Saturday, July 27, 2019

Traditional Prayer, Part 1, A Daily Rythm

There are many ways to pray.  Most of my prayer life is centered around the ancient way of the Church. Very early in the history of the Church, it became appropriate to honor certain saints, mark feasts, and events in the life of Christ.  There is a daily rhythm of prayer, there is a weekly cycle, and an annual cycle to the prayer of the Church.  Today, I will speak about the daily rhythm of prayer.

Before I do that, I would like to also say that the Church certainly acknowledges that we need to pray in our own words also.  She has no problem with this.  When the Church gives us written prayers she is trying to teach us how to pray also.  Once we know how to pray, then we will pray well and perhaps even within God’s will.  The Church is a school of prayer.  Once we learn how to pray, we can truly be prayer warriors and pray in a powerful manner.  When we are young, we don’t often pray “in the Spirit” or in God’s will.  This is normal when we are young in faith.  The Lord understands and accepts our prayers with mercy. The problem is, many people never grow beyond childish prayers. We never outgrow the need for a lesson or two on how to pray.

And so, while it is good to pray for things in your life, for protection for your family, for a good job etc., we must first seek the Kingdom of God, then all these other things will be given.  Now, don’t think “all those other things” mean that you’ll be granted millions of dollars or whatever you have your heart set on.  We need to constantly be on guard for the selfish or greedy or jealous attitude (and all the passions) within our hearts.  The prayers of the Church can really benefit us if we give ourselves to them.  Now, let’s take a brief look at the daily rhythm of prayer.

First, what is the daily rhythm of prayer?  Well, specifically, what I am referring to is the “hours of prayer.”  We find it in the Bible, Old Testament and New.  There are numerous passages that speak about a follower of the Lord, or a disciple of Jesus, even Jesus HImself, going “up to the Temple to pray.”  I’ll give you just a couple of examples, but please know, the Scriptures are replete with this language and this concept.

“Now, Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.”1

“Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.2

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.3

To the third one, you might say, “It doesn’t refer to any specific time of prayer and you would be correct.  Read from a modern, reformed perspective jone would think there is no connection to liturgy or time.  Many modern people have no concept of liturgy or praying specific prayers at certain times.  The ancient people however, were far different.  There were liturgies and prayers happened “on time.”  The last verse that I quote above, notice that the disciples were devoted to “the prayers” and not just “prayer.”  It means that there were specific prayers to pray!  And I know, some protestant Bibles do not say “the prayers.”  But please know that this is a mis-translation of the text.  It reads “the prayers” in the Greek.  “The Prayers” certainly implies a prayer book, and yes, the early Church embraced the Old Testament prayer book: We call it the Psalter, or the collection of Psalms.  There was a way to read the Psalms in ancient times and the Church has continued to do the same in both the East and the West.  

As in the days before Christ, the day is divided into hours of prayer.  Psalm 118 (119): 164 says, “Seven times a day I praise thee…”  The followers of Christ, even Christ Himself, prayed in this manner.  This is significant.  We must, as much as our lives permit, try to mimic this rhythm of prayer if we are to be like the early followers of Christ and if we desire to be like Christ Himself. Prayer if vital and if we are to grow and become more like Christ, we must become "devoted to the prayers" as the early Christians were.

So, what are these hours?  As I recount the list to you, remember that in the Bible, and even in the Church today, the day begins at sunset.  So, here are the seven hours of prayer, the time, and the hour’s significance.4

Vespers is prayed at sunset for the glorification of God. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice,” Psalm 140 (141):2

Compline is prayed about bedtime.  We seek forgiveness for the day’s sins. This should bring us peace of soul.  We recall sleep as the image of death.  “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for though alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety,” Psalm 4:8.

Midnight office or Great Compline is said about midnight, but is not always prayed and is not too practical for lay people.  Its addition makes the number of hours 8.  The midnight prayer calls to mind Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It’s a reminder to be ready for the Bridegroom coming at midnight (Matthew 25:1-13) and thus also the Last Judgment.  “At midnight I rise to praise thee, because of thy righteous ordinances,” Psalm 118 (119):62.

Matins (or Orthros)  is prayed during the “watches of the night,” which end at dawn.  Practically speaking, we pray them as early as we can upon rising.  This hour recalls Christ, Who is Savior, Who brings us light and is our spiritual light.  It is at dawn when the Myrrh-bearing women reach the tomb and find that Jesus was not there, Luke 24:1.   “O God, my God, I rise early to be with You,” Psalm 62 (63):1.

Prime or First Hour is prayed about 6:00 or 7:00 a.m.  This is when Christ is brought before Pilate (Luke 22:66).  As we wake, we ask for a spiritual awakening as well.  This hour is sometimes incorporated into the Matins prayer, bringing our count back to seven.  In modern Roman Catholic usage, this hour has been officially incorporated into the Matins prayer and is no longer used as a stand alone hour of prayer.  “O Lord, in the morning thou dost hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for thee, and watch,” Psalm 5:3.

Terce or Third Hour is prayed at the third hour of the day, or about 9:00 a.m.  This is when Pilate condemns Jesus to death, but it is also the time the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples at Pentecost, Acts 2:15.

Sext or Sixth Hour is prayed at noon.  Christ is crucified at noon and darkness covers the land (Luke 23:44).  Without Christ, life is dark indeed.

None or Ninth Hour is prayed about 3:00 p.m.  Jesus dies on the Cross (Mark 15:34, 37).  

The Western Rite Divine Office
of the Orthodox church
One Volume Roman
Catholic Divine Office
And there you have them, the seven hours of prayer.  I would recommend that you explore these a bit more.  Yes, they are lengthy prayers.  They come in books that are somewhat confusing at first as to how to use them, but they do come with instructions, so be patient with yourself and with the prayers.  Three versions that I am aware of are the Roman “Liturgy of the Hours” (a four volume work) which is also available as a one volume work entitled “Christian Prayer.”  In the Orthodox Tradition, the Greek Archdiocese of America publishes the “blue prayer book” simply entitled, “Prayer Book.”  This book does not have all of the hours in it, but it is helpful to use for prayer nonetheless.  Also, as these prayers are lengthy (Matins is nearly 40 pages, for example) they are prayers that would seem to be of more benefit in a monastic context.  But again, you are not required to pray every word to receive benefit. Pray what you can. The Catholic version takes about 20 minutes to pray matins.  The version I use is actually used by the Western Rite in the Orthodox Church called “Orthodox Divine Office.”  Matins is the longest prayer, about 40 minutes, Vespers is about 30, while the other prayer hours will take you about 20 minutes.  Yes, these are long, but remember, if you can’t pray an entire “hour”, pray what you can.  On most work days, I am able to prayer Matins and Vespers or sometimes Matins and Compline.  And sometimes, if I sleep in, or if I am too tired at night to complete all the prayers, I might just pray the Psalms for that "hour," then I am talking about 10 minutes.  I think we can all find ten minutes to be with the Lord.  
The Greek Archdiocese Prayer Book

I should add that most of these prayers (all three versions) have the Psalms at their heart while many, if not most, of the other prayers are taken from Scripture, selections from the Old and New Testaments. These prayers are words from the mouth of God and are very helpful in teaching us how to pray.  And, as I said at the outset of this article, these are the prayers of the early Church, the early disciples, and of Jesus Himself.  It would be a holy thing and good for our soul if we could work some of these prayers into our day.

Incidentally, I hear from many people, even devout Christian people, that they just don’t have time to pray.  So, do we build our day around our prayer life or do we try to fit our prayers into our daily life of work and leisure or chaos, as the case may be in modern life?  If we don’t pray, how can we grow as Christians?  How do we talk and listen to God?  These prayer books I recommend to you are not difficult.  At one and the same time, we are speaking and we are listening to the Lord.  What a joy!  If Jesus is your joy, pray some of these prayers.  

True, these prayers are best used in the monastery.  Prayer is the work of a monk.  But everyone can and is called to pray. We lay folks can do a mighty work for the Church through our prayers. Never underestimate the power of prayer or what the Lord might do with your prayer. I will give you another way to pray and you can work out a schedule as you see fit.  How many pages of Psalms are there in your Bible?  Psalms comprise 78 pages in the Bible I use most often.  So, doing the math, if I want to pray in the morning and then before I go to bed, I could pray 2 ½ pages of Psalms in the morning and 2 ½ pages in the evening.  In this way, I read the whole Psalter in one month, which the Church recommends us to do anyways.  Another thing that the Church recommends is that we read one chapter from the Gospels each day.  Oh my!  If we prayed through the Psalms every month and read one chapter in the Gospels every day, my goodness, we would learn how to pray and live on a whole new level.  This might be something to consider.  Many of us think little of spending two or three hours in front of the television.  What would happen if we spent just part of this time in reading and in prayer.  Can you find 30 to spend with the Lord every day? A Western saint, St. Francis de Sales, once said, "Everyone needs a half hour of prayer per day, except when we are busy, then we need an hour."

I will give you one more way to pray these hours that will take only two or three minutes for each “hour” of the day.  Choose which hours you’d like to pray.  Click here. Follow the instructions to download an app for your phone.  Find the prayers, the daily liturgical reading, and the lives of the saints, plus other things are available.  Give it a try.  You will be blessed.                                                           

God bless you one and all.  Peace in all things. In part 2, I will write about another set of prayers that most Orthodox would be familiar with: the morning and evening prayers..  

Dennis the Little

1 Acts 3:1
2 Acts 10:9 
3 Acts 2:42
4 Orthodox Prayer blog, “Daily Cycle or Hours of Prayer in the Church”  Click here to view. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The World and the Kingdom of God

First a question: What occupies your mind?  Or, what is your ultimate desire?  Which one do we choose?

Are you preoccupied with “worldly things” or do you pursue the Lord, spiritual things, or what we might call the Kingdom of God?  Which one is primary?

St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says that, “Our commonwealth (or citizenship) is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”1  Most of us, if we were honest, value our place in this world above that of the next.  This is our present reality, isn’t it?  Yes, and it isn’t all bad.  We live in this world.  We have responsibilities, jobs, family, spouse, and many obligations and interests that really do plant us in this world. 

How does this connect or disconnect us with the Kingdom of God?

We must know that God truly loves this world, the world we live in and all the people that live here.  St. John in his Gospel famously says that, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”2   So, I think it follows that when we are doing our “duty,” the things we need to do to take care of ourselves, our family, those we love, yes, you could say that I am living in this world, but I would also say that this is part of Godliness and the Kingdom.  I am doing what God would have me to do.

This next concept can be confusing.  In his first letter, St. John seems to contradict the Gospel by writing, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lush of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world pases away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”3   

What’s going on?  What is the difference?

What John refers to in his letter is not people or the world itself, rather he is talking about what we would call today the systems of this world (or the kingdoms of this world is another way to phrase it).  Name any system: the banking system, the healthcare system, etc.  It is a long list!  

So, in a nutshell, what is it you build your life around?  What is it that you trust in?  Is it the systems of this world?  Or, do you ultimately place your trust, love, and allegience to God and His Kingdom?

To me, this is such an important concept that I’ll try to state it another way so that you can hopefully get what I am saying.  

Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”4 It’s one or the other.  We cannot serve both.  Surely, we try it seems, but one is always revealed as more important by our actions.

And so now, re-reading the verses from St. John’s first letter, don’t think systems, but rather, think of Kingdoms and who is in charge.  The world is full of greed for wealth and falls into the passions (which is the traditional word, but we could probably think of addictions to be a close approximation of what the Fathers are speaking of).   And what would those passions be?  Name your addiction here or the things we cling to or the things we put above God and loving God.  

So yes, God loves the world.  But we must be on guard against the reign of darkness, the “anti-world,” or worldliness.  We can’t allow this stain to penetrate our being.  We must do what me must do to stay on the path that leads to the Kingdom of God and not the kingdom of demons.

I’ll give you an example.  I live in Minnesota.  The Vikings are pretty big.  In my parish, there were some very faithful men.    They were “regulars” at Mass and helped out with things going on in the parish as the needs arose.  One year, about playoff time, because we shared a priest with two other parishes, it needed to happen that Sunday Mass had to be put back to 11:00 a.m.  This coincided with the kickoff time of the Vikings playoff game.  Many of these same men had a party to watch the Vikings every week and playoffs was not even an option to miss.  Who won?  Everyone of the men chose the tailgate party and watching the Vikings on the big screen in the “party garage.”

Now, especially in America, most people would not think that this is a bad thing.  Afterall, most of these men were at church every Sunday.  What is the big deal if they miss one Sunday?  And of course, we, who live in America, pretty much have adopted the Evangelical mode of understanding whether we are Orthodox, Catholic, or some part of Protestantism: we tend to think that going to church is no big deal.  We think, “All that matters is that we believe in Jesus.  He knows our hearts.”

Oh! What a dangerous statement.  “He knows our hearts!”  Yes, this heart chooses watching the Vikings or going to the mall over worshipping our Lord!  Now, before you throw the legalism book at me, listen: “If you love Me, you’ll keep My commandments.”5     

He didn’t say, “Keep my commandments when it is convenient,” or “Keep my commandments when it is socially acceptable,” or “Keep my commandments most of the time.”  No. He did not say these things.  He just said, “Keep my commandments…. If you love me”  

Now, please hear me all the way through: I am not throwing all this at you and saying that you are bad.  Quite the contrary.  I do it too and probably more often that you do.  We are all in this together.  No one is innocent.  Not one of us.  And so the need for confession.  We must go to God, and I highly recommend going to a priest, to confess our sin in this regard as soon as we are aware of it.  That is important.

God knows we sin.  The worst thing is when we don’t admit it.  We must confess.  That is the way of the Kingdom.  We must acknowledge to God when we stray.  “I have gone away like a lost sheep; seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments.6 

Acknowledging our failures before God is important.  It is good to make some of these decisions with the help of our confessor, priest, or spiritual director.  There are solutions to these kinds of things that confront us in life and make us choose.  So, the ultimate point of this article is we must do our best to choose the Kingdom of God that is here and now present.  Often, we need help to recognize this.  We fail, often and miserably, so we must seek forgiveness, and then accept the help that God, through the Church, offers us always.

1 Philippians 3:20 2 John 3:16
3 1 John 2:15-17
4 Matthew 6:24
5 John 14:15
6 Psalm 118 (119):176

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Blessed are You

Welcome back to this second installment of Ponder These Things in Your Heart.  I have chosen to start over again for many reasons.  One is the many things that have changed in my life.  Another is the many changes that are happening in our world and our country.  And third, the realization that there are some things that never change:  Among them are Our Lord and the Ancient Faith.  In a country and an era that seems to prefer building on sand, even quick sand, rather than the firm rock of the Gospel, I just felt and thought that I needed to change my focus a little bit.

I am not an Apostle nor am I a professional Churchman, but I do consider myself a disciple of Christ and my patron saint is Dionysius Exiguus, (Dennis the Humble or the Little).  I am not a big fish, nor do I aspire to become one.  Yet, to remain faithful to the Gospel, I must do my part to spread the Word.  “The Word,” as used in the New Testament, most often refers to Christ and not the printed words of the Scriptures.  Jesus is the Word of God.  He reveals God.  My heart and my desire is to saturate myself in this Word as understood by the Ancient Church.  My reason is that we moderns are not humble and we have gone after a very many things that just do not stand the test of history.  New doctrines and beliefs have been embraced in recent years, but also in recent centuries that would have never been given serious thought in the Ancient Church.  

And so, think of this blog as my poor attempt of distiling this Ancient Faith and somehow shine a light on how to live it.  As I stated already, I am not an Apostle.  I have not been sent by anyone.  As my patron would surely direct me, I must not rely on myself or my own wisdom or knowledge, but I must rely upon those great teachers and saints who have gone before and also those of the present age who have shown themselves to be anchored in the faith of the ages.  

I pray that I do not merely become another noisy gong, but that I can actually write some things that will help you, the reader, grasp a better sense of who Christ is, what the Gospels teach, and how this can impact your life.

One of these teachings from the Ancient Church that I will just briefly mention is that you are good.  Yes, you are and God says so in Genesis.  When the Lord Yahweh created, He said it was good.  When He created Adam and Eve, He said it was VERY GOOD.  The Fall did not change this fact.  Many other branches of Christianity teach that we are bad, flesh (or matter) is bad, human’s have “a sin nature.”  This is not correct.  I will give you more reasons to this in a future article, but for now, I only want to impress upon you that no matter what your history is, deep down, and in your soul, you are loved.  Yes, you and I have done some pretty bad things in our lives, but God still looks upon us as “good” because He created us.  From the first moment that we existed in the womb of our mothers, we were created good.  

We are created in the image and likeness of God.  While we have soiled the second part, the image still remains.  My future articles will hopefully help you and me, all of us, to restore our likeness to become more and more like our Lord

May the Lord bless you abundantly today.  Peace.
Dennis the Little