Author’s note: The use of the word “practical” in the title of this book is no accident. This is the most doable guide to prayer that I have ever read. Every chapter has easily-applicable suggestions that any Orthodox Christian can take to step in the direction of effective prayer. I am so grateful to have read the wisdom in this book. It is the perfect fusion of theology and scripture, incorporating examples and stories that make its contents so accessible that even I can understand them. The book is concise enough for me to re-read it anytime I feel that my prayer life needs another boost. I know that at some point, it will. So I will.
We all know that we should pray. Just before Christ taught His disciples to pray what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer,” He said, “When you pray…” and went on to instruct them to not to be like the hypocrites, to go into their room and pray in secret, and to not use vain repetitions. With each instruction, He began by saying “When you pray..,” indicating that prayer is expected. And rightly so, for his disciples (and we Christians today) love Him a tiny bit as much as He loves us; and in any loving relationship there must be communication. We communicate with our Lord through prayer.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy for us to fulfill this expectation to pray. Even though we know we should pray, there are times when prayer seems daunting or difficult, and we fall short. Author L. Joseph Letendre’s new book “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” is a helpful companion for such a time as this. It also serves as a preventative measure against future shortcomings in prayer! The book itself is not long, only 72 pages, but every page is useful to Orthodox Christians desiring to grow in prayer.
“When You Pray…” offers easily-understandable insights and encouragement for prayer. Each chapter covers a different way in which we should pray. Chapters include: “To Pray”; “Pray as You Can”; “Pray Attentively”; “Pray the Lord’s Prayer”; “Pray the Psalms”; “Pray the Gospel”; “Pray for Others”; ”Pray Frequently”; and “Pray Faithfully.”
This book is a must-read for Orthodox Christians who desire to strengthen their prayer life. We would encourage you to read it so that you can be a better example to your Sunday Church School students. The book is written simply enough that students as young as middle school would benefit from studying it together. We recommend that if you teach a class at the middle school level or higher, you consider using this book in your classroom. If you do, we recommend reading one chapter (or a small part of a chapter) at a time and discussing it together. (If your Sunday Church School happens immediately after Divine Liturgy, this book would be an excellent short meditation which you could read while your students are eating a small snack. It would also make an excellent textbook or book study.)
Regardless of how you read it, please read this book. It will help your prayers not to merely be “vain repetitions.” “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” will take you (and your students!) by the hand and help you learn how to pray effectively, from the heart.
Order your copy of “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/when-you-pray
Here are a few gleanings from “When You Pray,” as well as ideas of ways to share them with a group of older students:
from Ch. 1: To Pray
“The litmus test of faith is not what we do in church, but what we do after church. The list we are given is exhaustive and exhausting. In part, we are
To acquire the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5)
To move from knowing about God to knowing God (1 Cor. 13:12)
To love our enemies (Matt. 5:44)
To forgive from the heart (Matt. 18:35)
To resist having our lives shaped by the world around us (Rom. 12:2)
To know joy in the midst of suffering (Phil. 4:4)
To follow the commandments of the Gospel (John 14:15).
In turn, we are promised we will
Be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2)
Become participants in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4)
Know the love of Christ and be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19)
Cultivate the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23)
Become holy as God is holy (Lev. 11:44, et al.; 1 Pet. 1:16).
What makes all of this—both the undertaking and promised result—possible is God’s grace. What makes grace accessible is prayer.” (pp. 7-8, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Before class, copy each of the passages mentioned in this part of chapter 1 on separate slips of paper. Before you read the chapter to the class, pass those slips out and ask each student to look up the passage they’ve been given. When you get to this part of the chapter, instead of reading each phrase, read the reference and ask the student holding the slip of paper with that reference to read the passage of scripture to the class. After you’ve read all of them,talk together about we are to do, what we are promised, and what it is that makes all of this accessible to our lives.
from Ch. 2: Pray as You Can
“The decision to do what one can, however seemingly small or inadequate, recurs throughout the Bible: a young shepherd hurls stones at a giant warrior; out of a crowd of famished thousands, a boy graciously offers what few loaves he has; Peter tells a lame beggar, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you” (Acts 3:6). The giant falls, the thousands are fed, and the beggar leaps to his feet. In prayer, all we need do is what we can.” (p. 15, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Challenge your students to find each of the Bible stories mentioned in this passage. Talk about how each of these people did what they could: nothing supernatural, just the ordinary amount thing that they were able to do, and how God used that amazingly to work out His purposes. Invite your students to share times that they have done what they could and seen God at work through their “loaves and fishes.”
from Ch. 3: Pray Attentively
“…from St. John of Kronstadt: ‘When praying, keep to the rule that it is better to say five words from the depth of your heart than ten thousand words with your tongue only.’ It sounds fair. If I don’t pay attention to my prayers, why should God? Paying attention during prayer proved more difficult than I anticipated…
“Three highly recommended practices can help:
- Preparing for prayer
- Saying the words of our prayer slowly
- Praying aloud.” (pp. 17-18, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Read and carefully discuss each of those practices with your students. The book fleshes out each recommended practice and offers concrete ways that you can work at each one. Encourage your students to select one for each practice, jot them on a post-it note, then place that note where they will see it and be reminded to keep working on that particular practice.
from Ch. 4: Pray the Lord’s Prayer
“Without the right script, prayer can degenerate into telling God what He already knows, and then telling Him what we think He should do about it. [quoting Fr. Alexander Schmemann, quoting his teacher Archimandrite Cyprian Kern.] When Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked, ‘Lord, teach us to pray,’ He responded by giving them a script: ‘When you pray, say: “Our Father . . .”’ (Luke 11:1, 2).” (p. 24, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
You could couple a discussion of this chapter with an in-depth look at the Lord’s Prayer. (We wrote a whole series of blog posts on this prayer. The series begins here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/on-the-lords-prayer-an-introduction/)
from Ch. 5: Pray the Psalms
“How many psalms should we pray? Monks and nuns are the Church’s experts in psalmic prayer. In monasteries and sketes that are able to follow the monastic rule fully, the entire Psalter—all 150 psalms—is read every week… To facilitate this, centuries ago, the Psalms were divided into twenty sections (called kathismas) and further divided into three subsections (called stases): thus, sixty sections of roughly equal length. So, one possibility is to pray one or more of these stases each day… If praying a stasis attentively is not possible, do less. Do one psalm. Do a few verses from one psalm. We should pray as many—or as few—psalms as we realistically can in the time we have. But we should never do none.” (p. 30, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Pull out the Psalter (or have your students look up the book of Psalms in Bibles). Allow your students time to read through the Psalms, and ask them to find one that jumps out at them – one that would be good for them to pray right now because of the struggle they are facing or because of how it encourages them. Take time for your students to quietly pray their specially-selected Psalm. You may even want to allow them to copy it, decorate the paper they’ve copied it onto and take that home with them to remind them to pray that Psalm. Challenge them to pray the Psalm every day for the week. The following Sunday, allow time for students to share if/how praying their Psalm helped them during the week.
from Ch. 6: Pray the Gospel
“First, choose a short passage from the Gospels. It can be one event in the life of Christ, a section from the teachings of Jesus, even a single verse… In St. Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, we read how hearing just one verse from the Gospel in Church led Anthony into the desert to pursue the monastic life. Second, read the passage or verse out loud… Read it slowly. Then read it again. For writers across the centuries, the governing image here is “ruminating.” A ruminant (cows are the handiest example) is an animal that chews its cud. After it has eaten, it regurgitates its food and spends its time in a leisurely rechewing of its meal. When the saints advise ruminating on a passage of Scripture, they mean slowly ‘chewing over’ what we’ve read in our minds and our imagination.” (pp. 33-34, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Practice “praying the Gospel” with your students by applying the steps suggested in the book to this week’s Gospel reading. Teach them how to do this by leading them through it. Then when they are at home, they will know how to pray the Gospel because of their experience in Sunday Church School!
from Ch. 7: Pray for Others
“When we have completed our list, we move on—in trust and confidence—to the rest of our prayer, the rest of our day, or simply to our rest. It is not our prayer or the intensity of feeling we bring to it that matters; what matters is God’s grace. Through our prayers we have joined in the work God is already doing; we have united God’s will for them to our own.” (p. 37)
“Praying for others can be risky. The risk is that we will become part of God’s answer to our prayer. We should be ready for that.” (p. 39, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Hand each one of your students a blank piece of paper and a pencil or pen. Give them a block of time to create their own list of people for which they can pray. Talk together about how to do this, how to lift that personal list of people up to God in prayer. Encourage your students to take their list home and work at doing this important work. Remind them that they may need just to pray for the people on their list, or that God may use them to become part of the answer to that prayer.
from Ch. 8: Pray Frequently
“Few of us living ‘in the world’—meaning outside of monasteries—can pray without ceasing. Workday distractions and obligations, many of them part of our vocations, eat away at our time and attention. But even if we cannot pray ceaselessly, we can pray frequently. We can seize every opportunity the day affords us to pray briefly; we can pray on the run. Indeed, frequent prayer is essential if we are to grow in the Christian life and fulfill the commandments of Christ. Without frequent prayer, living the Christian life is all but impossible. As Jesus warned us, ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Therefore, besides praying at the set times of our rule, we should make every event, activity, and transition in our day an opportunity for a brief prayer.” (p. 42, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
Find ideas on how to pray frequently in this recent blog post: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2017/08/11/on-practical-reminders-to-pray/
from Ch. 9: Pray Faithfully
“…the test of prayer is not how we feel or what happens during prayer; it is what we do and how we are after prayer. A friend of mine once observed that her brother had begun meditating and jogging. ‘He is calmer and thinner,’ she remarked, ‘but he’s no better.’ The fruits of prayer are revealed in the kitchen, the supermarket, and the office. This is why in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament we often read that God does not judge His people on the basis of their prayers, fasts, and ritual sacrifices in the temple, but on how they treat the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger (Zech. 7:10, for instance). The test of prayer is how well we fulfill the commandments of Christ. ” (pp. 60-61, “When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer” by L. Joseph Letendre)
You could use litmus paper to introduce this section of the book. Before you read this chapter, show a piece of litmus paper to your class, and ask them if they know what it is and/or how it is used. Demonstrate its purpose by using pieces of litmus paper to test a variety of liquids: lemon juice, water, a soft drink, coffee, etc. Then ask the class what the “litmus test” for prayer is? Entertain answers, read this chapter aloud, then ask again (see answer above). Give each student a strip of litmus paper and a bookmark-sized piece of cardstock. Invite them to create a bookmark for their prayer book that includes the litmus paper and this reminder from p. 61 of the book: “The test of prayer is how well we fulfill the commandments of Christ.” (or “Am I passing the prayer test?” or something to that effect)
Take some time with your students to discuss the seven principles that summarize the monastic fathers’ writings on prayer. These are listed in the appendix, pp. 63-62. As you read through them, encourage each student to select one on which to focus on improving in their life.