What is prayer? For a great many years I struggled with this. Not only how to pray, but what to pray for. It was not until I became Orthodox that I began to learn something about prayer, and how especially bad I was at it. Fortunately, the Orthodox faith has 2,000 years of experience in teaching people how to pray. The most important thing I learned is that prayer is rarely about me, or for me. Instead, prayer is for others, and on behalf of others. Specifically, we are called to “pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Mt 5:44); we also enjoined to sorrow over and pray for those who do not know God.
St Silouan the Athonite writes:
He who has the Holy Spirit in Him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. His heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for the fire of torment. For them, more than for himself he prays day and night, that all may repent. Christ prayed for them that were crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ Stephen the Martyr prayed for those who stoned him, that the Lord ‘lay not this sin to their charge.’ And we, if we wish to preserve grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hell-fire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit. (Archimandrite Sophrony 1991, 352)
We are also called to pray for the world — the entirety of creation. Some saints even prayer for the devil and the fallen angels, so great is their love for God’s creation.
Christopher Veniamin writes:
Hypostatic prayer – this prayer for all creation as for one’s self – is at the very heart of the Divine Eucharist – the Liturgy – and can be seen very clearly both in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition: In the Old Testament, for instance, we find Moses imploring God to forgive the people of Israel, after falling into the grave sin or idolatry:
Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin — ; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou has written (ex 32:32)
And in the New Testament too, St. Paul says of his fellow Jews:
I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. 9: 1– 3). (Veniamin 2013, Kindle Locations 167-175)
Archimandrite Sophrony. St Silouan the Athonite. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991.
Veniamin, Christopher. Holy Relics: The Deification of the Human Body in the Christian Tradition. Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2013.