Worship and You:
If you’re like me, you’ve often decided that you need to pray more—so, for a few days you faithfully pray several times each day, and then it’s once every other day, and then…pretty soon, you’re again thinking, “I really need to pray more!” Successfully developing a full prayer life requires more than simply desire—it also requires true discipline in making prayer part of your daily life. This discipline—in Orthodoxy called a Prayer Rule or Rule of Prayer—is necessary to consistently pray on a daily basis.
There is no single prayer rule for the entire Orthodox Church. Instead, as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says, a rule is “fixed for each person according to his powers of body and soul. As these powers vary indefinitely in individuals, the rule is offered to ascetics (in fact, any Christian engaging in the spiritual life) in the most varied forms. The general principle for the rule of prayer consists in this, that it should on no account exceed the ascetic’s strength, or sap that strength, or undermine his health and so force him to give up every kind of rule.”
Because prayer rules vary, we’ll look at suggestions given by saints and Orthodox teachers that can be adapted to your abilities and circumstances. The key is that, whatever prayer rule you develop and follow, you must faithfully adhere to the rule. St. Ignatius advocates a moderate rule that “goes on developing and growing naturally till the end of (your) life.”
One of the first things you need to decide is when to pray. As you saw in the previous unit, we’ll seldom pray if we wait to pray until we are “in the mood.” While it would be great to follow the example of the psalmist, who declared, “I praise You seven times a day” (Psalm 118:164, OSB), it is unlikely that you will have seven extended periods of prayer each day. You can, however, probably set aside at least two—morning and evening prayers comprise the rule of many Orthodox Christians (in addition, of course, to blessings over meals).
It can also be helpful to determine a specific amount of time to be spent in prayer, and then refuse to spend less time than the minimal amount (nor, as St. Theophan the Recluse warns, force yourself to pray for a much longer period). St. Theophan advises,
Set a definite length of time for prayer—a quarter of an hour, a half, or a whole hour (whatever is convenient), and regulate your vigil so that the clock striking on the half hour or the hour signals the end of prayers. Then when you begin prayers, do not concern yourself with the number of prayers read, but only lift your heart and mind to the Lord in prayer, and continue in a worthy manner for the time set aside.
St. John of Kronstadt gives a good rule of thumb in determining how long we should pray: “It is well to pray long and continually, but ‘all men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given’ (Matthew 19:11). It is better for those who are not capable of long prayers to say short prayers, but with a fervent spirit.”
At first such a rule may be difficult; it will require great effort to pray for the minimum amount of time. As you grow in prayer, however, St. Theophan notes that people who follow this rule “so accustom themselves to praying, that the minutes at prayer are filled with sweetness. And it is rare that they remain just for the appointed time; they double and even triple it. Choose one of these methods for yourself and hold to it earnestly.”
Psychologists have long noted that structured activities are more effective when performed in a stable environment. The same holds true for prayer—you’ll find it easier to pray when you consistently pray in the same place. Christ instructs his disciples, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father” (Matthew 6:6); while explicitly referring to humility, the phrase “into your room” also indicates a consistent location for prayer.
Orthodox Christians traditionally pray in our icon corner, a corner in our homes where we establish what is sometimes called a “family church” (in the Russian tradition, the icon corner is also called “the corner of beauty”). The icon corner obviously has icons: one each of Christ and the Theotokos, and additional icons of saints (particularly those after whom the members of the family are named). The icons emphasize the body of Christ, of which we are a part. Archbishop Paul of Finland explains, “The icon in the corner of the room where we pray is a window into the Kingdom of God and a bond with its members.”
Icon corners can also contain a table or shelf on which are placed prayer books (which we’ll discuss in the next unit) and candles or lamps (which traditionally burn pure olive oil). The table may also hold such items as a Bible, a hand censer, a bottle of holy water, a blessing-cross, the candles that the husband and wife held at their wedding, holy oil, palm branches and sometimes other religious objects.
St. John Climacus exhorts, “‘When we are going to stand in the presence of our King and God and converse with Him, let us not rush into it without preparation.” Given the holiness of coming before God in prayer, it is necessary prepare yourself mentally for this moment. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov gives a brief list of ways in which you can prepare your heart and mind for prayer:
St. Ignatius’ final suggestion indicates the traditional physical posture of Orthodox prayer: standing. We pray standing out of respect for God, and so that our entire being—body, mind and soul—can offer itself to God. While we should obviously not stand if it is physically impossible or creates extreme difficulty, we do not want to be too physically casual when praying.
Finally, St. Theophan explains how we can make the transition from the frenetic pace of our daily lives into quiet, prayerful communication with God:
Do not stand at prayer immediately after household chores, conversations, or errands; instead, make some preparation for it, trying to collect your thoughts ahead of time and direct them toward standing worthily before God. Rouse within yourself the need for prayer at this particular time, because there may not be another time. Do not forget also to renew the consciousness of your spiritual needs and for the most immediate real need of all—the settling of your thoughts in prayer with the desire of finding satisfaction for them, namely in God…Once you begin doing this, you will soon see the fruit of it. Strive to feel the sweetness of true prayer. When you feel it, then it will entice you toward prayer and inspire you to complete and attentive prayer. May the Lord bless you!
St. Theophan the Recluse recommends the following rule of prayer. You should start with the first step; then, after becoming comfortable with it, you should move on to the next step, and forward.
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