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It is impossible to imagine a meaningful Christian life without a daily prayer rule. But what should this prayer rule be? How long or short, and consisting of which prayers? How can we prevent our daily prayer rule from becoming purely a formality? What should we pay particular attention to, and what mistakes should we avoid? And what is the most important thing in a prayer rule?
The rule is for man, and not the other way around
—There are three important components to a prayer rule: proper measure, consistency, and quality.
1. Proper measure. The proper measure adorns a person in any work—both earthly and spiritual. It is very important to find the middle, royal path. This is a surety of success. This law is important and relevant in our prayer rule. We have to force ourselves in prayer on the one hand, but refrain from zeal not according to reason on the other. We mustn’t be lazy, but it is also dangerous to overdo it. In my view, it is better not to complete something in a prayer rule, and leave the desire to pray for another day. Overdoing it more often than not causes aversion and inner protest. The fathers say that the small rule is without price. Obviously there is need of a spiritual guide here, who is experienced and discerning in the practical work of prayer. But this advice presupposes a measure of freedom and personal choice on the part of the inquirer.
Do not take on a long rule. Let it be something that you could do all your life. Remember: The rule is for man, and not the other way around. The proper measure found keeps a person in good spiritual shape, but also preserves joy in the heart and the desire for prayer. Take many factors into consideration: age, health, marital status, workload, and so on. The fruit of correct prayer labor is deep humility and inner peace.
2. Consistency. Be consistent in prayer. This is what the apostle Paul tells us to do. Success in any work depends upon our zeal and consistency—but not only on this. To be sure, the rolling stone gathers no moss. But we also have to remember that we are only God’s co-workers. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase (1 Cor. 3:7). It is essential that God bless our labors. The holy fathers talk about synergy—about our consistent labor in prayer and grace-filled help from on high. This is the pledge of our success. There can be no pauses in the labor of prayer. The labor of prayer reminds us of riding a bicycle or rowing upstream—only unremitting effort and work ensure our forward movement. The same laws are at work in prayer: Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). For the sake of our constancy in the work of prayer, dryness of heart and emotional boredom will with time give place to a robust spirit and the desire for prayer. This is a sign of progress and grace-filled help from above.
3. Quality. Quality is better than quantity. Anyone who has decided to take up the work of prayer should remember this. The quality of prayer can be determined by two signs: attention of the mind and depth of repentance in the heart.
St. John Climacus calls attention the soul of prayer. He counsels anyone to enclose the mind in the words of prayer. At first this very hard for everyone, but we mustn’t give up. If we put in the effort, God will definitely help us, and in time will send a guardian angel for our prayer.
Repentance in the heart and deep humility—this is the true table of oblation from which God accepts our spiritual sacrifices, the most important of which is prayer. Also, be at prayer like a burbling child and a guileless infant—forgive all those who have offended you and pray for them. Remember your irredeemable debt before God, and then it will be easier for you to forgive people. It is important to acquire inner lamentation of heart over your sins—the important sign of true repentance.
Understandably, it is possible to fulfill these conditions with a short prayer rule. Everything of authentically good quality is usually found as a limited edition. In teaching music to children we require them to play “purely” a simple scale, when learning a foreign language we have to correctly build a phrase, and a beginning driver has to keep from knocking over the flags when parking. Experience comes with time, and then more labors can be added. But we will fulfill with humility our small prayer rule, everyday and consistently, controlling the quality of our prayer, remembering that it is not our labors that determine success, but God’s all-powerful aid—with which everything is possible for us in this life and the next.
We cannot learn to pray if we ignore the rule
—Our life is such that any content is bound up with the form. The immortal soul is present in a mortal body, the Holy Gifts are kept in a tabernacle, fragrant myrrh is kept in a vessel, and the external form for prayerful sighs is the rule. Just as the river has a riverbed along which the water easily flows forward, so is the prayer rule this riverbed along which our prayer flows to God.
When a person wants simply to pray without any rule at all, usually that sort of prayer quickly ends, thins out after a few heartfelt sighs of the soul, and he doesn’t know what to say; because we can’t find a prayerful mood all by ourselves.
The prayer rule organizes the soul, and gets it into the mood for prayer. Morning and evening prayers, the prayer rule before Communion, various prayers from the prayer book—all these prayers were composed by holy people; in them are placed the thoughts and feelings that anyone who prayers should have. Therefore we cannot learn to pray if we ignore the prayer rule.
In a prayer rule, consistency is important. If the rule is not fulfilled regularly, it ceases to be a rule. It will be a sort of spiritual hobby on weekends, when you take up a prayer book because there is nothing better to do, saying, “What do we have here?” The prayer rule is like a soldier going out to his post, his watch: It’s not important how you feel or what mood you’re in—you go to pray anyway. And a miracle happens—you can start praying in a depressed, sluggish, and inwardly crushed mood, but you end it feeling cheerful and strong, inwardly robust. This is because prayer gives the soul strength.
But the sense in a rule is not just reading the texts, but in standing before God, acquiring a prayerful mood and the spirit of communion with the Lord. The prayer rule is only the means, but the goal is God’s grace, which the person praying should be trying to acquire.
Let’s imagine that someone is trying to find a hidden treasure. The pick and the shovel are only the means used for this; they are valuable only insomuch as they enable him to find the treasure. Therefore it’s ridiculous to get proud about your prayer rule as if you are already a saint because of it. St. Silhouan the Athonite talked about an ascetic who said that he should definitely be saved, because he makes such-and-such an amount of prostrations every day. But on the day of his death he rent his garments, because it was revealed to him that prostrations by themselves cannot save a man. We are not saved by our prostrations or prayers, but by God—for communion with Whom we thirst through our prayers.
We have to do our prayer rule every time with the feeling that the Lord is present next to us, that He sees how we are turning to Him; this is our personal address to God. A prayer rule that is fulfilled fervently, attentively, and with repentance opens the heart to God’s grace, and grace fulfills every need. And perhaps our eternal lot depends upon the feeling and attention we have when doing our prayer rule.
In February 2016, the daughter of a close acquaintance of mine, Svetlana, found herself in difficult straights. As she was driving on the Garden Ring Road [in Moscow], a young man ran across the street in a place where there was no pedestrian crossing. She was too close to brake in time, and she hit him. As the driver the girl was found legally innocent, but she felt no better for that. The sufferer was taken to the Sklifosofskaya emergency hospital in a coma, with very serious multiple fractures. The doctors said that there was little chance of recovery—people rarely come out of comas. In tears Svetlana turned to her friends and family. It was decided that very day that everyone would read the Akathist to Great Martyr Panteleimon, and then read every day the Akathist to the Mother of God, “Search of the Lost.” Svetlana and her daughter confessed and took Communion, and of course had a moleben served for the healing of the sufferer. After this a miracle happened: The sick man regained consciousness, and the next day he was taken to a different hospital because of the significant improvement in his condition.
It would seem that this was no more than the fulfillment of a simple prayer rule, but it worked a miracle. Therefore, a prayer rule performed together with the blessing of a spiritual father for the fulfillment of some need has enormous significance, and it can literally save someone’s life.
Prayer should fortify a good Christian life
—The first question that arises when we talk about prayer rules is: How long should it be and what should it include? But it seems to me that although that’s the first question it is not the main one. Nevertheless, we can’t get to the main question without answering the first one. Thus, we’ll set aside for now the monastic rule, because the question of components and duration has already been decided for monastics, and we will talk about the laity, especially since people themselves ask this question rather often, namely: What prayers should be included in a daily rule? Here at times we run up against a paradoxical situation, when people do not fulfill as they should the little that it behooves them to fulfill, but look for some “super rule” or “special prayers”. This is like negligently and hastily, laying a cockeyes and crooked foundation and then rushing to build the highest possible house, and instead of worrying about a reliable foundation, concentrating on building more and more new stories. Of course it’s obvious how this construction project will turn out.
The simplest and, I am not afraid to say, sufficient prayer rule for a good, pious life is attentively and humbly reading the morning and evening prayers. If it’s possible, read a chapter from the Gospels and the Epistles daily. Again, if you have the possibility and strength, read a kathisma or more from the Psalter. We will definitely add here the prayers before and after meals, before work, and prayers of thanksgiving after completing the workday. Anything else can be added with the advice of your spiritual father, and the choice is limitless.
And now we are truly coming to the main thing. Any prayer should first of all be fortified by our daily, good Christian life; that is, an attentive relationship to ourselves in fulfilling Christ’s commandments. Otherwise the Lord will answer our prayer with these words: And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Lk. 6:46). Thus, the main condition for fulfilling any prayer rule is patient continuance in well doing, as the apostle Paul says (Rom. 2:7).
But this is not all. Because no matter how hard we try to be patient and zealous in fulfilling Christ’s commandments, we at best fulfill the most simple things that we must fulfill, and if we are mindful of ourselves, we will have to admit that we often do not even fulfill a small part of what we should be doing. But let not this understanding lead us to despondency but to the humble awareness of our infirmity. And this is indeed the main thing needed in any prayer rule: contrition of heart, attentiveness in prayer, and completely giving ourselves over into God’s hands.
Let us reach with love toward the Lord with all our hearts, souls, and minds, at all times and in every hour, with a deep awareness of our weakness—and then every prayer rule, even the simplest and shortest, will undoubtedly, by God’s mercy, bring us spiritual benefit.
Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)
24 / 01 / 2017