Q. What is Prayer?

A. The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words. 

~ Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, Longer Catechism, 390

The following is the text of a talk I will be giving tomorrow night after the presanctified liturgy at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our home parish:

According to Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, prayer is “[t]he lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words” (Longer Catechism, 390). What I like about this definition is that it is succinct but comprehensive: “The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.” It highlights the internal and external nature of prayer, spiritual and spoken. In addition, it further brings together the mind and the heart, not neglecting any aspect of our being, whether thoughts, feelings, senses, or intuition. What I would like to do briefly tonight is to carefully examine this definition, in each of its parts, with the goal of coming to a greater understanding of prayer itself.

1. The lifting up … to God …

In what sense do we lift up our mind and heart to God? Where is God? In what sense is God “up”?

As Orthodox Christians, we believe that God the Father is the “Creator of heaven and earth,” through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, “of all things, visible and invisible” (Nicene Creed). Thus, when we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven …” we do not mean, “who is in the sky.” He is no more “up” in this sense than he is “down.” He created “up” and “down.” How, then, is prayer the “lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God”?

The heavens above us are an icon of the heavens in which God dwells. It is this latter “heaven” that Jesus speaks of when he talks about “the kingdom of heaven” and “treasure in heaven.” God is immaterial; as the fathers say, he is “everywhere and nowhere.” Which means that he is always right here with us. But then, again, in what sense do we need to “lift up” our mind and heart to him?

God is greater than us in many ways, and in these senses he is “above” us. Most importantly, perhaps, he is perfectly good, and we … are not. Thus, one vital aspect of “lifting up” our minds and hearts to God is to direct our attention, through faith in his mercy, away from created things and toward our Creator, away from all that tempts us to sin and toward the source of all goodness, righteousness, virtue, and perfection.

Prayer, then, is fundamentally an act of repentance. The Greek word metanoia indicates a transformation of one’s mind. The Hebrew word shuv indicates a turning around, an about-face in our life’s journey, a redirection from the way of death to the way of life. Thus, repentance is a transformation of the mind by which a person redirects the course of his/her life. And prayer, as the “lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God,” is the most vital way in which we do that.

2. … of man’s mind and heart …

What, then, is our “mind and heart”? While it is not wrong to associate these with our thoughts and feelings, the fathers tend to have something more specific in mind.

The mind or nous is not only the part of our soul that does the thinking, it is the highest element, capable of spiritual intuition and direct experience with spiritual realities, God himself not least of all.

The heart, on the other hand, is not merely, or even primarily, the seat of emotion. Rather, it is the spiritual center of the person. It is our true self, what lies beneath all our masks that we wear, all the stories we tell about ourselves, all our rationalizations and self-justifications. There we see what a person really believes and really values. As Christ himself taught, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

So, how do we “lift up” these to God? When we focus our minds on God and when we look ourselves honestly in the mirror and uncover the true state of our hearts before him, then the mind and heart together behold God in prayer. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus, “for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). And in this purification of our hearts, we also behold ourselves. As Christians we do not pray for the purpose of self-knowledge, but nevertheless self-knowledge is a necessary byproduct of true prayer.

According to Metropolitan St. Philaret, this prayer of the mind and heart, or inward prayer, is essential to true prayer. Without it we forfeit the grace of God we would have otherwise obtained in saying the “devout words” of the prayers of the Church.

3. … manifested by devout words.

Nevertheless, St. Philaret does not think that, therefore, we have no need for oral or outward prayer. In response to the question, “Does not inward prayer alone suffice without outward?” He writes,

This question is as if one should ask whether soul alone might not suffice for man without body. It is idle to ask this, seeing that God has been pleased to make man consist of soul and body; likewise idle it is to ask whether inward prayer alone may not suffice without outward. Since we have both soul and body, we ought to glorify God in our bodies, and in our souls, which are God’s: this being besides natural, that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth should speak. Our Lord Jesus Christ was spiritual in the highest degree, but even he expressed his spiritual prayer both by words and by devout gestures of body, sometimes, for instance, lifting up his eyes to heaven, sometimes kneeling, or falling on his face to the ground. (Longer Catechism, 396)

Notice that, in addition to “devout words,” St. Philaret here calls our attention to the posture of prayer. We ought not to attempt to pray with our souls alone, for God made us to be soul and body, and the separation of our souls from our bodies is death, the undoing of what God has joined together, an anti-natural state of being. Thus, we too, at various times, lift up our eyes to heaven, kneel, and fall with our faces to the ground. In addition, we stand, raise our hands, do our cross, venerate icons and relics, and so on.

The psalmist prays, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (cf. Psalm 150). The Lord has not simply given us breath, he has given breath to our bodies. Thus, we seek to pray not only with the mind and heart but also with our bodies, whether by “devout words” from our mouths or in our posture or by any number of devout actions and practices.

Furthermore, the fathers and mothers of the Church even endeavored to literally pray with every breath, matching the words of the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—to align with the rhythm of their breathing. In this way, they trained not only their minds and hearts but also their bodies to pray, praying even through the night with every breath as they slept.

Lastly, one final way that we pray with our bodies is through fasting. If the “lifting up” of prayer to God is a matter of reorienting our focus from created things to the Creator himself, then through fasting we consume less physical food and drink for the purpose of more greatly subsisting on our spiritual food and drink, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

In the Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving,” we “lift up” all of creation to God in the prayers of the anaphora; we see all the world anew as God’s gift to us, transfigured by his grace. There, the world is transformed into the dwelling place of God. And then, beholding it as the eternal joy that it truly is in the Eucharist, out of that great joy we give thanks, with our minds, our hearts, and even our bodies.

For prayer, according to Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, is “[t]he lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.”