By Fr. Peter Farrington – St. George Ministry – Coptic Mission Communities in the UK.
Growing up as a committed evangelical Christian I always struggled to develop a regular spiritual life because I had no models to follow and received no instruction from my congregation. One of the great blessings in discovering aspects of traditional and liturgical spirituality has been to find a whole science of spirituality already described in great detail. Part of this includes the encouragement to develop a prayer rule, a spiritual regime tailored to our own experience and circumstances. Now we might well imagine that we should not set out on such a course unless we have a spiritual guide, and in the case where we are members of a congregation and have access to a pastor and priest, it is always best to seek such advice.
But St Theophan the Recluse, the great Russian Orthodox writer of the 19th century, in some of his letters to correspondents addressed the subject of developing a prayer rule in some detail. He says…
You ask about a prayer rule. Yes, it is good to have a prayer rule on account of our weakness so that on the one hand we do not give in to laziness, and on the other hand we restrain our enthusiasm to its proper measure. The greatest practitioners of prayer kept a prayer rule. They would always begin with established prayers, and if during the course of these a prayer started on its own, they would put aside the others and pray that prayer. If this is what the great practitioners of prayer did, all the more reason for us to do so. Without established prayers, we would not know how to pray at all. Without them, we would be left entirely without prayer.
We can learn from this instruction that in fact beginning a prayer rule is not beyond any of us because it should begin with the established prayers, as St Theophan puts it. There are of course a great many collections of prayers in the Daily Office, which is what is meant in this case. In my own circumstances I use the Daily Office of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in a liturgical English edition produced by the British Orthodox Church. In the past I have used the Monastic Diurnal, and long before I became Orthodox and was starting to discover traditional and liturgical spirituality and a regular visitor to the Anglican Society of St Francis, I used their useful edition of the Daily Office. What is essential, from an Orthodox perspective, is that our prayer rule should be rooted in the established and ancient Traditional collections of prayers so that our own prayers are formed by the use of the best of prayers.
St Theophan continues…
However, one does not have to do many prayers. It is better to perform a small number of prayers properly than to hurry through a large number of prayers, because it is difficult to maintain the heat of prayerful zeal when they are performed to excess.
This is usually the temptation which those developing a prayer rule fall into. It is rarely the case that the excited Christian discovering the treasures of traditional spirituality wants to do too little. On the contrary they almost always want to try to do everything that is suddenly available to them. Within Orthodox spirituality it is certainly the case that slow and steady wins the race. It is better to build habits of a small commitment to something and build on them as a solid foundation than to convince ourselves we can do so much and fail almost as soon as we begin. If we succeed we are in danger of pride, and if we fail we are in danger of despair. So it is better, when we consider a rule of prayer, to begin with an authoritative collection, some form of the Daily Office, and to begin with only a partial commitment to the prayers within any of the hours.
Many of the catechumens I advise as they are discovering Orthodoxy are encouraged to develop a habitual practice of only praying the introductory prayers and the concluding prayers, and if they sustain this simple practice then it is possible to build on it.
What more does St Theophan say…
I would consider the morning and evening prayers as set out in the prayer books to be entirely sufficient for you. Just try each time to carry them out with full attention and corresponding feelings. To be more successful at this, spend a little of your free time at reading over all the prayers separately. Think them over and feel them, so that when you recite them at your prayer rule, you will know the holy thoughts and feelings that are contained in them. Prayer does not mean that we just recite prayers, but that we assimilate their content within ourselves, and pronounce them as if they came from our minds and hearts.
There are seven hours of prayer in the little Daily Office book which is part of the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, and within each hour there are a great many Psalms which can be recited, but St Theophan gets to the heart of the matter when he insists that it is not the recitation of prayers which is true prayer, but making them our prayer so that we pray with those words rather than repeat them. In such a perspective it is necessary to consider the quality of our prayers as we begin to follow a rule, rather than their quantity. Indeed just as a performer or a preacher or a politician will be careful to go over what they will say so that they are able to present it as faultlessly as possible, so in our spiritual context St Theophan advises that we should become familiar with the prayers we are using, aware of what we are asking for by way of intercession, where we offer repentance for sins and weaknesses, where we are to give thanks to God, so that we are also prepared to give that which we speak about in the prayers, whether concern for others, sorrow for ourselves and gratefulness to God.
St Theophan continues…
After you have considered and felt the prayers, work at memorizing them. Then you will not have to fumble about for your prayer book and light when it is time to pray; neither will you be distracted by anything you see while you are performing your prayers, but can more easily maintain thoughtful petition toward God. You will see for yourself what a great help this is. The fact that you will have your prayer book with you at all times and in all places is of great significance.
Perhaps we think it impossible to memorise our prayers, but even today enthusiastic members of Amateur Dramatics societies, let alone professional actors, find it possible to memorise texts much longer that the prayers from the Daily Office, especially if we are beginning with only a selection of the prayers. I have a bad memory for texts, but through constant practice I did find it possible to learn all of the Morning Prayer and most of the Evening Prayer from the Coptic tradition and I have found this of great benefit just as St Theophan proposes. If we memorise even a few of the prayers in this way then wherever we find ourselves at the times of morning and evening prayer we are able to enter into the chamber of the heart and offer our customary prayers to God.
I know that I was particularly struck by the example of Terry Waite, kidnapped and held hostage in Lebanon, and for many years without even a copy of the Bible. I wondered what resources I would have stored up within my heart if I were to be taken captive in such a way, and this convicted me, and encouraged me as I began to investigate Orthodox spirituality to learn some of these prayers that I was being introduced to. Truly, if it is possible for me to memorise the morning and evening prayers then it is certainly possible as St Theophan advises, for any of us to learn at least some of the prayers for our great benefit.
What then does St Theophan advise…
Being thus prepared, when you stand at prayer be careful to keep your mind from drifting and your feeling from coldness and indifference, exerting yourself in every way to keep your attention and to spark warmth of feeling. After you have recited each prayer, make prostrations, as many as you like, accompanied by a prayer for any necessity that you feel, or by the usual short prayer. This will lengthen your prayer time a little, but its power will be increased. You should pray a little longer on your own especially at the end of your prayers, asking forgiveness for unintentional straying of the mind, and placing yourself in God’s hands for the entire day.
We can see that having selected a simple rule of morning and evening prayers, some of which we have tried to memorise, what is essential as far as St Theophan is concerned is that we pray with warmth and attention. We should remind ourselves often that we are addressing God in our prayers and not simply trying to repeat words as quickly as possible. In the Orthodox spiritual tradition it is customary to make prostrations during our prayers. Kneeling and bowing are all proper manifestations in a physical form of our attitude towards God. We are not used to such an attitude in our Western cultures, but such displays of humility and reverence were once common, and not least within the context of prayer.
It is surely not beyond us to add a few prostrations to our prayers as St Theophan instructs. In his own rich experience of prayer he says that it will increase the power of our own efforts, not so that God is required to act for us, but so that we ourselves are better able to enter into the spirit of prayer with humility. It was the prayer of the publican, who smote his breast and would not even look up towards heaven, which was heard.
Perhaps we think having said that we should base our prayers in the Daily Office Orthodox have no use or time for extemporary prayers and intercessions. But this is not the case. St Theophan suggests that we should pray in just such an honest and personal manner at the end of our prayers. We don’t pray the prayers from the books of prayers because we do not believe that the heart should not address itself to God, but because until we have learned how to pray and in what manner to address ourselves to God, we are not able to express ourselves properly, and worthily and with comprehensiveness, without such models before us. When we have made these prayers our own then we are perhaps ready to make our own prayers.
But the rule of prayer extends beyond this morning and evening discipline as St Theophan explains…
You must also maintain prayerful attention toward God throughout the day. For this, as we have already mentioned more than once, there is remembrance of God; and for remembrance of God, there are short prayers. It is good, very good, to memorize several psalms and recite them while you are working or between tasks, doing this instead of short prayers sometimes, with concentration. This is one of the most ancient Christian customs, mentioned by and included in the rules of St. Pachomius and St. Anthony.
We can certainly learn some short passages from the Psalms and use them in just such a manner. But the prayerful attention towards God is especially preserved by the constant use of the Jesus Prayer which should also become part of our Prayer Rule. That prayer is Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, or some shorter form.
This can and should become part of our morning and evening exercises in prayer, and St Theophan warns that it is easy to fool ourselves that we are busy in such a way but are actually failing to observe what we have committed ourselves to. He proposes that when we are beginning we should have a certain number of times we will pray the Jesus Prayer in our devotions, and we should make sure that we complete exactly that number. The use of a prayer rope is useful in this context because it does allow us to pray a certain number of times without losing count or being distracted.
But we should also use this prayer throughout the day so that it becomes habitual. It should be a matter of deliberate intention at first, and then it will become a practice that rises up in our hearts whenever we become still for a moment. It is a prayer of the heart and not of the mind, and so it becomes possible to be busy with some routine activity while also offering true prayer to God.
St Theophan says…
After spending the day in this manner, you must pray more diligently and with more concentration in the evening and after you have placed yourself in Divine hands once again, go to bed with a short prayer on your lips and fall asleep with it or recite some psalm.
Perhaps we are not used to the idea of falling asleep in prayer, and we choose to fill the last parts of our day with distractions and noise, falling into bed exhausted and with our minds racing. How much better to make it part of our simple rule to find a few moments of peace and stillness just as we are preparing to sleep so that we are able to retire with prayer on our mind and in our hearts.
St Theophan does not ask much from us, but what he asks of us is surely reasonable and necessary as a beginning. He says…
There you are; everything on the subject of a prayer rule. I will, however, mention once again that you should remember that all these are aids, and the most important thing is standing before God with the mind in the heart with devotion and heartfelt prostration to Him. I will repeat once again that the essence of prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God; these little rules are an aid. We cannot get by without them because of our weakness. May the Lord bless you!
So the development of a prayer rule is not because we are advanced but because we are weak. And this makes sense. It is the sick and unhealthy who need to start following a doctor’s advice with care and attention. It is those who are not fit who have to adopt a simple regime of training. St Theophan has proposed nothing that is not beyond the beginner, and I feel myself still a beginner.
We are to pray the morning and evening prayers from the Daily Office so that we are taught how to pray. It is better to begin with fewer prayers rather than more, so perhaps a selection from the Daily Office. We would benefit from memorising some of these prayers so that they are always with us, and should prostrate ourselves in prayer so that our prayer gains in strength. The Jesus Prayer should be part of our simple rule, and also used throughout each day. But there is also a place for our own extempore prayers for ourselves and others. What matters is that we pray with attention and warmth of devotion. And as far as possible we should make the very end of each day to be filled with prayer.
But this simple rule of prayer as described by St Theophan is not the essence of prayer which is always the lifting of the heart and mind to God.
It is better to begin with what we can achieve with God’s grace and can make habitual. It would be reasonable to add a reading from the Gospel each day, however short. And perhaps to spend a few moments in Lectio Divina, reflecting on that passage at the start of the day. It might be helpful to read through the Psalms, one at a time each day in the evening. It might be fruitful to have a list of people for whom we pray ready to hand.
But what surely matters is that we do not create such a complicated and burdensome rule that we cannot begin and continue to use it until it is habitual. We can and should make the effort to order our lives so that we have such a rule however. And the resources are already available to each one of us to bring discipline into our prayer if we do not already follow such a rule. The intention is never to create a rule for the sake of the rule, but to provide that structure in our spirituality which will allow us to grow and mature in the experience of prayer.