On the life of prayer and being conformed to Christ.
Sometimes I still dream of the snow crunching under my feet and the soft light reflecting off the sludge from the street lamps’ glow.
It was February 2020 and I already felt like my life was spinning out of control, even before the apocalyptic reality of the pandemic which threw most of the world into disarray. Many of my friends had moved or graduated, I was tired of my job, and one of my closest friends had suddenly disappeared from my life. Walking through those cold alleyways after the sunset felt like doing penance for all the ways my life had gone awry. Some changes felt like they were my fault, and some others were certainly my fault, some were totally out of my control. With my head bowed down to the ground, I watched one foot trod in front of the other as I prayed with each depression into the snow.
During Lent, I walked to the Monastery of the Holy Cross down the street from me every Friday evening to kneel and pray while the monks chanted the office of compline. On my way there and on my way back I quietly breathed a short prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The dark oratory of the monastery seemed to be spreading to every street I walked upon the more time I spent there. I began to feel the soft glow of the candles pouring from every street lamp, hear the echo of the Salve Regina behind every doorway, see monastics cloaked in dark hoods walking past me, smell the incense of prayer in every corner of my world—all as a trod along, praying with the beat of my heart. I noticed that the icon of Christ which I saw as I gazed at the altar became radiant in each passing face. What was occurring, unbeknownst to me, was not a noticing with the eye, but a noticing with the spirit. The prayer of the Temple became the prayer of my heart and vice versa. In that Lenten season, I became a student of contemplative prayer and the Orthodox Way.
The title of this article, lex orandi, is the beginning of a common saying in the Great Tradition of the Church. “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.” Translated from Latin, it means (roughly) “The law of prayer, is the law of belief, is the law of life.” The basic principle of this saying implies that the method, order, or law of prayer deeply changes every aspect of our being. Our prayers first cause a change in our souls, then in our minds, and then in our bodies. Formative prayer goes beyond what I can speak extemporaneously, it is conforming toward something beyond the self. In the Christian faith, the liturgy, the “Jesus Prayer” (also referred to as the Hesychast tradition), the psalms, and the divine offices found in the monastic tradition conform us to the image of Christ. Prayer is not an aspect of the Orthodox Tradition, it is that very tradition.
I could not have expected the fruitfulness of those walks to the monastery in Chicago. I was slowly turning toward Orthodoxy through the mystical life of prayer by uttering the Jesus Prayer in company with an experience of the rigid liturgical life of prayer found in the divine offices. However, the reality is not quite as black and white as this. True liturgical prayer is bound up in mysticism and true mystic prayers only flow forth from the liturgical life. Our prayers, even outside of communion with the Church, are bound up in heavenly liturgy outside of time merely by our nature as Creatures and God’s condescension toward us. A few measly words, “Kyrie Eleison”, “Hail Mary, full of grace”, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” are graciously lifted up to God as the incense drifts toward him in the temple, and by grace, he hears us.
Why, then, ought I be an Orthodox Christian? Why, if I could be saved outside of the Church, experience God outside of the Church, and be heard by God outside of the Church, would I desire communion with the Church? It is by the Church’s faithfulness to and communion with Christ that the world’s prayers are heard. I often tell people who ask why I’ve become Orthodox that the Orthodox Church is the only Church that will tangibly give me Christ, namely through the sacraments and chiefly through the Eucharist. Our prayers hang on God’s giving up of himself to us. By being enthroned on the Cross and perpetually praising Christ in his sacrifice he hears us and answers our prayers. To be an Orthodox Christian is to become a priest unto the World, to pray on behalf of the World, and to plead for the mercy of God upon his Church and upon all his creation. It is only by the Orthodox liturgical life that our hearts, minds, and bodies can be conformed to Christ because the liturgical life of the Church flows into and out of Christ who remains present with us by the sacrament of his sacrifice. It is by God’s authority given to our Mother, the Church, that she gives us the rule of prayer for our benefit. This rule is often looked up to in our modern world as outdated, uncontemporary, or out of touch. This contemporary perspective of the ancient liturgical life, however well-intended, is misinformed by what the World tells us is good. The World says we need to express ourselves, to evolve our ways of thinking, and “get with the times” in our daily lives. The Church points us back toward that ancient and timeless sacrifice, it conforms our hearts to the way of Christ which is beyond time, elevates our minds to heavenly understanding, and it sets the rhythm of our life first by the timeless rhythm of God’s kingdom. It is because of this intimate connection with eternity, that paradoxically, we are made more present to the world in time in the model of Christ’s Incarnation. We ought to imitate his condescension to us because he, who exists eternally as the Word of God, became enfleshed as we are so that we may trace his steps back toward eternal life in union with God.
I know the conversation about Orthodoxy is much longer than any article I can write and, by nature of the medium, this isn’t exactly a conversation at all. My hope is that these words will spark something within you to deepen your own love for God, and for many of you whom I deeply love but don’t keep up with often enough this bearing of my heart would deepen the love shared between us. I am, by no means, an expert or even well experienced in the life of the Church, but hopefully this reflection and the other reflections to come point all of us to hear the wisdom of the Church and follow in the footsteps of the saints before us— as St. Paul counsels, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” By the prayers of our Mother, of all the saints, of all the faithful, and of you, dear reader, may God have mercy upon me, an unworthy sinner.
If you have more questions about Orthodoxy or about my conversion, please send me an email at email@example.com