Have a Keepable Rule of Prayer, Done by Discipline
In the third of our reflections on the Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims for Christian Living, we focus on how to “Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.” A “prayer rule” is simply one’s standard, daily prayer routine, just like a workout routine at the gym or the preparations you make when having guests for dinner–the same process each time. At one and the same time, this is one of the most important things we can do to build a life in Christ and, sadly, one in which most people struggle to achieve. During Great Lent, we will also have a six-week series of brief talks on “Building a Life of Prayer,” at the Wednesday evening Potlucks, following the Presanctified Liturgies, but as preparation for that the article below from orthodoxchristianity.com gives us practical ways to do this.
It is impossible to imagine a meaningful Christian life without a daily prayer rule. But what should this prayer rule be? How long or short, and consisting of which prayers? How can we prevent our daily prayer rule from becoming purely a formality? What should we pay particular attention to, and what mistakes should we avoid? And what is the most important thing in a prayer rule? There are three important components to a prayer rule: proper measure, consistency, and quality.
- Proper measure. The proper measure adorns a person in any work—both earthly and spiritual. It is very important to find the middle, royal path. This is a surety of success. This law is important and relevant in our prayer rule. We have to force ourselves in prayer on the one hand, but refrain from zeal not according to reason on the other. We mustn’t be lazy, but it is also dangerous to overdo it. In my view, it is better not to complete something in a prayer rule, and leave the desire to pray for another day. Overdoing it more often than not causes aversion and inner protest. The fathers say that the small rule is without price. Obviously there is need of a spiritual guide here, who is experienced and discerning in the practical work of prayer. But this advice presupposes a measure of freedom and personal choice on the part of the inquirer.
Do not take on a long rule. Let it be something that you could do all your life. Remember: The rule is for man, and not the other way around. The proper measure found keeps a person in good spiritual shape, but also preserves joy in the heart and the desire for prayer. Take many factors into consideration: age, health, marital status, workload, and so on. The fruit of correct prayer labor is deep humility and inner peace.
- Consistency. Be consistent in prayer. This is what the apostle Paul tells us to do. Success in any work depends upon our zeal and consistency—but not only on this. To be sure, the rolling stone gathers no moss. But we also have to remember that we are only God’s co-workers. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase (1 Cor. 3:7). It is essential that God bless our labors. The holy fathers talk about synergy—about our consistent labor in prayer and grace-filled help from on high. This is the pledge of our success. There can be no pauses in the labor of prayer. The labor of prayer reminds us of riding a bicycle or rowing upstream—only unremitting effort and work ensure our forward movement. The same laws are at work in prayer: Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). For the sake of our constancy in the work of prayer, dryness of heart and emotional boredom will with time give place to a robust spirit and the desire for prayer. This is a sign of progress and grace-filled help from above.
- Quality. Quality is better than quantity. Anyone who has decided to take up the work of prayer should remember this. The quality of prayer can be determined by two signs: attention of the mind and depth of repentance in the heart.
St. John Climacus calls attention the soul of prayer. He counsels anyone to enclose the mind in the words of prayer. At first this very hard for everyone, but we mustn’t give up. If we put in the effort, God will definitely help us, and in time will send a guardian angel for our prayer.
Repentance in the heart and deep humility—this is the true table of oblation from which God accepts our spiritual sacrifices, the most important of which is prayer. Also, be at prayer like a burbling child and a guileless infant—forgive all those who have offended you and pray for them. Remember your irredeemable debt before God, and then it will be easier for you to forgive people. It is important to acquire inner lamentation of heart over your sins—the important sign of true repentance.
Understandably, it is possible to fulfill these conditions with a short prayer rule. Everything of authentically good quality is usually found as a limited edition. In teaching music to children we require them to play “purely” a simple scale, when learning a foreign language we have to correctly build a phrase, and a beginning driver has to keep from knocking over the flags when parking. Experience comes with time, and then more labors can be added. But we will fulfill with humility our small prayer rule, everyday and consistently, controlling the quality of our prayer, remembering that it is not our labors that determine success, but God’s all-powerful aid—with which everything is possible for us in this life and the next.
Our life is such that any content is bound up with the form. The immortal soul is present in a mortal body, the Holy Gifts are kept in a tabernacle, fragrant myrrh is kept in a vessel, and the external form for prayerful sighs is the rule. Just as the river has a riverbed along which the water easily flows forward, so is the prayer rule this riverbed along which our prayer flows to God.When a person wants simply to pray without any rule at all, usually that sort of prayer quickly ends, thins out after a few heartfelt sighs of the soul, and he doesn’t know what to say; because we can’t find a prayerful mood all by ourselves. The prayer rule organizes the soul, and gets it into the mood for prayer. Morning and evening prayers, the prayer rule before Communion, various prayers from the prayer book—all these prayers were composed by holy people; in them are placed the thoughts and feelings that anyone who prayers should have. Therefore we cannot learn to pray if we ignore the prayer rule.
In a prayer rule, consistency is important. If the rule is not fulfilled regularly, it ceases to be a rule. It will be a sort of spiritual hobby on weekends, when you take up a prayer book because there is nothing better to do, saying, “What do we have here?” The prayer rule is like a soldier going out to his post, his watch: It’s not important how you feel or what mood you’re in—you go to pray anyway. And a miracle happens—you can start praying in a depressed, sluggish, and inwardly crushed mood, but you end it feeling cheerful and strong, inwardly robust. This is because prayer gives the soul strength. But the sense in a rule is not just reading the texts, but in standing before God, acquiring a prayerful mood and the spirit of communion with the Lord. The prayer rule is only the means, but the goal is God’s grace, which the person praying should be trying to acquire.
Let’s imagine that someone is trying to find a hidden treasure. The pick and the shovel are only the means used for this; they are valuable only inasmuch as they enable him to find the treasure. Therefore it’s ridiculous to get proud about your prayer rule as if you are already a saint because of it. St. Silhouan the Athonite talked about an ascetic who said that he should definitely be saved, because he makes such-and-such an amount of prostrations every day. But on the day of his death he rent his garments, because it was revealed to him that prostrations by themselves cannot save a man. We are not saved by our prostrations or prayers, but by God—for communion with Whom we thirst through our prayers.
We have to do our prayer rule every time with the feeling that the Lord is present next to us, that He sees how we are turning to Him; this is our personal address to God. A prayer rule that is fulfilled fervently, attentively, and with repentance opens the heart to God’s grace, and grace fulfills every need. And perhaps our eternal lot depends upon the feeling and attention we have when doing our prayer rule.
Let us reach with love toward the Lord with all our hearts, souls, and minds, at all times and in every hour, with a deep awareness of our weakness—and then every prayer rule, even the simplest and shortest, will undoubtedly, by God’s mercy, bring us spiritual benefit.
A Sample Prayer Rule
A prayer rule is the outline of our daily prayer routine. It is important to have a thought out rule. Casually going to your place for prayer and simply talking with God is not the best way to begin to develop your prayer life. We will find that we end up babbling in front of our God. We can take advantage of the centuries of wisdom and being by using proven prayers that will lift us up in our way of communicating with God.
A prayer rule should first specify the place and time of prayer.
Then it should outline the sequence of your prayers and the specific prayers you will say.
Below is an example of a beginners prayer rule. Always consult with your spiritual father about your prayer rule. He will help you develop one that fits your level of prayer.
Sample Outline for Morning and Evening Prayer
Place: In an icon corner or special place always prepared for prayer
Time: Twice a day, at a specific time (i.e. 6:30am and 8:00pm, or “upon waking up” and “after dinner”) for 10-20 minutes each time
Begin by lighting a candle, and making three prostrations, metania (bows) and/or simply crossing oneself, and then stand quietly to collect yourself in your heart
- Trisagion Prayers (“O Heavenly King,..Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal…Lord’s Prayer)
- Some Morning/Evening Prayers from an Orthodox Prayerbook
- Intercessions for the living and the dead
- Psalm 51 and confession of your sinfulness
- Personal dialogue with God
- Jesus prayer
Reflect quietly on the tasks of the day and prepare yourself for the difficulties you might face asking God to help you or in the evening reflect on the day and the difficulties you encountered and how you dealt with them.
- Dismissal prayer