Prayer in the Spirit
All Christian prayer must be prayer in the Spirit; and all genuine prayer most certainly is. Men pray to the Father, through Christ the Son and Word of God in the Holy Spirit. This is the case wherever men pray, whatever their method, whether they know it or not. For prayer is not man’s lonely cry across empty spaces to a far-off God. Prayer is man’s being in God; being in the Holy Spirit, as made in Christ’s image, the dwelling place of God.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? . . . God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are (1 Cor 3.16–17, cf. Deut 30.9–14, Ps 139.7–14, Rom 10.5–13).
Christian prayer is done consciously in the Holy Spirit, with all faith and awareness. It is addressed to and through Christ, to the Father. In the Orthodox Church there is only one prayer among all the prayers of the Church addressed to the Holy Spirit. This is the prayer O Heavenly King, which begins all prayers and clearly creates the conditions in which all prayer is performed.
O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
You are everywhere and fill all things,
Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life,
Come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity
And save our souls, O Good One.
Even on Pentecost Sunday in the Orthodox Church the three special prayers of the feast are addressed to Christ and the Father.
The prayer to God for the coming of the Spirit is itself a sign that the Spirit is already in man enabling him to call to the Father. This is the mystery of man’s nature and existence; that he is only truly man when the Holy Spirit is in him. This is the mystery of God’s gracious work in man. It is the mystery of prayer and life itself.
One calls God “Our Father” only in the Spirit. One calls Jesus “Lord” only in the Spirit. One prays to God in any manner or form only in the Spirit. The words of the psalms, the prayers of the saints, the liturgical worship of the Church, is the “breathing of God’s Spirit” in man (Saint John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ). For all prayer, like the scripture itself, is by the inspiration of God.
Even when men do not know how to pray or for what they should ask, it is the Holy Spirit who prays in them that they would have what is needed, that God’s will would be done.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with signs too deep for words. And He who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8.26–27).
Thus the prayer in the Spirit, as well as the prayer for the Spirit, has as its purpose the “acquisition of the Spirit” so that by the “fruits of the Spirit” man would be holy and divine by God’s grace. This is the basic mystery of the spiritual life. For as Saint Augustine has said, the person who seeks the Lord has already been found by Him. The very seeking in prayer, when one knows not how to pray, makes a person already the dwelling place of God.
In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul speaks of a special kind of prayer in the Spirit. It is the spiritual gift of “speaking in tongues.” With this particular gift the person praises God in a language he cannot understand. His “spirit prays” with ecstatic utterances, but his “mind remains unfruitful.” According to the apostle, who himself had this gift and says that it should not be forbidden, such prayer in the Spirit is without benefit to man unless it is accompanied with “some revelation or knowledge or prophecy [i.e. the directly inspired Word of God] or teaching.” He says that it should not be done in the public gathering of the church unless there be some interpretation and that even then there should be “only two, or at most three,” and that those who are “eager for manifestations of the Spirit should strive to excel in building up the church” and should “not be children in their thinking . . . but in thinking be mature.” He says that all should seek rather to prophesy, i.e. to speak the Word of God clearly and plainly so that those who observe Christians would declare that God is really among them and not consider them mad. He says finally that “all things should be done decently and in order” (cf. 1 Cor 12–14).
It is apparent that the gift of praying in the Spirit with tongues was the cause of no small confusion and disorder in the Corinthian Church, and that those having this gift of ecstatic prayer were disturbing and dividing the community by considering themselves more spiritual than others. Saint Paul insists that not all have the same gifts, and that tongues are but one of the gifts, the last of those mentioned, to serve as a sign not for those who already believe, but “for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14.22). In general it is clear that the sole purpose of the apostle’s extended discussion of the spiritual gifts, and his insistence on giving up “childish ways” in the pursuit of perfection when one becomes mature, was to rebuke the members of the Corinthian Church for their misuse and abuse of the spiritual gift of tongues.
There is no evidence in the spiritual tradition of the church that any of the saints had the gift of praying in tongues or that such kind of prayer was ever a part of the liturgy of the church. The only mention that can be found of it, to our knowledge, was at the baptism of Montanus, a third-century heretic who left the Church to found his own spiritualist sect. If any of the saints or spiritual masters had this gift, they did not write about it or propagate it openly. It was unknown, for example, to Saint John Chrysostom by his own report, (cf. Commentary on Corinthians). Since a number of believers have this gift in our time, and since there are persons who seek it, it is critically important that this method of prayer be understood according to the counsels of St Paul and in the light of the teaching of the spiritual masters on prayer.