Q. Is it an Orthodox practice to pray in one’s own words? Or do we only pray with prayer books?
A. This is an excellent question, and the answer is definitely “yes” as Orthodox Christians we should learn to pray in our own words. But before prayer in one’s own words can develop properly, one must first learn how to pray and what to pray for. This is why the disciples asked Christ to teach them to pray, so that they could pray in spirit and truth.
Now, as we know, prayer to God can take on a variety of forms, but as St. Basil the Great says there are four types of prayer which are absolutely necessary for the Christian to develop in order to have a healthy relationship with God: 1) petition – in which we ask for those things necessary for salvation; 2) repentance – in which we confess our sins and change our life by keeping the commandments; 3) thanksgiving – in which we offer to God our gratitude for all He has done for us; 4) praise – in which we glorify God, being enrapt in His divine goodness. Since the prayers of the Church include all four of these types of prayer, they help us become well rounded Christians. They help us not only avoid unhealthy types of prayer such as complaining or self-justification, but they also help us move beyond simply asking God for things in a selfish way, to giving Him thanks for everything, confessing our sins before Him, and praising Him for His great goodness.
These prayers of the Church which we find in prayer books were written by the Saints, those men and women who passed through all the stages of the spiritual life on their way to union with God. One could even say that the Saints have left us their prayers as a spiritual roadmap to the Kingdom, for they teach us not only how and what we should pray for on our Christian journey but also what our hearts should feel and how our minds should think. When we make the prayers of the Church our own through attention and feeling we put ourselves on that same straight and narrow path which the Saints themselves took, that path which leads from earth to heaven.
Now it will happen that after time, when we start to become accustomed to praying in the manner of the Saints, we will feel prayer taking on its own life within us, and even when we do not have our prayer books before us we will start to feel the need to 1) seek those things necessary for salvation, 2) ask the Lord’s forgiveness and repent, 3) offer Him thanksgiving, and 4) praise God. At these times, when we are moved by the Spirit, our prayer can take on its own words and be very pleasing to God.
Q. How should we pray in our own words?
A. Prayer in our own words should be simple and direct. There is no need for eloquence or verbosity. In fact, at times there is no need for words at all. God knows what is in our minds and hearts even before we have a chance to verbalize our thoughts and feelings. It is enough simply to say, “Lord, have mercy” or “Thank You, Lord”. Or to say the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” or in the plural form, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us”. Whatever our pray is, it should be spiritual not intellectual, it should come from the heart, wherein resides the Holy Spirit who cries unto God, “Abba, Father!”
Q. What is the best way to develop this spiritual prayer?
A. Each person is different and no two peoples’ prayer life develops in exactly the same way. However, generally speaking we should apply ourselves to both prayer with books as well as prayer in our own words. In the morning and evening, and before and after meals, we should use the prayers given to us by the Church, those prayers which we find in Orthodox prayer books. And at all other times, whether we be at home or work, during the day or at night, we should seek to remember God through short simple prayers such as “Lord, have mercy” or the Jesus Prayer.
The more we apply ourselves to continual prayerful remembrance of God, the more we will start to see a change in our lives. We will become not only more sensitive to the Lord’s presence among us and within us, but also more sensitive to the presence of our neighbor and his or her temporal and eternal needs. We will begin to become more spiritual people, not in the prideful sense – may the Lord preserve us from this – but in the sense that we will start to realize are destiny to live in loving, self-sacrificial communion with God and each other.
Anyway, it is a daily struggle (for all of us) to put Him first, but the great thing about it is that when we do we are guaranteed that everything will turn out for the best (even if we can't always see it from our human perspective). Hard work in the spiritual life always is worth it.
Q. How do prayer and the keeping of the commandments actually affect our daily lives? Don't we say that everything that happens to us is part of God's providence? If so, what's the point? We can't really change our destiny, can we?
A. Though the Lord works in mysterious ways, arranging all things according to His Providence, we do actually have a crucial part to play in choosing our own destiny, both in this life and the next.
As the Scriptures teach us, just because God is all-powerful and always desires what is best for us, this does not mean that He will force us to enter into His Kingdom. He respects our free will so much that He even allows us to choose hell, both in this life and the next. Though He desires to shower us with His goodness in an infinite measure, in order not to infringe on our free will, He limits His goodness to us to the measure that we are willing to receive it from Him by working with Him - keeping His commandments, praying to Him, etc..
That's why when we keep the commandments or pray "Lord have mercy" we should remind ourselves that we are not trying to convince the Lord to be merciful to us - how silly would it be to think that we sinners can convince the Lord of infinite goodness, love, and wisdom to be more merciful or more loving. Prayer and the keeping of the commandments have their power to change our destiny not because we convince God to do something better for us, but because through prayer and the keeping of the commandments we become humbler and more open to His action in our lives - we allow Him to work wonders on our behalf - the greatest wonder being the gift of salvation. In the spiritual life, the simple rule is: the measure in which we change (repent, turn to the Lord, keep the commandments, etc) is the same measure in which we will receive God's mercy. I think that this is really what St. Anthimos of Chois was getting at when he said that "the Goodness of God is so rich in graces, that it seeks a cause to have mercy on a person."