|Lindisfarne Priory on the island of Lindisfarne (UK). Irish monks originally arrived here about the year 600. The ruins here date to the 12th century.|
First off, I am eager to say that a “prayer rule” is not about rules to pray by. The name is a little bit of a misnomer, but it has been used for centuries. We can say that it is less about rules and more about being a guide. It is concerned with what and when you pray.
“Do I really need to be told when and how to pray?” someone might ask.
The Lord gives us freedom. We can do as we wish. However, if we wish to make progress in the spiritual life, there does need to be some regularity in our prayer life and our spiritual life. This really doesn’t happen by accident. We need to discipline ourselves and work at it. But again, we are not following rules, rather, we are finding a spiritual life and a life of prayer that works for us and we can be consistent in.
Rather than try to explain it further, I will give you two examples from my own life. The first one will be when I first became a Christian at the age of 33. Formerly, I was an atheist. The second one, is almost 30 years later and is the one I am using now.
Coming out of atheism, I did not know what to do. I joined the local Catholic Church in my town and went to Mass every Sunday. During the week I tried to read the Bible and I attended the parish Bible study. Looking back on it now, I realize that what I was doing back then was a typical American Christian approach to church: get lots of teaching. I was soaking up a lot of head knowledge and I enjoyed it immensely! And yet, even at the time, I knew there was something else I was missing. My prayer life consisted of “winging it.” I prayed at meal times and before bed. It was basically, “Thanks Lord for this and that. Oh, and I need this and that other thing. And while you’re at it, can you do this other thing for me too? Thank you Lord. Your friend, Dionysius.”
While my brain was being activated in the spiritual life, my ‘nous,’ as the Orthodox say ( the word is used numerous times in the New Testament) was not being engaged to a great degree. Recall what the nous is. It is a classical Greek word used even by the likes of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The Eastern Fathers used this term often in their writings as well. To them, the nous is our mind’s eye, or third eye if you will, and it is the center of soul. It is translated most often as “the mind” or “the intellect.” It is always good to remember that to the Orthodox, the mind resides in the heart. The brain is merely the organ we use to think and have emotions. We Westerners think of the brain and the mind as the same things, but not so in the East. When we study things (i.e. Bible Study) we use the brain. When we pray, or engage in other more “mystical” activity, it is the nous centered in our soul, which resides in the heart, that is primarily engaged.
OK, back to my story. About one year into my Catholic Christian journey, I went to a Benedictine monastery for a weekend retreat. It happened to also be Palm Sunday that weekend. It was a blessed time. I learned a lot of head stuff, but I also encountered, for the first time, things that we would typically call mystical.
One thing that I noticed was their schedule. Every day was the same except it was a little lighter on Sundays. I was impressed by the regularity of prayer. The monks prayed together in the church at 6:00 am, 11:00 am (prayer and Mass), at 5:00 pm, and at 7:30 pm. They had private prayer, called lectio divina, at 9:00 am and at 3:00 pm in their cells.
Perhaps not coincidently, I had been to the book store only about a month before my retreat and I stumbled upon a book called, “Christian Prayer.” I hadn’t really made a much progress with it, but as I prayed with the monks the entire weekend, a light went on and I realized this book I had, was basically the same prayerbook the monks were using. They were praying the Psalms (and other parts of the Scriptures). I could hardly contain my joy. Over the next few months, I was deepening my relationship with the monks by attending prayer with them more often and acquiring a spiritual director. A spiritual director is someone who comes alongside another person more or less as a guide in the spiritual life. And a big part of this is one’s prayer life. One of the first things we addressed was prayer.
And so, what became my prayer rule (although I never called it that at the time) was to place a high priority on morning and evening prayer every day. I used my book for this. This was my basic, no compromise “rule.” Each of these prayer times took about 20-25 minutes. As a bonus, when I had time, I prayed as many of the “hours” as I could.
The keys here, when one makes a first prayer rule, are these: Make it something more than you are doing now. Make it every day. Be consistent to develop a discipline of praying. Make it attainable. Don’t make it a heroic leap, but just a nice stretch that doesn’t place an undo burden upon you and your existing schedule.
For me, I worked Monday - Friday, 7:00 to 5:00. Rarely, did I work outside this schedule. It was consistent. Getting up a few minutes early didn’t bother me and I really came to enjoy the evening prayer after work and found it to be a way to leave the stress and problems of work at work and transition to being a peaceful presence at home.
Now, most people would not speak of reading Psalms and other prayers from a book as a mystical or spiritual experience. I have had not just a few discussions about this with Protestant folks who look at this practice as legalism or “just mindless, written prayers” that don’t touch the heart. “You can’t pray that way. It isn’t prayer!” they say.
First, as far as the Psalms go, they were given by God and have been used as a prayer book for perhaps 3,000 years. Maybe God actually wants us to pray these prayers to teach us how to pray.
Second, give yourself to the prayers. Make them your own. I won’t give you any advice beyond that in this essay, but be consistent. Keep your prayer rule. If it is too much, back up a little, feel free to adjust. Some people just give up, but don’t do that, adjust. Find what works for you. Then after a year or two, or a period of time when you just know inside that you are called to do more or different, then alter your rule again. I have done so fairly often during the past 28 years.
Again, I’ve been at this awhile and I have a consistent work schedule and a simple life that makes it possible. In these things I am blessed. You may not have a life like this. I went through a time when I had to juggle four jobs at the same time. My prayers were mainly prayers “on the run.” I used the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary extensively and my time with the Psalms was curtailed. I want to say this loud and clear that we are not talking about legalism here. Prayer rules can bend with life but at the same time provide an anchor, an oasis of peace when life gets out of hand. A solid prayer rule can help bring stability back to your life. Just don’t give up.
My second example looks much like my encounter with the monks in the monastery. Again, I have a simple life and this works for me. Some days are not so easy, so I do have my minimum, but then I also have what I am able to do most often.
My minimum is moring and evening prayers. I incorporate my Orthodox prayer book along with the Psalms (my goal is to pray through them all every two weeks). During my prayer time, I read through the Gospels. I try to read one entire Gospel per month, then start over again. I do this with the rest of the New Testament taking 3 months to read it through, then start over again. Occasionally, I add an Old Testament book too. Each morning and evening this gives me about 45 minutes to an hour of prayer.
As time permits, I add 6th hour prayers (noon) and Compline (prayers in the later evening before bedtime). My noon prayers are during my lunch at work so they are short, about 10 minutes. Compline is about 30 minutes. I mostly use my prayer book, but a few Psalms too.
The last part of my rule includes the Jesus Prayer throughout the day as much as possible. Oh, one more thing that is relatively new for me: I do my very best not to ask the Lord for anything for myself beyond what is in the Liturgy and the prayers in the Prayer Book. Why? When we were young, we asked our earthly parents for many things. As we grew older and became mature adults, we asked for less and less. Then perhaps, hardly noticing, came a time when we didn’t ask our parents for anything, or at least things much smaller and simple. The same is true in the spiritual life. When we are young in our faith, it is quite normal and natural to ask for things. As we grow up and become mature, this seems to become out of place. One saint I read, and I forget whom, said, “Never ask God for anything that you can do yourself.” Now, don’t take this as a hard and fast rule as if you are a bad person if you pray to be healed of some anger or some physical disease. Mostly, I am referring to asking for things such as a new job, a new house, or more money. There is a time when prayer must truly become something we do out of love and for relationship.
So, there you have it. All I can add to that now is to say if this will be your first prayer rule, start small and then grow. Be patient with yourself. Try to find a monk or a priest to guide you. It is a great help. If no one is available, seek the Lord and He will help you.
Be blessed and at peace my friend,