The Rule of Prayer

A Prayer to the Mother of God

O good Mother of the Good King, most pure and blessed Theotokos Mary, do thou pour out the mercy of thy Son and God upon my passionate soul, and by thine intercessions guide me unto good works, that I may pass the remaining time of my life without blemish, and attain paradise through thee, O Virgin Theotokos, who alone art pure and blessed.—from the Orthodox Evening Prayers (Trans. Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY)

The Rule of Prayer

I would like to move on in this post to share what I have learned from various sources concerning one’s rule of prayer.  I will divide this into two categories by first saying something about a rule of prayer in action and then in essence.  So as a start a few general words must be said about praying.  Praying, this seems to be the one thing more than any soul profiting exercise that is shortened or totally neglected and put aside.  It is so easy to find people in the Church who will read and study a lot, and show great zeal in doing external works.  However, it is so hard to find people who will take time to struggle to pray. Why is this so?

The Elder Ephraim was once asked this question and immediate he said, “Yes, yes”; in this way confirming that this is absolutely true and then he went on to say:

Abba Pimen says that prayer is the most difficult of all virtues to acquire.  In prayer we free our minds from all the distractions of this world and we touch God with our minds.  In prayer we unite to God with our minds.  And the devil hates this therefore he does all that he can to stop us from accomplishing this.  In prayer we must concentrate on God, we must turn away from all thoughts and distractions and immerse our minds in God.

So prayer then, is a very profitable exercise, and an exercise in which we are directly renewed and strengthened by God.  Therefore the devil fights against us most at that time so then we must be persistent. 

Another Athonite monk was once asked, “How can one live a spiritual life in the world?”  And he replied that three things are needed:  “One must have a spiritual father to whom he practices obedience, one must pray and also be watchful.”  When he spoke about prayer he emphasized the need to spend much time in prayer.  He said several times that in order to gain the Spirit one must shed blood, that is, one must struggle very hard and suffer.

He said, “We give up to easy.  We like to eat and drink and sleep too much.  Or we feel tired or have a headache and we sacrifice our prayers.”  And as an example of perseverance he spoke of one of the present abbots of the HolyMountain (This conversation took place in the early 1990’s) who, when he had lived in a skete, had a rule of 10 hours a day in prayer.  As he concluded speaking about works and different callings in life, the following conclusion was drawn by one of those who was listening and thus commented:

Good works though they bring the grace of God remain ineffective without prayer.  The grace gained through works is preserved through prayer.  If we only have good works and do not spend much time in prayer we can only progress in the spiritual life to a certain degree and then our growth is stunted.  But through much prayer this grace gained through good works can blossom forth.  And prayer by itself brings the grace of God more than anything else.

The Athonite father agreed with this statement. 

So prayer is our life.  We must have some time set apart for prayer each day and be consistent.  If not we will wither like a branch that is cut from a vine.  If we do not pray though we go through outward motions of being a Christian our inner man will starve and die.  So in order to nourish ourselves in a life in Christ we need o set aside time for prayer on a daily basis and this period of time we commonly call a rule of prayer.  But what should we do about this time, about a rule of prayer? 

There are various traditions and a variety of stresses in rules that are given by different spiritual fathers or elders.  For instance some will insist on reading many prayers from books.  The written prayers of the Church do teach us—so-to-speak—the language of prayer.  They teach us the proper way to approach God which is primarily as humble penitents.  In Greek prayer books you usually see Nocturns and Small Compline while in the Russian books you see Morning and Evening Prayers.  In addition the Greeks often read the Paraklesis and Akathist to the Theotokos while Russians more commonly like to read a variety of canons and akathists.  Sometimes a lot of psalms are stressed, while some elders will have their spiritual children read little or no written prayers and concentrate more on the Jesus Prayer.  Often there is often a lot of stress on prostrations and making the sign of the cross with the Jesus Prayer.  Some elders will automatically assign a standard rule of prayer to those who inquire of him, while others will ask, “What are you now doing?”  Then they will build upon this.  To pick from the aforementioned, prayers that relate to your needs, and not to overburden yourself is perhaps a good way to start.

In order to speak about the essence of a rule of prayer I think it is best to say something about different levels of prayer.  According to St. Theophan the Recluse our prayer:

reflects our attitude to God, and our attitude to God is reflected in prayer.  And since this attitude is not identical in different people, so the kind of prayer is not identical either.  He who is careless of salvation has a different attitude to God from him who has abandoned sin and is zealous for virtue, but has not yet entered within himself, and works for the Lord only outwardly.  Finally he who has entered within and carries the Lord within himself, standing before him, has yet another attitude.  The first man is negligent in prayer just as he is negligent in life; and he prays in church and at home merely according to the established custom, without attention or feeling.  The second man reads many prayers and goes often to church, trying at the same time to keep his attention free from wandering and to experience the feelings in accordance with the prayers which are read, although he is very seldom successful.  The third man, wholly within, stands with his mind before God, and prays to him in his heart without distraction, without long verbal prayers, even when standing for a long time at prayer in his home or church.  Take away oral prayer from the second and you will take away all prayer from him; impose oral prayer on the third and you will extinguish prayer in him by the wind of many words.  For every rank of person, and every degree of drawing near to God, has its own prayer and its own rules.  How important it is to have experienced instruction here, and how harmful it can be to guide oneself. (The Art of Prayer, An Orthodox Anthology,  Igumen Chariton, pp. 6`1-2)     

St. Silouan the Athonite also speaks of degrees of prayer as follows:

We are given churches to pray in and in church the holy offices are performed according to books.  But we cannot take a church away with us, and books are not always at hand, but interior prayer is always and everywhere possible.  The Divine office is celebrated in church, and the Spirit of God dwells therein, but the soul is the finest of God’s churches, and the man who prays in his heart has the whole world for a church.  However, this is not for everyone.

Many use their lips to pray, and like to read prayers from books; and this is good and the Lord accepts their prayers and is merciful to them.  (St. Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 294)

Even though God accepts this last kind of prayer, the higher degree of prayer obviously has something more as Archimandrite Sophrony relates about St. Silouan:

‘The Lord gave us feeble children sung church services—we do not yet know how to pray properly but singing helps everyone when it is done in humility.  But it is a better still for our heart to become the temple of the Lord and our mind his altar,’ he wrote.  And went on:

The Lord is glorified in holy churches, while monks and anchorites praise God in their hearts.  The anchorite’s heart is a temple, and his mind an altar, for the Lord likes to dwell in the heart and mind of man.’

And he added that when unceasing prayer settles in the depths of the heart the whole world is transformed into a temple of God.  (Ibid. pp. 97-8)

Yet even this St. Silouan,who had attained such a blessed state, did not disdain the services of the church, as Archimandrite Sophrony tells us of him:

The Staretz was very fond of long church services, so infinitely rich in spiritual content… But for all the love he felt for the majesty, the beauty and music of the services, he would say that although they were instituted by the gift of grace from the Holy Spirit, in their form they did not constitute perfect prayer, and were according to the ‘company of the faithful’ as corresponding to everyone’s strength and need.  (ibid. p. 97)

In the thoughts cited above, this saint speaks of those who work “outwardly”—to use the expression of St. Theophan-and also of one who “enters within.”  For those who fall into these two categories a rule of prayer has quite a different meaning and so varies in the way it is put into action.  For the first, that is, those who work “outwardly”, there are many prayers of the Church to choose from and rules to follow.  However, for the second, that is, for one who has “entered within”, St. Theophan gives the following advice:

The principle monastic rule is to remain constantly with God in mind and heart, that is, to pray unceasingly.  To keep this endeavor alight and warm, definite prayers are laid down-the cycle of daily services performed in the church, and certain rules of prayer for the cell.  But the chief thing is to possess a constant feeling for God.  It is this feeling that constitutes our rule.  So long as this feeling is there, all other rules are replaced by it. (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, p. 86)

Keeping the above in mind we could say that rather than having a rule of prayer we ideally would reach a state where we say our rule is to pray.  Prayer should become a state of being; prayer should be the primary state of one’s soul.  Although most of us probably find ourselves struggling in the second stage spoken of by St. Theophan we still have some experience of the interior prayer he spoke of.  But our hope should be to experience it more often and to be more deeply immersed within ourselves—where we meet God.  So then, in the words of St.   John the Theologian we could say our rule of prayer should become: “Abide in me and I in you.”