Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”. Today I would like to continue with my series on leading a disciplined life with Part 2, The Traditional Disciplines of the Church: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving. This week I’ll focus on prayer.
When we mention the word “discipline”, quite a few things might come to mind. We might think of someone who is very committed to their exercise regimine by referring to them as “really disciplined”. We might think of a friend who seems particularly good at scheduling or organization as in, “Boy, isn’t he disciplined!” or we might think of someone who has made a goal and stuck with it, be it a training for a marathon or stitcking to a diet plan—“Wow, she was so disciplined to do that!”
But notice that most of the time we use the word discipline in a positive sense, we almost always are referring to the physical realm. Exercise regimens, losing weight…we tend to view positive discipline as having control over our bodies. We rarely complement anyone on their disciplined mind or their disciplined spiritual life. Part of this is normal, because we don’t want to brag about our own or anyone else’s spiritual steps towards more self-control, lest we fall, but another part of this is our modern culture’s avoidance of any kind of discipline over the mind or spirit. We want to “live our dreams”, “just do it” or “have it our way”. We put on a pedestal the person who can do a triathlon or swim the English Channel, but do we emulate the person who spends hours in prayer each day or fasts strictly or gives sacrificially to the poor? Who, then, are the heroes?
Historically, the heroes of the Orthodox Church have been our saints, those mighty in acts of self-control and discipline. And instead of elliptical machines or free weights, they used what I’ll call the “traditional disciplines” of the Orthodox Church. These traditional disciplines are Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. In the Orthodox Church we see them as gifts from God, as having limitless potential to draw us closer and closer to God. They are tools and as such, we use them to move farther and farther along our spiritual path towards the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let’s look at them individually, starting with prayer:
Now before I began waxing eloquent on prayer, I have to give a big warning: I’m just a newbie at prayer and I have much trepidation even speaking to you on such a deep topic. My knowledge of prayer is a like a baby’s knowledge of physics: the baby drops the spoon from his highchair and knows it will hit the ground, but he doesn’t understand even the basic principles of gravity. So if you’re looking for information on unceasing prayer or prayer of the heart, please look elsewhere, since there are so many more qualified teachers than myself.
My tiny bit of knowledge about prayer concerns prayer of the hands and what it achieves when you utilize it to lead a more disciplined life. So, what exactly is prayer of the hands? It’s quite simply praying while doing. It is prayer through physical action. My first introduction to prayer of the hands was while reading the Desert Fathers my first Lent as an Orthodox Christian. I’m a rather high-energy person and while I knew there were people who sat for hours and recited the Jesus Prayer, I didn’t think I was going to be joining them anytime soon. I felt a shadow of despair—how could I continue on the path to God that I had taken by converting to Orthodox Christianity when I just didn’t seem physically able to sit still for more than 15 minutes? I didn’t have much trouble with Divine Liturgy—after all, there was so much going on with the chanting and the censing and the icons that it kept me quite engaged. But every event I attended that required I sit still in a chair and listen to a speaker, however fascinating the topic, found me sitting in the back, attempting to hide the fact that I was knitting while I listened. If I had something keeping my hands busy, I was just fine and could contemplate with the best of them, but if I was required to sit still, then it was all over.
So, there I was during Lent, reading the Desert Fathers and I began to notice something: boy, they made a lot of baskets! It seemed every other story began, “As Abba sat by the road, weaving baskets” or “Once when Abba went into the city to sell baskets” and I begin to think a lot about those baskets. In the ancient world, baskets were the equivalent to our modern Tupperware—you put food in them, you stored stuff in them, you gave them to other people with food or stuff stored in them. And I don’t know about you, but I can never seem to have enough Tupperware. I go to put leftovers away and it seems more times than not, I’m out of Tupperware again! I"m sure it must have been very similar in the ancient world—“Maria, we’re out of baskets again, would you be a dear and go buy one from the Abba that sits by the crossroads.?”
After I noticed the baskets, I noticed that these Desert Fathers were also frequently referred to as being in unceasing prayer. I had envisioned unceasing prayer as standing at your icons, being perfectly still. But, the fathers had both unceasing prayer AND a big pile of baskets they had made. What was up with that? Then my light-bulb moment happened and I realized with more relief and joy than I can possibly convey, “Hey, they were praying WHILE they made baskets!” Woo-hoo! I could do this, too! I had often remarked that if I was allowed to bring my knitting to Liturgy, I’d stay all week, because I couldn’t imagine anything better than clicking away with my needles while listening to the chant and prayers. Of course, I’m not lobbying for knitting in church, because those of us who have a greater need to pray with our hands also have need of the sitting still variety of prayer, but by the Desert Father’s examples, I realized that I could bring more prayer into my daily life.
So, I began to focus on taking my prayer with me. Once I had babies in arms, it seemed the one thing that always slipped off my plate each day was my morning prayers. To combat this, I chose a very small set of prayers and I memorized them so that I could say them anywhere. They weren’t long, but I could pray them in the car, I could pray them while I was walking, or I could pray them while I was changing diapers or unloading the dishwasher. While I still aimed for standing-at-the-icon-corner, prayer book in hand, I had a back-up plan in case something kept me from it.
As my girls grew older, I included them more often in my morning prayers, which was really accomplishing two things at once since it allowed me to say my prayers and help them begin their day with prayer as well. One day it occurred to me that my entire family stands together before God, so why was I being piggy with the prayers by wanting to pray alone? If they were important enough for me to say by myself, then they were certainly important enough to be said with my daughters. So some mornings found us in the car, saying the Trisagion as we rushed to an early morning appointment and other mornings saw us at our icon corner, saying our simple little prayer rule together.
At some point, I took up the prayer rope, and in it, I found a wonderful tool for prayer. I began to think of using it like knitting, each of the knots being like a stitch, weaving myself or a loved one around with prayer, just as I would knit a scarf or hat. With practice, it became an excellent way to transition myself on Sunday mornings from the hustle and bustle of setting up the coffee or passing out bulletins, to the quiet focus I needed for the Divine Liturgy. Once again, being able to move my hands while praying, allowed me to pray more. When my youngest daughter begin to show the same high-energy nature as myself, we gave her a bright pink prayer rope from Karyes and taught her to say, “Lord, have mercy”. The prayer rope helped me to understand that, like knitting a hat or a scarf, I had something tangible each time I used it. My prayers had been said and so had been brought into existence and even though I couldn’t see them or touch them, they were a living thing and of far more value than a hat or scarf.
Right about this time, someone gave our daughters a book entitled “Bless, O Lord, A Prayerbook for Young Children” and I was captivated by the opening sentences: “Do you wish, dear reader, to learn to pray to God? Do you wish to learn the most important prayers? Are you ready to labor?” I particularly loved the “are you ready to labor?” since it was so refreshing to see a children’s book that wasn’t going to sugarcoat anything. Prayer took work and you needed to be ready. The book goes on to give a wonderful, sweet exhortation to children on how to weave prayer into their daily lives and provides clear explanations of the basic prayers like the “Our Father” and the Jesus Prayer. At the beginning, it teaches some of the shortest and most basic prayers, like “Bless, O Lord” and “Glory be to God”. I began to take these prayers to heart and work them into my daily routine—before every project, I made the sign of the cross and said “Bless, O Lord” and when something happened for which I was thankful (and much later on, when something happened for which I was NOT thankful), I learned to say, “Glory be to God”. It was a small ascesis, a seemingly infinitesimal weapon against my daily struggles of complaining or feeling overwhelmed. But over time, I began to discover that these tiny prayers were like the Chinese Water Torture for the passions. Small drop by small drop, they began to dampen the passions and move my outlook and my attitudes in the right direction. And with time, they became automatic. Not rote in that they were said without meaning, but automatic in the way your reflexes are automatic and your leg always kicks when the doctor taps your knee with that little mallet. “Glory be to God” is particularly good at getting you into the “attitude of gratitude” and several times, I’ve been in the grocery store and noticed something on sale that we particularly needed, like the time tofu was 10 for $10 the second week of Lent, and I find myself standing in the aisle saying “Glory be to God!” before I even know the words are out of my mouth. It’s pretty funny when a grocery clerk is standing near, because they look at me like I’m some strange kind of tofu-eating Pentecostal. I’ve seen older “cradle” Orthodox Christians use this phrase and cross themselves, especially when they hear good news, like a baby being born or someone being healed of a grave illness and every time it reminds me of how important it is to weave these little prayers throughout my day.
These tiny little prayers are in truth, mighty weapons, and when we surround our daily lives with them, when we pray them in action, it’s like we’re putting ourselves in a fortress of prayer, surrounded by the strong spears of “Bless, O Lord”, or “Glory be to God!” or “Lord, have mercy”. They protect us because in their regularity and frequency as a part of our daily routine, we don’t have as much opportunity to stray from God. “Bless, O Lord” can be particularly beneficial when fighting the passions, as I found when I was trying to lose weight. If I could look at a piece of food or a snack and say, “Bless, O Lord”, then I would eat it; if I couldn’t say the words in good conscience then I knew I needed to move away.
In addition to these little prayers, I began to experience a deeper level of prayer of the hands. This is a bit harder to explain, but essentially, I discovered that if I kept my environment quiet, like being in my workshop with as little extraneous noise as possible, even unplugging the phone, and I threw myself fully at the task at hand, be it cutting 300 feet of canvas for oraria or getting the measurements just right on a tricky brocade, that the focus somehow became a form of prayer. I remember someone recounting a story to me about a person approaching a nun who sewed vestments and asking her if she said the Jesus Prayer constantly while she cut out the fabric. “Say the Jesus Prayer?!”, she responded, “it takes all my effort not to make a mistake!” I would certainly concur, because when I’m working my thoughts go something like this, “OK, slope the hem out 2”, move the neck in 1/8”, but don’t raise the shoulder seam, oops don’t forget to shift the sleeve an inch”. There’s just not a lot of available brain space left for focused prayer. But I am focusing and in focusing, exercising the same kind of mental muscle that prayer needs. So, like the Christ Child being given what we had for his earthly reception in the form of a humble cave and a few animals, we give to Christ what we have, which in the case of prayer of the hands is the focus and concentration of whatever we’re doing without necessarily the words of the prayers.
There is one caveat here, however, and that is that prayer of the hands is never a substitute for a regular rule of prayer and attendance at services. It is rather an augmentation, an addition in our struggle to live a life of prayer. It is more about creating an atmosphere in our lives that facilitates prayer and, ultimately, allows us to experience the Divine Liturgy in a deeper way. By our regular attendance at services, praying in community with others, we reap the marvelous spiritual benefits of accountability and humility. It’s pretty easy to feel like a spiritual big shot when you’re at home, with the phone unplugged, reciting the Jesus Prayer while you unload the dishwasher. But, go to Divine Liturgy, and mix with the people you love as well as the people you find harder to love, and there’s the real test! Can you pray while Aunty Milly is recounting her gall bladder surgery for the twentieth time? Or can you pray for the person who has wounded you or angered you? That takes a little more work than praying while unloading your dishwasher.
What I found over time, was that if I was attentive to weave as much prayer into my daily life as I could manage (keep in mind, this will vary at different times of your life, depending on many factors), I began to experience the Divine Liturgy on a deeper level. Now, in turns of depth, I imagine this new level is more like digging a 6-inch hole in my yard to plant a begonia as opposed to the excavation required to build a skyscraper, but, once again, I have momentum—I’m beginning to dig to the next level and in that, I have spiritual momentum. The small daily prayers begin to bear fruit in our ultimate experience of prayer, which is the Divine Liturgy. It’s also a good litmus test—if you’re working hard at weaving more prayer in your life, then a common fruit of this is that you want to go to more services. Prayer bears fruit upon fruit and in our arsenal of weapons against the passions, it is without equal.
Because what prayer does, in essence, is draws us closer to God and the Kingdom of Heaven. It moves us along the path to the place we want to go. It’s not always easy… few journeys are… but it is worthwhile and fruitful. Prayer puts the compass of our life pointing in the right direction.