Personal Reflections on the Coptic Orthodox Tradition of Prayer

Coptic monk praying in original cave of St. Anthony.
Coptic monk praying in original cave of St. Anthony.

I have been an Orthodox Christian, a member of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, for over 21 years. I was born and brought up within a committed evangelical protestant household. A much of my time as a child, a teenager, and then a young man was taken up in activities associated with the congregation we attended. I was whole hearted in my participation in various ministries, and eventually I spent three years at an evangelical Bible College preparing for ministry in the evangelical movement. But after all of this experience I had not learned how to pray. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was just beginning to learn to pray, and this was not because of anything I was discovering in the Christian tradition of my youth, but because I was slowly being exposed to aspects of the catholic and orthodox spiritual tradition which from the first made a deep impression on me. It is necessary to make this observation at the beginning of this reflection because my experience was not that of an orthodox Christian who was born into an orthodox environment. I became orthodox over 21 years ago, and was ordained a priest six years ago. But my journey to orthodoxy was perhaps of 10 years extent.

There are several aspects of Coptic orthodox spirituality which have been especially important to my orthodox Christian experience. These are the tradition of the daily hours of prayer, the teaching of an inward prayer of the heart, and participation in the liturgical and communal prayer of the church. Throughout my years as an evangelical there was an expectation that committed Christians would spend some time in prayer each day, but there was little or no instruction about how this should take place. Certainly in my own experience all written prayers were rejected as the basis of a proper evangelical spirituality. This meant that every person in my congregation had to develop their own spirituality without any guidance or structure at all.

My journey towards membership of the Coptic orthodox church brought me into contact with written collections of prayers for the first time. In the years before I became orthodox I made some positive use of prayers from the Anglican and catholic traditions. But my situation of being one who was seeking after a traditional spiritual life, and yet was still outside of the orthodox communion, seems to me to have meant that the choice of which prayers to use remained a matter of personal opinion, and therefore subject to being changed when the use of one collection or another failed to produce the expected spiritual benefit.

When I actually became a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church I was presented with a copy of the book of hours, the daily office of this tradition. It is known as the Agbeya, which is the transliteration into English of the Coptic word meaning book of hours. The translated volumes of these prayers usually contain prayers to be said early in the morning, during the middle of the morning, at midday, in the middle of the afternoon, in the evening, before retiring, and at midnight. Volumes will also often contain prayers to be said by priests and monks, as well as other occasional prayers.

The morning and retiring offices are rather longer than those others which can be prayed during the day, while the midnight prayers are especially lengthy. These prayers express the monastic quality of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Although in earlier centuries there were only a morning and evening gathering for prayer and psalmody, nevertheless by the ninth century the complete collection of day hours can be found. While some traditions of the daily office are filled with variety and require either several books, or fingers to be placed in several places in the office book, within the Coptic Orthodox tradition there is a much greater degree of similarity between each hour. There are the same initial prayers, a selection of psalms, a reading from the gospel, the Trisagion prayer, the Lord’s prayer, an absolution and a final prayer. In many of the hours these will be the same text, and in all cases the same words will be used each day.

I have found this a tremendously fruitful tradition. Of course there is a lack of variety, but using the same words at each hour and each day means that they become rooted in my personal experience, and can be memorised so that at least some portion of the hours can be offered at the appropriate time whatever I am doing. For the first time in my Christian experience I was able to participate in the benefits of having a simple and habitual rule of prayer. It seems to me that there is great wisdom in the Coptic Orthodox tradition of the daily office because the lack of variety prevents the heart wandering in search of spiritual excitement, as it were, and invites the orthodox Christian who prays these prayers to put down deep roots into words which are repeated over and over again.

The Coptic daily office also makes great use of the psalms, more than in any other collection of prayers I had used. In my own experience there has been great benefit in being encouraged to turn to the psalms so often. If each day the hours were to be prayed in its entirety then a very large proportion of the book of psalms would be prayed in each day. The usual practice for faithful members of the Coptic orthodox church, when they pray these hours, is to recite one or two or three of the psalms at each occasion.

I had become very attracted to the works of John Cassian, and especially his accounts of these conversations with the monastic fathers of the Egyptian Desert. These writings introduced me to be idea that Christian spirituality was a science, and that there was a teaching, body of knowledge, and a variety of practices which had been established in the earliest Christian centuries, and was still being passed on today.

Among these teachings was that of seeking to be always standing in the heart before God in prayer. This was very different from the understanding of prayer which I had learnt as an evangelical. In that context prayer was especially understood as something that was offered at a particular time in the day, and was especially a matter of making intercession for others and for oneself. The idea that prayer could and should be a constant state was unknown to me before I began to investigate the orthodox Christian spiritual tradition.

Even before I became orthodox I experimented with the form of prayer which is described by John Cassian. He says that the monks in the desert would pray repeatedly and with attention, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me”. And for a while and as far as I was able I used this prayer. But it seems to me that having become a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, this form of prayer, and others like it, especially the Jesus prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me – have taken on a new meaning. Or rather their meaning and value have become more clear. Such prayer can only become truly effective in the context of the Orthodox Church itself. It is not possible to even begin to practice constant prayer, even for a short period, unless the one who is praying in this way is also participating in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, and has a habit of daily prayer, according to the daily office. Outside of orthodoxy the use of these prayers, though undoubtedly a blessing, were, in my experience, lacking the proper spiritual context for them to be effective.

It is only as an orthodox Christian of some years’ experience that it would be possible for me to reflect on my appreciation of these forms of prayer, and see that even a very small and hesitant beginning has been made in my use of them. Before I became orthodox I rather thought that forms of prayer were something that one did, as if simply saying “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me”, was the same as actually praying. But after some years of being an orthodox Christian, and making some committee use of these forms of prayer, I realise that they are in fact the beginning of the experience of standing inwardly before God. They are one means of this becoming possible as God wills, but they are not the end of the spiritual life at all.

Indeed, this form of prayer, which is rooted in the Coptic Orthodox tradition, is another instance of prayer not saying very much at all, but making possible the opportunity to plant deep spiritual roots. This form of prayer is, in one sense, an inward and silent analogue to the outward prayer of the day by hours. There is no variety in the words, but the invitation to enter more deeply into the content of those words is always at the heart of the hours. My own experience has been that while I would often read evangelical books on spirituality and find them rather lacking in substance and disappointing, when I have turned to the spiritual fathers of the Coptic Orthodox Church I have often read only the first chapter, put the book down, and realized that I have not yet have even begun to put it into practice.

This sense of only having just begun to experience the spiritual life is always present to me even after having been an Orthodox Christian for over 21 years. Each day provides an opportunity for a deeper and richer participation in the prayers of the daily office, of a deeper and more attentive use of prayers such as the Jesus prayer. But as a convert, an Orthodox Christian, and now as an Orthodox priest, the sacramental and liturgical of experience of prayer remains central to the Coptic Orthodox spirituality.

They can be no Orthodox spiritual life apart from participation in the sacraments of the church. In the context of the early church it was only those who had been baptised and chrismated who could join with the rest of the Christian community and pray the prayer, “Our Father….”. Likewise, it is only those who remain in Christ, through participation in the sacrament of confession and the eucharist, who are able properly to enter into an experience of the of the Coptic Orthodox spirituality of prayer. The liturgical prayers of the Coptic Orthodox church exhibit some variety in the selection of hymns and doxologies, but as with the other aspects of Coptic Orthodox prayer much of the texts used by the church for her liturgical worship have no variety.

Very early on in my experience as an Orthodox Christian I came to value this textual stability. It seemed to me when I first became Orthodox, and is still the case now that I am a priest, that the words of the prayers of the church are so rich that even a lifetime of use is not enough to plumb their depths. There is, as with all aspects of the Coptic Orthodox tradition of prayer, a clear sense that we truly enter into this tradition by careful attention to each detail, rather than by having a very wide and varied tradition which is never properly and intently grasped.

The Coptic Orthodox tradition is certainly a humble one, rooted in the monastic experience of the Egyptian deserts. I have found it to be fruitful in my own experience. It does not ask a great deal beyond a prayerful and committed attention. Indeed, this is all that asks for. Its genius is that it is accessible to all of, including myself, and now I could imagine no other spiritual way. It has fulfilled, and is fulfilling, all of those aspirations I had in the years before have I became a member of the Coptic Orthodox church. It is a humble tradition of prayer, but it is a means of great grace, as God wills.

3 Responses to "Personal Reflections on the Coptic Orthodox Tradition of Prayer"

  1. Pingback: Reflexões pessoais sobre a tradição orante da Ortodoxia Copta – Igreja Ortodoxa no Brasil

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