Dear Parish Faithful,
Below I am forwarding a recent correspondence carried out between a sincere Orthodox Christian and myself concerning the creation of a Prayer Rule meant for daily use in one’s personal prayer. I recently received this person’s request for assistance and that is the first thing that you will read. I really appreciated this person’s honesty, but also the resolve to establish regular prayer as a daily practice. My response was written as a direct answer to this person’s letter, so not everything written may mean the same to everyone reading this correspondence; but I am hoping that it can serve as a general answer to how we can effectively approach some of the issues in properly using a Rule of Prayer.
Please pass along any further questions that you may have, perhaps prompted by this shared correspondence.
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Dear Fr. Steven,
I have been listening to a series of talks about prayer that I stumbled across on Ancient Faith Radio, specifically on keeping a personal prayer rule. I think I would like to develop a more specific prayer rule. I’ve tried doing so myself on my own (before starting to listen to the talks) and can’t seem to be as consistent as I intended to be. One of the things that the priest talks about is that you should ask your spiritual father and not just make up a rule on your own. A second point he makes is that it’s better to start small and learn to be faithful every day, and then build more, rather than starting with a rule that is too hard, because it’s not about accomplishing something but about praying.
To the prayer rule subject: I do sort of have a rule already. Often times I say the morning prayers (starting with the trisagion etc.) and once in a while the evening prayers. But I'm not very consistent--sometimes when I wake up i just cross myself and go about my day, or not even. Oddly, it is almost never because I truly forget to pray--I always think about it, but decide I am too restless to take the time to be still. And when I do stop to actually do the prayers, I'm often times distracted, bored, restless and feel like it's a waste of time. On those days, it's like I didn't even pray at all and I usually find the distraction stays with me all day. At night, I persuade myself I'm just too tired to pray for five minutes and God probably wants me to sleep and be healthy. One thing that has helped is sometimes I just say the Jesus prayer for 10-15 mins. Sometimes that really makes me face my restlessness. But I don't think I should just be saying the Jesus prayer... I don't know.
So I guess in wanting to develop a Prayer Rule, it is more that struggle I have in mind (the distraction or lack of consistency) rather than getting into the regular habit of praying. I have enough of a habit ingrained in me to pray that I at least think about it regularly throughout the day and set time aside a few days a week...
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As “promised,” here is my response and pastoral guidance for your personal Rule of Prayer:
“The principle thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” (St. Theophan the Recluse)
First of all, your honest description of the self-generated obstacles that prevent you from consistently praying according to a disciplined pattern could serve as a spiritual textbook account of what prevents the majority of us from praying with any regularity! The key term that you used was “restless.” It is our minds, more than our bodies, that are restless. Hence, we cannot pause to pray; or we rush through our prayer distracted and bored. This is a huge obstacle, and we must first admit and recognize this before any true “progress” can be made. However, if I read the Fathers correctly there is no real “solution” short of perseverance and a commitment to stand before God and pray with humility and whatever faith we have at that moment. As St. Macarius of Optina once said, “Offer to God, with humility, your dry and arid prayer.” So, again, if I am reading the Fathers correctly, it is never a “waste of time” – even when we are very distracted and only intent upon getting through our prayer as quickly as possible! Not praying, due to distraction, and then claiming that that is at least honest, sounds more likely to be a suggestion from the “enemy” who is the “father of lies.”
It is precisely the Jesus Prayer that is meant, over a period of time, to halt our rushing thoughts and subdue some of that restlessness of mind that our prayer suffers from. So, your current practice of saying the Jesus Prayer for 10-15 minutes a day sounds like a good one to me. If it makes you face your restlessness, all the better. We have to start exactly from where we are at, and not at some idealistic, dreamy, and blind starting point that does not conform to reality. Of course, the Jesus Prayer is meant to connect your set times of prayer that are established by your Rule; but I see no harm in doing the Jesus Prayer for the limited amount of time you mention even on those days when you neglect your Rule.
It sounds as if you are already quite informed of the traditional material available for us to begin a good Rule of Prayer, so I am not so sure what I could add here. To respect our fast-paced lives and hence to be realistic about our daily capacity to set aside time for a Rule of Prayer, I would suggest the following as a basic structure – or “skeleton” – that you could fill in according to a standard Orthodox Prayer Book (I use ORTHODOX DAILY PRAYERS by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press):
+ Trisagion Prayers
+ Troparia to the Holy Trinity
+ Prayer of St. Basil the Great to the Most Holy Trinity
+ Psalm 50
+ The Symbol of Faith (The Creed)
+ A daily choice from among the ten morning prayers that follow
+ “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos”
+ O, Lord, save Thy people”
+ It is Truly Meet”
+ “Morning Prayer of the Last Optina Elders
I believe that this Rule can be done prayerfully and carefully within 10-15 minutes. Of course, you may edit when necessary. With repeated practice, many of the prayers can be put to memory, and we are not as dependent on our Prayer Book. We then can add any other “spontaneous” prayer that we choose to; often in the form of interceding for others; thanking and glorifying God for something specific; perhaps over something we lament, etc.
EVENING PRAYERS (BEFORE SLEEP)
+ Trisagion Prayers
+ Troparia that follow
+ A rotating choice of the next eleven prayers
+ Prayer of St. John of Damascus, said pointing at the bed
+ Final prayer of “Let God Arise”
This can also be edited when necessary.
Well, there is a little something that I sincerely hope will be helpful. Please pass along any further questions or concerns. By the way, do you have a copy of THE ART OF PRAYER? This is an anthology of great texts and insights concerning prayer, that is predominantly chosen from the writing of St. Theophan the Recluse, a great 19th c. master of the “art of prayer.” It is something of a condensed, and at times, more accessible version of THE PHILOKALIA. It is available in a rather inexpensive paperback edition today. I would highly recommend this book as it is filled with insight after insight into the challenging practice of effective prayer – from oral prayer to prayer of the heart.
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I then received the following reply shortly after sending my letter:
Dear Father Steven,
I really appreciated what you had to say. The Prayer Book you mentioned is the same one I have loaded on my amazon kindle e-reader. What you wrote is part of what I feel like a reconceptualization I am experiencing regarding prayer, that prayer cannot be hinged to a sense of convenience, and that most often it is better to go unprepared physically than unprepared spiritually into the day (i.e. that if you choose between taking a shower and praying in the morning, and you consistently choose the former, then something is wrong with both your time management and priorities.