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Homily On Prayer - H.H. Pope Shenouda III

H.H. Pope Shenouda III, 1989

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: One God. Amen. 

Being that this week is the Week of Prayer, I would like to speak to you about Prayer. Prayer according to its simplest meaning is a dialogue with God. But is it a dialogue of the tongue or that of the heart? Doubtless it is a dialogue of the heart. For this reason, the Lord Christ rebuked those who pray with their lips only, saying: “these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). 

Thus, prayer is not merely words. Nor is it merely recitations or memorized utterances. But prayer is firstly the longing for God [] as David the Prophet says: “my soul longs for you, O God, as a thirsty land longs for water” (Psalms 143:6). And he also says: “O God, you are my God, my soul thirsts for you” (Psalms 63:1). And he says again: “as the deer longs” — the male deer which gallops quickly and tires [as a result] — “as the deer longs for the fountains of water, so my soul longs for You, O God.” (Psalms 42:1)

The more your soul longs for God, and speaks to Him as a result of this longing, the more you feel that you are speaking to Him from your heart and benefit from prayer. [] For prayer is not merely a longing, but it is a longing that springs forth from love. Thus prayer begins firstly in the heart as love, is then elevated to the mind as thought, and finally the tongue utters it as word. But it is in the first instance love. Love!

[David] tells Him, “Oh how beloved is your name, O Lord, for it is my meditation all the day” (Psalms 119:97). Out of his love for God, the name of God is on his tongue and mind all day long in meditation. He also says to Him, “in your name I will lift up my hands; my soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Psalms 63:4-5). 

So prayer is satisfaction for the soul. Just as the flesh is nourished by food, so also the soul is nourished by being in the presence of God, and by conversing with God, and with the connection of the heart with God. This is nourishment for the soul.

If you pray and do not feel satisfied, then you are not truly praying. Prayer, as I have said, is love. Just as a droplet of water journeys until it pours into the great sea and unites with it, so also does the heart of man journey so as to unite with the heart of God and become joined to Him. And the first matter [here] is prayer. For this reason, prayer was said to be a golden bridge connecting the creature to the Creator. [] It was also said that prayer is likened to the ladder of Jacob which connected earth and heaven. Prayer was also said to be the language of the angels, or the praise of the angels. 

Imagine — the Seraphim were standing before the throne of God saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth” (Isaiah 6:3), being satisfied with this love and their souls being satiated by it. This is prayer. Believe me, many claim that they converse with God while in fact they do not pray. They do not pray because they merely utter words without any feeling or emotion. 

For this reason, prayer is connectedness[1] with God. [] In prayer you find a connection between yourself and God. You connect with God. As in the Divine Liturgy when we say, “stand [earnestly].”[2] You develop a connection between yourself and God such that you experience being in the presence of God. [] This is prayer. It is not mere words. You experience the presence of God and being with God, and the connection between you both. 

Some think prayer to be words they utter or beautiful phrases they say. It is not so. I will give you an example. You see these lights — there are small bulbs and a large spotlight [] — imagine you have incredibly powerful lightbulbs — a bulb with the power of many volts — but it has no electric current running through it. What would be the benefit of this lightbulb to you? What is the benefit of a powerful lightbulb if the electric current is absent from it? In your prayers, you must feel this current running through your veins. 

You feel pleasure in being with God [] so that even when you try to stop praying or cease from prayer, you find it difficult to do so. One stands to pray, and every time he tries to conclude the prayer, he says: “Lord let me spend some more time with You… [] a few more minutes… let me have some more time.” He is unable to leave Him! [] As it says in the Song of Songs, “I held him and would not let him go” (3:4). I can’t leave him! This is prayer. 

This sort of prayer purifies the heart, [] because man, when he finds himself in the presence of God, is purified thereby. Even if a sinful thought comes to him, he is ashamed of it, saying: “My thoughts were just with God, how can I now mingle it with evil?” If any external warfare comes to him, you find him impervious to it, fortified by the inner purity which he obtains from prayer. 

Deep prayer leads man to renounce the entire world, because after he finds himself in the presence of God, everything else becomes trivial in his eyes. For this reason, the Spiritual Elder[3] said: “the love of God alienated me” — that is, rendered me a stranger — “from mankind and the things of mankind.” 

St. John of Assiut was once asked, “what is pure prayer?” He told them “it is death to the world,” meaning when one is praying, this world is wholly absent from his mind; because of his preoccupation with God, he no longer feels the present world. 

Prayer is an honor for man — a great honor, for him to speak with God. There are many who occupy prestigious positions with whom you cannot speak. But God, out of His humility, permits you to speak with Him, even while He is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings and Creator of all. Thus, prayer is an honor with respect to man, and humility with respect to God. Of His humility He communicates with us. []

Do not dare to think that when you pray, you give to God anything at all — time, words. No. In prayer you receive and do not give. Just as we say to God in the Divine Liturgy, “You are not in need my worship, but rather I am in need of Your Lordship.” You need to be found with God. You need to speak with Him. You need to receive from His love. 

Imagine, regarding the pleasure of prayer, that David, when he prayed his psalms [] did not find the flute sufficient. We read in history that David had a large musical ensemble — a substantial chorus — one with a flute and one with a harp and another with an oud and another with stringed instruments and another with timbrels and another with cymbals and another with a trumpet — all of the musical instruments in his day, and sometimes the number would reach seventy people! And he prayed his psalms with the wondrous pleasure of music, and told them “Selah,” meaning “let us stop here and change the melody.” []

For this reason, sometimes prayer is a song sung by the soul to God. Imagine standing and singing to God! Where does this singing come from? For this reason he says, “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalms 96:1). [] A song! One who rejoices in another — who loves another — and sings to Him. And God rejoices with this heart — this musical heart, in which one does not pluck the strings of the oud, but instead the strings of his heart, so that the words that spring from it are a beautiful song in the hearing of God. 

See Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Moses! She held the timbrel in her hand and sang to God! [] And we, do we not sing? We certainly sing! From this we see that our hymns are prayer. See the words, “Agios, Agios, Agios, Holy, Holy, Holy.” In joyful times we sing “Agios” to Him in a joyful hymn, and with melisma. And in mournful times, in the Passion Week, we sing “Agios” to Him in a mournful tone. And in Ⲕⲟⲓⲁϩⲕ we say it in a different way. And every time we say “Holy,” we say it to Him in a different way. The psalmody, is it not a prayer? But it is a song we sing to the Lord. We stand before God singing, rejoicing — one rejoicing greatly in God, and, seeing Him, sings for joy! [] 

For this reason we find praises — spiritual songs. The Bible says, “with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts to God” (Ephesians 5:19). [] Indeed, singing always springs forth from inner feeling. And we stand before God singing always: people rejoicing in God and singing to Him. How? When we come to read the gospel, we say it in a melody in the Church; when we come to read the Psalm, we sing it to Him. We have Psalms which, when the chanter stands to chant them, he says them with the fullness of love in his heart before God. 

And the prayers and hymns of the Divine Liturgy are sung. For this reason, I am uncomfortable with those who rush through the Liturgy in a few minutes and without care for its hymns. No singing! What will God say to such people? “Is there no feeling? Do the strings of your heart not move?” In every word we say in the Liturgy, we sing. We sing before God, saying to Him: “Lord I am overjoyed in You [] and will sing to you all day and night!” 

Long ago, each Psalm had its own hymn, and they said it in chant. Just like the hymns we have in the Second, Third, and Fourth ϩⲱⲥ. These are all Psalms. Here is the heart that prays. 

But for one to pray with his tongue while his mind wanders in other things, where is the connection between him and God? Where is the dialogue between him and God? What is more, where is the etiquette of discussion between him and God? Do you speak to God while you are distracted, or while your senses are distracted; praying while looking here and there? 

From here, prayer requires certain qualities so that it may be considered an acceptable prayer before God. There are prayers that are acceptable and those that are not. 

To offer an acceptable prayer before God, the first point is to pray with understanding. While speaking, you understand the meaning of each word. You say, “Our Father who art in Heaven,” and every word is understood and has its depth, and is uttered in harmony between the tongue and the mind and the heart and the spirit and the flesh and the whole person. For this reason, you find in our hymns: “my heart and my tongue praise the Trinity” — “ⲡⲁϩⲏⲧ ⲛⲉⲙ ⲡⲁⲗⲁⲥ.” [] 

Prayer does not only involve the tongue. Your tongue speaks, while your mind is occupied with the same words, while your heart experiences the same feeling, while your spirit calls to the Lord. And your body also participates: in kneeling with meekness, prostrating, lifting up your hands, your eyes directed upwards. In all of this, your body participates with your spirit. Thus, prayer encompasses the whole person: mind, heart, spirit, flesh, and tongue together. 

For this reason, the one who prays often closes his eyes so as not to be distracted by or think about whatever is in front of him. He does not feel [] what happens around him. He leaves everything and devotes himself to God. 

Prayer with understanding denotes meaning every word you say. For example, when you say to Him, “Thy kingdom come,” your mind should contemplate the meaning of the kingdom of God, how His kingdom rules over your heart, how His kingdom may spread among the people, how His kingdom may spread among those nations who do not yet know Him, how His kingdom may rule over the mind and heart and flesh and spirit, how His kingdom is the longing for the eternal kingdom. And you say the word “kingdom” as you find yourself entering into the deepest depths of this kingdom. Meaning every word; praying with understanding. 

And if you pray with understanding, you will find that you also pray with concentration. [] Your mind will be occupied with the words, without deviation of thought or distraction. You will find yourself concentrating on the words and their meanings. You will pray with understanding, with concentration, and with depth, as David says, “out of the depths I have cried to You O Lord” (Psalms 130:1). Out of the depths! Out of the depths of my heart. Out of the depths of my mind. Out of the depths of my need for You. Out of the depths of my desires. Out of the depths in which I have fallen, I am lifted up to You and say: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord” (Psalms 130.1). You are in my inner depths, and I will to also reach Your depths. 

The one who prays such prayer, which is with love and understanding, will necessarily also pray fervently. Because he pours himself out before God. See Hannah, who became Samuel’s mother. The Bible says that she “prayed a prayer” (1 Samuel 1.9-10). [] What does this mean? It was not just any prayer! [] She prayed a prayer which bore all the fullness of the meaning of the word. Her lips merely moved, as her heart was ablaze for God. To the point that Eli the Priest thought her to be drunk. Because she poured herself out as an offering before God. Imagine the term “pouring” himself out; a soul being “poured” out before God. I cannot find in the Arabic language words sufficient to express how one pours himself out, but you understand it. One who pours himself out before God. His soul is wrung out and he pours it into the hearing and heart of God, telling Him, “my very self is poured out before You.” 

He who pours himself out before God does not have any awareness of his surroundings. If he is conscious of his surroundings, then his mind has become distracted and he is not poured out before God. The fervency of his prayer may be evident in his language, in his eyes, in his tears — from the extent of the fervency within him — in his love. He prays! You feel that this person prays. 

You may find two priests standing before the altar praying the Divine Liturgy, but you feel that one is praying and one is not. He is not praying, he is only saying the Liturgy. You may find two chanting a spiritual song, but only one chanting it from the depths of his heart so that you feel that he truly chants it, while for the other it is mere words. Words and musical melodies without spirit. []

She “prayed a prayer.” She poured herself out before God. Hannah. I read this very expression also concerning Elijah the Prophet in the fifth chapter of the Epistle of our teacher James. He says: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed a prayer that the heavens would not rain” (James 5:17). “Prayed a prayer” means not just any words. “Prayer” here means true prayer. 

One might stand for fifteen minutes speaking, and the angels would say, “why isn’t this fellow praying?” You might say, “You see him speaking!” And they would say, “these are just words. There’s no prayer. It is only words but not prayer.” But there is another sort of person — when he stands up for prayer, you find that the twenty four priests from the Book of Revelation take the golden censers in their hands and retrieve the prayer and take it up with them (see Revelation 8:3). If you ask one of them why, he would say, “this is a prayer, I can’t leave it. I must store it in my golden censer and lift it up to God as a fragrance of incense.” The angels sitting in heaven would smell the sweet aroma of the incense coming from earth and ask, “what is this beautiful fragrance of incense?” And they would be told, “Oh, so and so is praying.” [] 

For this reason, just as God rejoices in our prayer, so also do the angels. They participate with us. [] They empower us in prayer, give us spirit, and take our prayers and ascend with them. Just as it was written about Jacob’s ladder, that there were angels ascending and descending on it (see Genesis 28:12). Ascending with the prayers from the earth, and descending with God’s response to them. The angels are always ascending and descending with our prayers. 

The angels in heaven, when they hear someone praying, say to one another: “come, we have work today!” What is that work? “We will take [the prayers] and ascend and descend and connect heaven and earth!” Hence why it is said that prayer shakes the heavens. Not the earth. The heavens. The heavenly hosts. When a saint stands for prayer, they stand for prayer with him, participating with him, feeling that he is one of them — that he is one of the earthly angels from among the heavenly humans. Just like the angels. Or is prayer mere words? Does every person who says “I am praying” truly pray? No! What does “prayed a prayer” mean? It means not just any words. I would that you understand what prayer is and how to pray. 

Do you realize that if we pray for oneness with this spirit, it would be accomplished immediately? Why? Because then souls are [truly] standing before God. God — what can I say, Lord? Just as He says in the Psalms, to the soul that pours itself out before Him in prayer, “turn your eyes from me, for they have overcome me” (Song of Solomon 6:5).[4] God says, “enough, I can’t withstand it any longer. Whatever you want I will give you. Enough.” How could God tell someone, “for your eyes have overcome me?” What is this [wonder]. In language I do not know an interpretation, but in the spirit we may understand its meaning. As it was said, “God was overcome by His compassion.”[5] Out of His love. He sees before Him a person who has been transformed into an angel on earth, speaking with Him in truth. 

When God encounters hundreds of people, one of whom speaks to Him with a wandering mind, and another speaks to Him and then runs away, and another speaks to Him for a short while and then says “enough, I am bored of prayer,” and then finds one steadfast and speaking to Him with all love, He says “I can’t leave this person.” So what does He do? He grants that the Holy Spirit intercede for him with unutterable expressions, so that he is no longer praying but the Holy Spirit works in him and gives him the fervency (see Galatians 4:6). [] Just like one who says “heat up the car so it can run.” The Holy Spirit “heats up this car,” so it can run and ascend to the heavens. 

There are those who have specialized in prayer. They have become specialists in prayer. Their work is prayer, such as the monks and solitaries and hermits. And there are those on earth who give to God some of their time, and there are those who give to God the leftovers of their time, and there are those who say to God, “go away for now and when it is more convenient I will call for you again,” as the [procurator, Felix,] told Paul (Acts 24:25). 

For prayer to be accepted before God, it must also be offered with humility and lowliness of heart. Humility. Our Lord gave us an example in the prayer of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector. The prayer of the tax collector was accepted because it was offered with a humble heart, but the prayer of the Pharisee was not accepted. Not every prayer is accepted; the one who humbles himself before God[, that one’s prayer is accepted]. For this reason, you find some who speak to God with an unbefitting boldness, whereas we bow our heads and prostrate on the ground and sign the cross and ask Him to “make us worthy to say ‘Our Father.’” [] “I am not worthy to stand before You. Who am I? ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:6), as David says. Who am I to put myself between the angels and archangels and the Seraphim and Cherubim to speak to You? Who am I? I am but dust! ‘I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes,’ (Genesis 18:27),” as Abraham the Father of Fathers said. For this reason the one who prays with humility prays with meekness. 

One might say, “I am a son, and I have my rights as a son.” What rights are you speaking of, beloved? Are we discussing rights? Tell Him, “Lord, I am unworthy of anything. ‘I am unworthy to be called Your son’ (Luke 15:19). It is true that You have called me a son out of Your love, but I have not abided as a son. I am utterly cast down. How can I speak to You?” With lowliness of heart, one prostrates, one kneels, one lifts up his hands, and begins a beginning that evidences his humility before God.

It is true that God called you a son. But does His calling you a son lead you to lose your meekness or respect for Him, or to pray with a prideful heart? All of this is unfitting. Do you need more [evidence] than the Cherubim and Seraphim? They stand before God praying. How? “With two wings they cover their faces, and with two they cover their feet” (Isaiah 6:2). They stand ashamed before God, covering their faces for their inability to look toward the great glory of God. [] For this reason, when the priest prays the Reconciliation Prayer in the Divine Liturgy, he holds a handkerchief [over his eyes], and so does the deacon across from him. Why? For their inability to lift their eyes toward God; ashamed before God and the divine glory, so they cover their eyes from the glory of God. But there is another who holds the handkerchief without understanding its meaning, [saying] “well, this is what they taught us in church.”

As for the person who stands before God in meekness and lowliness of heart, God does not forget his lowliness of heart. He truly prays. He recognizes before Whom he stands. He is standing before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. See Moses, after he spent some time with Him, how his face was so radiant that the people could not look to him when he came down [from the mountain]. And that only because he spent a little time with Him. John the Beloved, who leaned on His chest, when God appeared to him in the Book of Revelation, said, “I fell at his feet as one dead” (Revelation 1:17). Why? For the greatness of God. 

Your love for God and favor with Him should not lead you to lose your meekness before God. Your favor [with Him] might otherwise lead you to merely say words, like the one who prays while seated at mealtime. “Why are you sitting, brother? To Whom are you speaking?” He says, “I’m sitting to eat.” Are you sitting to eat or sitting to pray? Whenever I am in a foreign country and they ask me to pray before eating, I stand and they all follow suit. They are used to praying over the meal while seated. Is there no respect when speaking to God? Stand before Him with meekness. Tell Him, “thank you Lord for granting me food for my body. Grant me also food for my spirit.” And pray from your heart. 

Many in the church pray while seated, and if someone tells one to stand, he says, “stand? You forget that we’re in the twentieth century, the age of technology, which exhausts the flesh and robs us of our energy. Before, the people were strong and could stand, but now the people are tired.” Remain as you are, O tired one, and pray prayers that are as tired as you, which do not ascend to the heights.

When you stand to pray while tired, God will grant you the strength and energy to stand, because as you give, so you receive, and you receive what you give and say to Him, “of Your own we have given You” (1 Chronicles 29:14). Prayer needs meekness; to stand before God meekly. But for the one who stands before God while his legs are moving, his hands are moving, his eyes are looking around, as if he is praying with a wind-up, this is not prayer. If this one stands in the army, and they tell him to stand still, he would. If one stands still before an officer or a sergeant, how much more should he do so before God? Pray with meekness, pray with concentration, pray with respect and reverence before God. 

Pray also with faith. He says, “whatever you ask for in prayer will be yours, if you only have faith” (Mark 11:24). Many times one prays but does not believe that what he asks will happen. He just prays to fulfill the obligation. But without faith. We need people to pray with faith — faith that he stands before God, and that God will respond, and that God will respond with whatever is good, regardless of the outcome. [] Prayer with persistence, never tiring. This is prayer. [] Prayer before God with spirit and thought, with love and feeling, and with concentration. This is all regarding the depth of prayer. 

The one who experiences the beauty and tastes the sweetness of prayer loves to pray at all times. He loves that his mind is preoccupied with God at all times. He never tires from prayer. He does not say: “I don’t have time.” How do you not have time? As I have said to some, “do you not have time? See David the Prophet. He was a king and commander in chief of the army and led the people and had a large family and difficult circumstances, but regardless, he prayed evening and morning and at noontime” (see Psalms 55:17). And he told Him, “seven times every day I do I praise You for your righteous judgments” (Psalms 119:164). Only during the day? He also told him, “I remembered you on my bed,” (Psalms 63:6), when he came to sleep, and “in the morning watches [I sang to you]” (Psalm 5:3), [] and “my eyes stay open through the watches of the night that I might meditate on your word” (Psalms 119:148), [and] “at midnight I arise to praise You for your righteous judgments” (Psalms 119.62). And after all this, he tells Him: “O God, you are my God, early will I seek You. My soul thirsts for you…” (Psalms 63:1). After all this, your soul [still] thirsts for Him? 

This is the one who wants to pray. He does not tire from prayer, he is patient, he prays with long-suffering, and whenever Satan says “enough,” he tells him, “depart from me, you have no business with me. This is between me and God.”


[1] Arabic: سلاه

[2] lit. “stand intently/earnestly;” Arabic: نقف بإتصال

[3] i.e. John of Dalyatha

[4] In instances such as this, when His Holiness misremembers the source of a verse or passage, it is important to note that His Holiness, in his usual manner, delivers the majority of his homily from memory and without much, if any, reference to written materials).

[5] See Monday Ⲑⲉⲟⲧⲟⲕⲓⲁ, Fifth Part


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