with steadfast dedication, we gradually begin to enter into interior prayer. At that point we begin to pray without distraction and, as Saint Theophan remarks, "the mind is focused upon the words" of prayer, "speaking them as if they were our own."
It has always been the universal and unvarying counsel of the holy fathers that a spiritual father is essential to healthy progress toward théosis. One should never embark upon developing a prayer life without the blessing and guidance of their priest.
This is especially true as oral and interior prayer lead to noetic prayer, or prayer of the heart. In this stage of contemplation prayer is no longer something we do but, rather, prayer is who we are because it is attaining its highest goal of uniting us to God.
Noetic or contemplative prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it is not given to all. Prayer of the heart is our return to the Father in the manner of the prodigal son (cf. Luke 15:32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when God sends forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, which cries out "Abba, Father" (Galatians 4:6).
Saint Theophan writes, "Growth in prayer has no end, and if this growth ceases, it means that life ceases." The progress in the spiritual life, and growth in prayer, are endless because the God Whom we seek is infinite in the depths of His glory.
The Metropolis Center Chapel