So this evening I would like to address the topic of re-establishing a simple prayer rule. I had spoken earlier about establishing a simple prayer rule. That was some time ago, and I’ve realized, given some of the feedback that I’ve been getting, that a sequel was necessary, and that sequel is the one that you’re hearing this evening. If, for example, you’ve tried to establish a simple prayer rule and you were unable to hold to it, or there was something about it that perhaps didn’t work out for you, then you may find some of my remarks helpful.
I’m looking at this very much from a pastoral point of view. I wanted to divide my talk into two sections. In the first section I will speak about some of the reasons people stop a prayer rule, and then, in the second section, I wanted to talk about some basic pointers, hints, on how to re-establish a prayer rule. So first of all the reasons or possible reasons for stopping. Not an exhaustive list, but here are a few.
I think the first one that everyone will recognize is guilt. Once we stop praying regularly, we don’t feel good about it, and of course when we don’t feel good about it, we don’t feel good about ourselves. This is not a very productive feeling, actually. We don’t actually encourage, from the Orthodox point of view, very much guilt in the spiritual life, because it doesn’t necessarily lead to repentance or to a change. You can be guilty and not do anything about it. The classic biblical example would be, of course, Judas: not short on guilt at all, but not repentant. So when we feel guilty about something, we tend to freeze and not know how to do something about it, to make a change. So guilt in this particular situation—I’m not saying that guilt in every situation becomes the enemy, but in this case it does become the enemy, because we simply stop our prayer rule and usually don’t go back to it. So guilt is a possible reason for stopping.
The second one is actually physical and I would add spiritual fatigue. This is a factor that we have to consider in North America, because we are over-programmed, or perhaps we are the parents of over-programmed children. Perhaps we are both over-programmed and the parents of over-programmed children. In any case, it results in physical exhaustion. When we see prayer as work, which, to be truthful, in part it is, we’re exhausted physically. We say we can’t face it, and we stop.
A third reason is the failure to integrate prayer and a prayer rule into everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about a prayer rule; it’s one thing to discuss its glorious components, but it’s quite another to implement. When we implement, we’re not implementing it in the life of a peasant in some faraway country in the 17th century. We’re implementing a prayer rule now in our lives—your life, my life, not somebody else’s life. Although it sounds like a very basic problem, it’s common. We don’t actually tie the prayer rule to our lives as we live them. There are certain things that we do every day in our lives, and we need to know where to place our practice of prayer. If we haven’t placed it in the right spot, then sometimes it doesn’t work very well.
The failure to integrate into everyday life may be purely on the pragmatic level, but it may also be based on a wrong understanding of the place of prayer in a person’s life on a theological level. By that I mean we can be tempted to make a sharp division between the sacred and the profane: When we pray, that’s the time to be holy; otherwise, that’s the time to be profane, or at least not holy. This is a false dichotomy. It’s a very harmful division. Of course, it can lead to a kind of fatigue and rejection of prayer. From the Christian point of view, anything can become sacred. I didn’t say everything is sacred as it is, but all can becomesacred, and indeed we should see our lives that way.
Fifthly, perhaps when we established our prayer rule we were too ambitious. This is a common problem. Perhaps the prayer rule was too complicated. We read a lot about other people’s practice of prayer. We go to find books about how other people were praying. We read about what they were doing. It sounds glorious; it sounds impressive. Although the more rational part says we really can’t live exactly the way they did, still, we’re tempted by it. There’s something very attractive about reading that kind of literature. Something inside says, well, I could have… If they could do the Jesus prayer 5,000 or 10,000 times, maybe I could do it at least for just half an hour or something like that. We’re tempted by these things, and sometimes we create unrealistic prayer rules, rules which realistically cannot be maintained happily on a daily basis, and then when we don’t maintain them happily we feel guilty, and there you see the downward spiral starting. We simply jettison the whole thing eventually, rather than trying to have a sensible look at our practice of prayer in our daily lives as we live them: with children, with work, with all the commitments that we have.
So much for reasons for stopping. I don’t want to depress you by giving you five more, because if I give you five or ten more I think you might be convinced that you should never re-establish a prayer rule, and that isn’t exactly the objective that I had in mind. So a few points about how one might actually re-establish a prayer rule.
The first point: Make it for where you are now, not for where you think you should be. This is very important, and it’s very hard to convince Christians to do this. Perhaps guilt is a factor; perhaps, again, reading things on the internet or reading certain books. But the prayer rule is not for 2018; the prayer is for tonight. It shouldn’t be designed for where you think you’re going to be or where you’d like to be or where someone else is. It should be designed for you now, immediately. That’s how a prayer rule should be constructed.
Secondly, make it shorter and make it more simple than you think it should be. I said that in my prior talk, and it’s one point I am going to reiterate. There is what we think it should be, and it always should be shorter than we think it should be. You may think I’m kidding, but I’m not. If you thought it should be five minutes, it should be three. If you thought it should be three, it should be one-and-a-half. It should be less than you think it should be. We’re not saying it’s always going to be there, by the way, stay there at that point, but it should be more simple than you think it should be. It should be shorter than you think it should be.
That means, thirdly, that when we are re-establishing—and remember we are re-establishing, so when we are re-establishing, it means that we tried something and it didn’t work well. That’s why I am making the kind of remarks I am making. Thirdly, accept that it’s not going to have all of the elements, so to speak. Perhaps it’s not going to have all of the elements that I mentioned in my previous talk. In fact, it almost certainly won’t have and perhaps shouldn’t have all of those elements, because it didn’t work well for you before, so obviously it needs to be even more simple and even shorter in order to work well.
Elements can be added. It is a dynamic process. We ought not to worry that we are missing something that we might even consider for theological or liturgical reasons to be critical. We have the complete prayer in the liturgical prayer of the Church. You’re not missing something if you are attending the services, which is why attending the services is critically important for establishing a prayer rule, by the way. It supports; it undergirds.
Fourthly, make sure it’s a good fit in your life. By that I’m not talking about getting so subjective about it that it doesn’t make any sense, but the length and the type of prayer should be the kind of thing that fits in what you do. If you have a mother who has a number of children at home, that mother ought not to be taking an akathist hymn or half of an akathist hymn and trying to pray that for a prayer rule—it’s not going to work. It’s not going to work, and the mother shouldn’t feel badly about that. A wise choice needs to be made. Yes, someone said it’s a good thing to do. Wonderful. It’s a good thing for some people to do. It has a value, but it doesn’t fit into your life now.
Fifthly—and you might say, “What could this have to do with it?” but it’s very important in re-establishing a prayer rule—reduce the time you spend on the internet. You would say, ‘You just made a jump from talking about the prayer rule to talking about something else which is unrelated.” It’s profoundly related. It’s profoundly related. People who are not praying, in our society, nine times out of ten—or more—are spending a lot of time on the internet. There is a connection. Reduce. Perhaps you can’t eliminate. None of us can eliminate. We are using the internet for email, for all kinds of things. You are using it if you are a student; you are using it at work, so we can’t say, “Cut out. Eliminate,” but we really need to reduce.
Consumption of the internet causes prayerlessness. It’s as simple as that. I don’t know how to convince people of this, because people will come back and say, “I’m reading about things in the Orthodox world on the internet.” It’s still making you prayerless. Still. It doesn’t help.
Next, control your thoughts. “Control” is a bad word. I’m using it because it’s the word most people are used to, but in fact what we are doing is making decisions about our thoughts, choosing to dialogue with some and to disconnect with others. “Control” suggests something a little bit different. What I’m suggesting is disengage from certain thoughts, because, the honest truth is, you can’t control them, not in the literal sense of the word “control.” You can’t decide exactly when a thought is going to occur and what kind of a thought it’s going to be any more than you can control your dreams, but you can make a decision about what thoughts you are going to connect with.
Every decision that you and I make has an impact on our prayer lives and on our prayer rule. Absolutely there is a connection. It would be naive to think otherwise. Why would we want to pray, in general? It makes sense, in an unhappy kind of way; it makes sense, but why would we be inclined to pray when our thoughts move perpetually to things which are not inclusive of the presence of God? Of course not. We can’t simply think about something most of the day, turn it off, and turn on the prayer rule as if we were machines. So what we do with our thoughts is very important in general. It’s not a question here of feeling guilty or of trying to seize control violently of our thoughts, but just to realize that we could make some decisions which would enhance prayer. Simple as that.
Next, keep your heart at peace. It isn’t just thoughts that are going to disturb your heart. Many things in your environment and inside, within, will disturb your heart. It makes it very difficult to pray then. It can make prayer quite arduous, actually, but you know what we’re doing during the day has, again, an impact on how we pray, if we’re going to pray well. So if we’re overcome with thoughts of anger or jealousy, passions, and we have this often during the day and we can’t let go of it, it makes it hard to pray when we come to pray, and in fact we won’t want to come to pray.
Next, invite God’s presence into your life. It’s so basic, very few Christians do it. God is gentle. There is some very important theology here. God is inviting and not forcing people to accept his plan of salvation. His plan of salvation is here. The work is complete in Christ. The Holy Spirit has been sent. But the acceptance of that, the participation in it is up to us, in part. God waits to be invited. The prayer that we pray in the Orthodox Church, “O heavenly King,” addressed specifically to the Holy Spirit, it’s an invitation.
Notice that we put it first when we begin prayers. We don’t begin prayers normally by “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, have mercy on us”; we begin with the prayer to the Holy Spirit. There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason for it. We must first have our hearts cleansed by the Holy Spirit, and we must invite the Holy Spirit to come, not simply as some kind of external force, because the Holy Spirit first of all is not a force, and he is not external to a Christian. The Holy Spirit is a Person and internal—and external, but internal—for those, of course, who have been baptized.
The ninth point: be aware of God during the day. Do things that both maintain and enhance that awareness. Live as a Christian during the day, that in whatever else you are doing, you have that awareness of God. That awareness is going to be enhanced, finally, by praying short—and by short I mean very short, I mean two or three words short: pray short prayers during the day often. This opens the heart to God, and it opens the possibility of the events of the day being taken up in our own salvation and in our own spiritual experience.
Then, you see, when you and I stand to pray, we stand in a certain context. We have tried as much as possible to become aware of God’s presence with us during the day. We have invited him into our lives. That, of course, suggests that we have to be doing things into which he could be invited. And we have prayed short prayer to him during the day: Lord, save me. Lord, help. Very basic, very short prayers. And yet, they open the heart to God.