Glory to Jesus Christ!
When Orthodox Christians speak of the prayer rule, we are referring to prayers that we say, as best we can, at certain times each day, especially evening and morning.
We know from experience that if we were to pray only on Sundays, when we gather for the Divine Liturgy in church, we would find it hard to be part of what is happening. The Service would seem somehow exterior to us. Prayer would seem very difficult, perhaps even something abnormal. In fact, God is present at all times and in every place. Why, then, would we not speak with Him? The holy Apostle Paul teaches that we can and should pray at all times (1 Thess. 5:17), whatever we are doing, doing it for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10: 31). We do not have to wait for a special time! On the other hand, Holy Scripture shows us that evening and morning are times especially suitable for prayer. Psalm 141 speaks of the offering of incense and prayer at sunset. Psalm 118 speaks of praising God seven times a day (v.164). We even read of prayer at midnight (v.62) and the various watches of the night (Ps. 63:6). And in the New Testament, we read of the hours of Prayer being observed by the Apostles in the Temple (Acts 3:1; 10:9&30). It would seem, then, that we can distinguish prayer which accompanies the many and various things we do during the course of the day, and prayer as our main, or sole, activity and which we make at certain fixed times, especially evening and morning. It is this second kind which we are referring to when we speak of the prayer rule.
Let us look at this practice of the prayer rule and try to understand what it means. I think it is good to do this because we can easily get out of the way of keeping our rule. Sometimes circumstances make our rule impossible; but we can also get lazy and fall into bad habits. When, for whatever reason, our daily prayer has become the exception rather than the rule, then we know something is wrong! I would like to address some of the issues involved as best I can.
The first thing we have to realize is that Christian life is nothing less than active communing with the living God. This should not surprise us, for the Holy Apostle Paul tells us that Christ has broken down the wall of separation and has brought us into the Holy Place, within the veil (Heb. 10:19-22,): He has given us “access” to God. Christian prayer, then, is making use of that access. When we pray, we are accessing that “boldness” and ease of speech with Christ which Adam enjoyed in Paradise and which has been restored to us in the Church. When we pray we are spending time with the One who loves and cares for us.
Evening and the morning are, so to speak, the hinges on which the day—and therefore our life—turns, for each day is a kind of microcosm of our life. By reciting certain prayers at these special times of evening and morning we are commending “each other and our whole life to Christ our God.” What does it say about us if we pass a whole day without prayer, in oblivion?
As far as possible we need to recite our rule whether we feel like it or not, simply because “it is time to serve the Lord” (Ps 118: 126). The word rule, or “canon,” means exactly that! It implies a constancy, a blessed objectivity, in which we return to a place of sanity from the changes and pressures of our life. By observing the times of prayer, we emerge—sometimes with great effort!-- from being dominated by our moods. If we allow ourselves to become hostages to how we are feeling and thinking, praying only when we feel so inclined, we will end up neglecting the things of God. Experience shows this! Or if we do not neglect them entirely, we will tend to distort them, reducing them to our own proportions, to our own image and likeness, instead of being ourselves changed and shaped by them. When, however, we struggle to overcome our resistance and engage with the words of the psalms and other prayers, and strive to enter into them, then we are liberated from the dull repetition of our thoughts and moods. We move beyond our isolated self and, to the degree that we commune with God, we find ourselves in union with other members of the Church in this world and the next, and they with us.
What words do we use in our prayer rule? Our rule should consist mainly of words given us by the God-inspired writers of Sacred Scripture and by other holy people down the centuries, whose writings have been found to be expressions of the Holy Spirit active within them and which are available to us in Orthodox prayer books. When we use these words, making them our own, we are opening our hearts to the action of the Holy Spirit Who inspired them—and Who is thereby inspiring them in us! In this way, we are praying with and in the Holy Spirit.
Such holy words have a sacred power. They are like portals or icons, through which we are able to enter and taste of the things of God. By taking them on our lips and into our heart, it becomes possible for us to know God from our own experience, and the life of His Church and of His Kingdom.
How big should our rule be? A simple rule of thumb would be: as much as we can reasonably expect to keep up on a regular basis. It should not be too much, so that we could only do it when we were at our best. This is especially true in the case of family prayers. It is best to start with little and see how we go. Especially in the beginning, it is important to check in with our priest or spiritual father who can guide us wisely. A good place to begin is what are called the Trisagion Prayers: they can be found in any Orthodox prayer book. In time, we get used to doing this as our rule and may feel drawn to take on a little more. Psalm 50 and the Creed, or Symbol of Faith, are “favorites,” so to speak. Orthodox prayer books contain collections of evening and morning prayers. At first, we might want to read just some of these prayers and then gradually increase the amount, according to our circumstances and how we feel drawn by the Holy Spirit. Some people like to read Small Compline in the evening. It is also good to read as part of our rule the Bible passages readings which are being read in church on that day. Another good practice is prayerfully to recite the names of all the people who are close to us, whom God has brought into our life, and of the people who have asked us to pray for them, and, not least, of those who do us wrong, thereby remembering them all in prayer. So you can see how easily your daily prayer rule can get quite big! But big or small, we need to be invested in our prayer rule, believing that it is time well spent.
Even if our rule is small, we will soon see that, if it is to actually happen on a regular basis, we need to schedule time for it! In so doing, we are treating our prayer the way we treat anything that is important in our life and that we take seriously. Meals and exercise are examples of things that need to be scheduled because otherwise they can get neglected to our detriment. Our daily prayers do in fact nourish us like a good meal. They are also in many ways like exercise, so that our prayer routine can be seen as a work-out, keeping us “in shape” in the true sense.
It often happens that people get into difficulties because they just cannot maintain their prayer rule. This usually means that their rule needs to be smaller. Every priest comes across this in his work with souls, and perhaps we have all made that mistake. The temptation then may be to give up entirely! This is why it is always good to work with our spiritual father and have guidance, especially at the beginning, when we lack experience. If we find we have become overloaded, the best course is simply to make our rule smaller, making it practicable on a regular basis, and continue from there.
If for whatever reason we have not done our rule, we need just to take it up again at the next evening or morning, focusing on that, rather than on what we have not done. In general, we should be stricter, both in the observing of our rule and in its size, when we are on our own and are at risk of being alone with our thoughts. When we are with others, especially family, it may not always be good to do our rule if we need to attend to our spouse or children, whose dear faces we can see.
A further question is the way in which we do our prayer rule. I would like to set out a few basics only. Let us look first at time and place.
We have already spoken of evening and morning as important times for prayer. We know from the Bible that the first day began at evening. With the opening psalm of Vespers (Ps. 103), we understand that our evening prayer is a placing of ourselves in the beginning of the world, a re-aligning of ourselves with the original creation, and thus with our true home in God. As regards the morning (Ps.118:147), the way we start our day on rising very much sets the tone of all that what follows. The first moments of consciousness should be a first-fruits offering of our day, a thanksgiving for our being, an acknowledgment that all is gift and not our own by right.
It helps if we can have a regular place where we read our rule. Ideally, this would be our icon corner where we can venerate the icons and where we keep our prayer books and Bible. Maybe we will also have holy water there, which we can drink before breakfast. If possible we should recite our rule standing attentively in front of the holy icons. Our first step is to light the lamp—and then simply begin! On the other hand, there can be times when the pressures of work and family life are such that we do our rule on the run, going to work, as best we can. Buying a CD of evening and morning prayers to play in the car may be a wise investment! Likewise, using the same prayers every day enables us eventually to be able to say them “by heart.”
When reciting the words of the prayers, I recommend just attending to the phrase that we are reading, rather than be thinking of the next phrase, or of the prayers we have yet to say. In this way we will not be treating our rule as a chore, something to be gotten through, doing it in order to have done it. As far as is in our power, we should recite the holy words with our lips, bringing them up from our heart, or, if you will, putting our heart into them, and doing this with attention, love and compunction. This is the reason why the Trisagion Prayers begin with the prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking God to purify and cleanse us sinners.
We need to think of the words of the psalms and prayers as having a kind of sacred power in themselves. These words are like portals or icons, through which we are able to enter and taste of the things of God. By taking them on our lips and into our heart, we can begin to know God from our own experience, and the life of His Church and of His Kingdom.
October 23/10, 2014