In the Orthodox spiritual tradition prayer has a broad, comprehensive and profound meaning. To pray does not mean simply and only to petition and to beseech, that is, to ask for something from God. This is of course, the familiar meaning of prayer. It is important to note, however, that there are various types of prayer, as well as various levels of prayer, which are always analogous to the spiritual experience and progress of each praying person.
Prayer begins as petition and supplication when we express our needs and our deficiencies to God. This type of prayer is the most familiar to all of us because this is the type we use most often. We are always aware of our needs and our weaknesses. Like a small child in need that runs to the loving embrace of its mother, we too also have learned to pray and to ask for help from God. Faithful persons pray because they recognize that it is from God that they receive their life and all that is necessary for their natural and spiritual sustenance. Most especially however we pray for the mercy of God and for the forgiveness of our sins.
The prayer of supplications, however, must be extended to include our fellow human beings for whom we are responsible. In our petitions we must also present the needs not only of our family, but also the needs of all those people who are known to us. Moreover, we must also have in mind, in our petitions, the needs of our whole community, as well as the current events of contemporary history, including the universal deficiencies and sorrows of our time. But because we do not know with absolute confidence what is to our benefit, our petitions will be, in the final analysis, a prayer for the Divine grace of God, for the realization not of our will but of the Will of All-Wise and Loving God who knows what we actually need for our bodily and spiritual life before we even ask for it.
After the prayer of supplication what usually follows is the prayer of thanksgiving. This is a higher type of prayer because the believer does not any longer seek something from God but rather expresses gratitude and thanksgiving to Him for the benefits and the gifts already received. When the prayer of supplication receives its necessary response, the believer usually expresses a prayer of thanksgiving to the God Who loves mankind and grants our requests. We respond with a prayer of thanksgiving because we recognize and acknowledge the grace of God, which we have received in the past or in the present. Our faith obliges us to thank God, not only when He grants our requests, but always and for all things. Nothing in our life is arbitrary. Everything that happens and everything that does not happen is under the Divine Providence and Wisdom of God, and we should be able to accept it with gratitude and perseverance. “I thank You God for my life and my health which You give me, for the light You provide for me to recognize You, and for the love with which You embrace me. I thank You God for everything I have and for everything I do not have. I thank You God for making me worthy to live today, to work, to enjoy my family and my friends, to meet some new person, and to recognize the virtues and gifts of another human being. For all the material and spiritual blessings that I receive from You Lord, for my family, my friends, and particularly for the faith and the salvation that You provide for us, I thank You.”
This sense of gratitude and thanksgiving must include the difficulties, the testing and the incomprehensible things that happen in our life. When immovable Christian faith and hope exist, our prayer of thanksgiving will be all the more broadened to include even our misfortunes. It is precisely our fervent communion with God in prayer that can transform even tragic events into opportunities for spiritual growth, according to the measure of our faith. Prayer of thanksgiving means that in an every growing spiritual understanding, we come to accept all the aspects of our life as a gift of God and, in all circumstances, we turn to Him with humble thanksgiving from the depths of our soul.
Prayer can reach the even higher level of prayer that is known as the selfless praise and worship of God. When we are exalted spiritually and found face to face before the ineffable and magnificent glory and Most Holy Presence of God, we no longer think of our needs nor or our gifts. In this highest type of prayer we do not ask for something from God, nor do we thank Him for the gifts He provides for us, but we only and simply praise Him constantly and worship Him, as do the Holy Angels in Heaven with the Thrice-Holy Hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord Sabbath, heaven and earth are full of Your glory…”
The worshipful prayers of doxology and praise confirm in a way the following affirmation: “You Lord are God and I am a human person, Your creation. You exist forever and eternally, while I have been created by You and depend upon You.” Our life must always be based upon the Truth. And the basic truth in this instance is that God is God and man is man. God is the Creator and man is the creation, and not the other way around. When we therefore, accept this fundamental truth and worship selflessly Our Most Benevolent Creator, we secure our authenticity and spiritual freedom, our health and maturity as human beings. The free and selfless worship and praise of God makes us truly free and enlightened human beings, who reflect that glory and that honor with which our Creator has endowed us from the beginning. God Himself, of course, does not need to be glorified by us. But it is proper and right precisely for the regenerated human nature of mankind to praise and to worship God, using the most pure and most perfect type of prayers. Sacred Scripture is full of hymns and praises with which to worship God. When God is praised and glorified by man it is the human person that is magnified and honored precisely because we are able to recognize and honor God Who is infinitely superior to us. By glorifying God the human person fulfills his or her destiny–to be and to act like a child of God who turns to God in humble yet confident prayer of love and selfless devotion.
These are the three basic types of prayer that we encounter in the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church. In reality, however, these types of prayer are rarely separated one from another. Most often we see the three elements of prayer–supplication, thanksgiving and doxology–to be integrated into a unified and comprehensive prayer. This is especially true of the traditional prayers of the Church contained in the Prayer Book, but also of the many beautiful prayers of the Divine Liturgy and the other Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church.
(Source: A Prayer Book: An Anthology of Orthodox Prayers by Fr. Peter A. Chamberas)