(Image: The Lord's Prayer in Hebrew, from the Pater Noster Chapel in Jerusalem)
I’m the sort of person who prefers private prayer to communal prayer. I feel closer to God, less constrained by the pressure of other listeners, and more free to be open and honest when I’m praying privately. My private prayers are spontaneous, heartfelt, and authentic; my communal prayers, while certainly still heartfelt, are carefully crafted into the appropriate verbiage of modern churchgoers. For a long time as I was growing up, I felt that the most important part of my spiritual life, the most real part, was the relationship between me and God. While church was important, and praying with other Christians was a part of church life, I thought of it simply as a means to nurture and feed my relationship with God. It’s only in my adult life that I began to understand that all prayer is really more about the church than it is about me.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the very first phrase ought to remind us that prayer is a collective exercise, an act of the entire church, and not merely an individual act of devotion. We don’t pray, “My Father who art in heaven,” we pray, “Our Father.” In praying this prayer, we are addressing the Lord from the position of his chosen community of covenant-people.
That’s not to say that we can’t pray the Lord’s Prayer as part of our private devotions. Rather, we simply need to understand that even when we are praying entirely alone, we are still praying as part of the whole Body of Christ. Our spiritual lives will never be a matter of simply “me and God,” not even if you adopt the life of a hermit and spend the rest of your years in solitary prayer. Because you are a Christian, you are mystically connected to the whole church of God, and so your prayer is part of the whole prayer of the people of God.
The visions of prayer that we have in the New Testament begin and end with the collective prayer of the whole church together. At the beginning of the church’s story, all the believers are gathered in one place, praying together, when the Holy Spirit descends (Acts 1:14, 2:1). And at the end of the story, before the throne of God, we see another picture of prayer, and once again it is a picture of the whole church crying out together with one voice (Rev. 7:9-10, 15:2-4).
This sense of our interconnectedness was central to the spiritual life of early Christianity. In the Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest statements of Christian faith, there is a line that reads, “I believe in…the communion of saints.” This creed has been widely adopted and used across many Christian denominations, including gaining a place of honor even among many non-creedal evangelicals. So what can be meant by “the communion of saints”? In Protestant usage, it can’t refer to the old Roman Catholic notion of a super-holy class of dead people who are available to intercede for us upon request. No, it goes back to the older New Testament usage of “saint”—a reference to the holy ones of God, that is, all of us who are in Christ. To say that we believe in the communion of saints means that we believe that we are all intimately and mystically interconnected in Christ, sharing the same Kingdom-life together, regardless of the distances of time and space between us.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition has consciously sought to keep this understanding of prayer and the communion of saints at the forefront of their worship. Unlike many of our modern Western ways of worship, Orthodox church services, like the liturgies of the earliest Christians, are almost entirely services of prayer. Aside from the sermon, everything in the service is spoken as a prayer—nearly every line, every hymn, every exposition of every ritual, is verbally directed towards God. And though not every worshiper says every line, the idea is that they will all be joining together in spirit with this one prayer, creating a single Kingdom-cry before the presence of the Lord.
Not only is it a service of collective prayer, it is a service that puts the communion of the saints front and center. Since the Body of Christ is a unity that transcends time and space, that means we are connected to all Christians everywhere, from every time. It’s not just that we are members of one body with the Christians in China and Iraq and Argentina; it’s also that we are members of one body with the early church fathers and the medieval Christian peasants and the Reformers. Orthodox services take place in the company of icons—specially-consecrated paintings of Bible heroes or Christians from the past—who gaze out from the walls and the ceilings of Orthodox churches as a living reminder that our worship and our prayer is always undertaken in the presence of that great cloud of witnesses. We are one body with them, and our worship and prayer, each and every Sunday, is a part of the same worship and prayer that they offered while on earth, and it is a part of the same worship and prayer that they offer now in the presence of Almighty God. Every act of worship, every breath of prayer prayed by any Christian anywhere, at any time, is actually an integral part of that one true service of worship eternally taking place around the throne of God.
So when you pray, remember that it is an act that is far bigger than the scope of your own horizons. Remember that you are taking part in something eternal, ineffable, and glorious beyond comprehension. When we pray to “Our Father,” we are praying alongside Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Spurgeon and Graham. When we pray to “Our Father,” we are praying alongside the Lord Jesus Christ. We pray with the voice of the whole church, the whole Body of Christ, and so we can rest assured that our prayers have power and authority, that they are heard and cherished and acted upon by the Ancient of Days.
Again, this is not to say that our individual relationship with God is unimportant or that we ought not to be giving ourselves to private prayer. Quite the contrary. It is a reminder that in our private prayer and in our individual relationship with God, we are a part of something that is far bigger than ourselves.