Learning to pray in our own words

In the preface to the Spiritual Psalter or the Reflections on God excerpted by Saint Theophan the Recluse from the works of our Holy Father St. Ephraim the Syrian, we read:

It is the duty of every Christian to harbor in himself the spirit of grace.  The best means to do so is prayer.  He who harbors grace in himself prays as he should, for the strength of grace moves him.  But he who has not yet reached this state must nurture prayer in himself.  Inner prayer is nurtured by means of prayers, which have poured forth from souls inflamed with grace, prayers which move the spirit. 

There is no greater author of prayers in the early Church than the fourth century father, St. Ephraim.  It has been said that he was simply unable “…to contemplate any divine subject without being enraptured in a prayerful outpouring of feelings.”  Imagine, reading Scripture, the writings of a Church father, or the life of a saint and just being so moved by the Grace of God that you begin to pray sincerely, intelligibly, and with the same poetic and inspired breath of David the Prophet and King, the greater hymnographers of our Faith and all the righteous men and women who have come before us.  Of course, this would be a great gift of God, as it remains a gift that has historically been given to very few.  Even so, in the spirit of these exemplars of personal prayer, each of us is directed to lift up personal, heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving, devotion, supplication and glorification to God. 

St. John of Kronstadt explains,

It is sometimes well during prayer to say a few words of our own, breathing fervent faith, and love for God. Let us not always converse with him in the words of others, let us not forever remain children in faith and hope; we must show also our own mind, we must incite a good matter from our own heart also.  Moreover, we grow too accustomed to the words of others, and consequently grow cold in prayer.  And how pleasing to the Lord is this lisping of our own, coming directly from a believing, loving and thankful heart.

The first step in learning to pray in our own words, at least according to Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain in the forty-ninth chapter of his spiritual classic, Unseen Warfare, is to:

Begin praying rightly with prayers learnt by heart, - and from the start prayer will begin to graft itself to the soul; and the more firmly it becomes grafted, the more it urges a man also to send forth such personal prayer as is fashioned in his heart, according to his needs…When, during the recital of prayer, the words of some prayer you utter, especially touch your soul and fill it, you must not leave them without attention, but must pause and pray from yourself about the thing that is filling your soul.

At other times, when reading Scripture, the writings of the fathers, or when reflecting on divine things, “something particularly strikes the soul, captures its attention and urges it to ascend in prayer to God on high…” he suggests, “…do not neglect to give attention to the impulse born in you, but respond to its urge, and interrupt for awhile whatever you happen to be doing.” 

Such an impulse is proof of progress in the work of prayer; it is a testament that prayer has begun to inhabit your heart and to fill it.  In these moments, we are to be humbled in spirit, private, and simple, sometimes offering a sincere word, in other instances, not speaking over a prayer that is being uttered from the heart itself and yet in other moments, remaining silent in the presence of God. 

There is a great joy experienced in these pure, grace-filled moments.  “When you truly pray to God in your own words…” explains St. John “…the soul trembles with joy, with fire, with life, with bliss.  You will utter few words, but you will know blessedness such as you would not have found from saying the longest and most moving prayers of others, pronounced out of habit, and insincerely.“

This should not suggest that prayers said out of habit are of little merit.  It is through uttering the prayers of others that we learn when to pray, how to pray, and for what to pray.  When we are too bold, too early on, not having matured in our prayer life and relationship with Christ, we offer hollow petitions, thanksgivings, glorifications and supplications to God.  St. Nicodemos reminds us,

Do not be tempted by the desire to formulate your own prayers without such inner impulse and necessity.  You can compose a very clever speech to God, but it will not be prayer: it will be merely a combination of words and thoughts, but without the spirit of prayer.

Simply, when we offer prayers, we must ensure that the words are first written on and are of our heart.  The worst thing to do is offer prayers that consistent from our heart to our lips.  Such a worry led St. John of Kronstadt to warn the faithful:

During prayer do not allow the enemy, acting through the flesh to conquer you; speak the truth from your heart, and let your tongue utter no falsehood.  Think and feel what you say in prayer, and do not let there be honey on your tongue and ice in your heart. 

Realizing my own limitations to truly pray from the depths of my heart and soul and have began with reference to St. Ephraim, I close with his prayer titled “Send Grace to quicken me, as all things are quickened in spring by the breath of life.”

O Good lover of mankind!  If Your grace pours forth upon the grass, the flowers and all earthly vegetation in its time, then the more so You grant to Your servant that which he requests of You. 

For the air becomes clear and the birds adorn their voices with varied melodies, singing glory to Your great wisdom.  All the earth is clothed with a raiment of many-colored flowers woven without human hands, and is glad and celebrates the hold day.

Water also my heart with the dew of Your grace, O good Lover of mankind!  Just as a sown field cannot sprout and nourish its plants without sufficient rainfall, so my heart is incapable of producing things pleasing to You and of bearing the fruits of truth without Your Grace.

Lo, the rain nourishes the plants and the trees are crowned with diverse flowers.  May the dew of Your grace also enlighten my mind and may it adorn my heart with the flowers of contrition, humility, love and patience. 

May my prayer draw near to You, O Lord!  Grant me Your holy seed, that I might bring You a harvest of sheaves abundant in good fruits and say, “Glory to Him Who gave me this that I might bring it unto Him,” and bow down to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.