Seven times a day I praise You, because of Your righteous judgments. (Psalm 119:164)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
A public or private prayer rule is a commitment to pray at specific times, and to pray for specific things on a regular basis. This definition might to be too simplistic and can be misleading about prayer if not understood properly. The psalm verse cited above is the basis of our daily cycle of services in the Orthodox Church. The seven times a day that one praises God gets liturgically fleshed out in the Church in the services of: Midnight Office, Matins, the Hours 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th, Vespers, and Compline. This is the public prayer rule of the Church that is regularly observed in most monasteries. In parish life, fragments of this daily cycle are celebrated with various degrees of frequency, consistency, and content. Some parishes do more, some do less. In addition to this, if we personally are serious about living the Christian life, it is necessary that we keep a private prayer rule of our own. In most cases this takes the shape of saying prayers in the morning when you arise, and then at the evening as you prepare for sleep.
The second quote from Thessalonians is cited to remind us that prayer is also an ongoing process. In some ways we are to fill the entire day with prayer. Our times of work should be prayerful, our partaking of food should be prayerful, and our interactions with people should have a prayerful component to them. For us to have a healthy prayer life, both of these themes (specific, and continuous times) are necessary if we ever going to properly understand the role of prayer in the Christian life. This month, I would like to focus on what a private prayer rule should consist of and why. In the next newsletter I will speak more to the issue of continuous prayer.
First of all there is no such thing as a “one size prayer rule fits all” discipline. I basically view a prayer rule like a hand held accordion; it can be compressed or expanded but the basic content is there. The length of our prayer rule should be based on what we are capable of realistically doing. Better to pray for 10 minutes in the morning on a regular basis than set too high an expectation and be inconsistent due to the rule being too long. What should your prayer rule consist of? As I offer these guidelines, I want to stress this is something you grow into; you don’t to it all right from the start. It is really important that you speak with your parish priest about your prayer rule and how you go about it.
A prayer rule should include the following: (Many Orthodox Prayer Books contain what is found below but you will need a Bible as well!)
1. Trisagion Prayers 5. Intercessory Prayers
2. Morning Prayers 6. Penitential Prayers
3. Psalm Reading 7. Evening Prayers
4. Scripture Reading
Why are these components so important? Many of these prayers are given to us by the Church because they are trustworthy and summarize what we need to ask for in prayer that is consistent with God’s will for us and our salvation and well being. When you look at the various Orthodox Prayer books that are sold in bookstores, you won’t find one prayer in those books asking God to give you a Cadillac or the summer home by the lake. The components of a prayer rule are like a diet of certain spiritual foods for the soul. There is bad food for the soul and good food for the soul. When my mother was living, she developed diabetes during the last 20 years of her life. She eventually had to take insulin for it. But what struck me about the diabetes was how it was clearly affected by her eating habits. When she ate the wrong foods and ate inconsistently, it had adverse consequences on her physical, emotional, and mental health. All the above components of prayer that I mentioned are there to help us cultivate a strong, healthy prayer life. But if our spiritual diet of Psalm and Scripture Reading gets bumped out in favor of what’s on the TV, the Internet or in People Magazine, this contributes to an apathetic spiritual life. If we engage in a diet of self indulgent behavior, instead of fasting and praying, the fruit is a slothful, frustrated spiritual life. Finally if we pray inconsistently, sporadically, or not at all, it becomes easier to forget God throughout the day. If we forget God, more than likely we are giving our attention to a false god or an idol and that may lead to slipping into a spiritual coma. Finally there is a place in one’s private prayer rule for praying with one’s own words. There is nothing wrong with that. But we need the prayers that the Church has given us to guide what we should ask for while using our own words. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray in Luke 11:1-2, Jesus said, “When you pray, say:” then he proceeded to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught specific words to say, and specific things to ask for. This is liturgical prayer. He didn’t tell them to listen to their feelings and pray for what felt right to them.
So how does one go about putting together a prayer rule? My job as a priest is a whole lot easier because of a specific booklet Conciliar Press puts out entitled “Building a Habit of Prayer.” The booklet is in the Narthex of our Church and is free. What I like about the booklet is that it does contain instruction on how to get started. It also includes the components of a prayer rule I listed above. Furthermore the booklet acts like an accordion. For those who are new at it and don’t have a prayer rule, you can use the booklet to help start a rule that is short, doable and simple. For those who want to spend more time praying and improve the quality of one’s prayer life, the booklet allows for you to expand your rule and add more things to it. But prayer rules are not self taught. I would encourage you to pick up the booklet, read through it, and speak with me as you seek to develop a daily prayer rule.
I pray that this remaining time of Great Lent be a time of renewal and reconciliation for us all. If the love of Christ has grown cold in us, may the remainder of the Fast serve to rediscover Him and to reignite His love in us as we journey towards Pascha! Take care, Fr. Paul