About this content: What follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”. With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have a sincere longing for God.
Starting a Rule of Prayer
- Why? Scripture exhorts Christians to pray steadfastly, earnestly and without ceasing. [This lends to the need for a prayer rule].
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.
– Romans 12:10-13
Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.
– Colossians 4:2-4
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.
– I Thessalonians 5:16-22
- Presuppositions before starting a prayer rule:
- you are regularly participating in the Divine Liturgy
- you are reading the Bible
- you are trying to keep the Gospel commandments [i.e. teachings of Christ]
- Without the above activities, the prayer rule is of no use to a person.
- Every person must have a very particular practice of praying that suits that person.
- How that particular practice [of prayer] is accomplished, depends on the person.
- Every person will do it differently.
- Elements involved in the practice [of prayer] will be on a personal level [including]:
- Set prayers rooted in the words and content
- Trisagion prayers
- Invocation of Holy Spirit
- Glorification of God
- “Lord have mercy”
- The Lord’s Prayer [Our Father..] (this prayer is the center of any prayer rule)
- Bible reading
How to Figure It Out
- Do not pray [in a manner] doing whatever you want, or how you would like to pray.
- Rather, pray how God calls you, inspires, enables and empowers you to [pray].
- What is God providing? This is not the same for every person.
- What level of devotion and faith are you starting with?
- What can you do [realistically]?
- How to pray? Any way you can – but not any way you want to or feel like – there is a difference.
- Guard against willfulness in your prayer rule.
- Guard against a rule that is put upon us from the outside.
“The Church does not put a specific rule of prayer on the individual – the Church says you must have a rule, but does not define what that rule looks like.“
About Prayer Books
- Prayer books can be a good aid for daily prayer at regular intervals.
- We are not obliged to pray all of the prayers in the prayer book.
- Prayer books are a means to an end.
- Prayer books today are based on those introduced in the 16th century.
- The Psalter acted as the first “prayer book” of the Church.
- Prayer books are different and vary in content and relevance to each person.
- Some prayer books are ad-hoc in nature with an arbitrariness about them.
- It is not required that all of the “Prayers before Communion” be read by all Orthodox before communing [this view held by Fr Thomas Hopko]. It is not practical to read them all for many in the world with jobs and families.
- Your prayer rule is not necessarily what is in the prayer book.
- A prayer rule should be short rather than long.
- Few people can pray long because the mind wanders.
- Avoid trap #1 of setting a prayer rule that you can’t complete.
- Avoid trap #2 of feeling “ok”about your prayer rule that you completed but you didn’t pay attention!
- Be brief but regular.
- Pray frequently, but more importantly pray regularly.
- Rule comes from “regula” [regular].
- The early Christian prayer rule was rooted in the Psalter.
- The earliest Christian prayer book was also the Psalter.
- The last 3 psalms are the morning psalms in all Christian traditions. [chapters in (parentheses) indicate non-Septuagint translation]
- All prayer rules must be rooted in the Lords Prayer.
How do you set it up?
- Do what is possible for you.
- Don’t pray as you want to pray, rather pray as you can.
- Don’t pray as you think you ought to pray, rather pray as you can.
“The ‘ought’ of prayer is in the heart – e.g. attention and humility before God, not the number of words, prayers, pages, eloquence, etc.”
- Practice the prayer to find out what you can do.
- Do not experiment with prayer, but do practice by “swimming” in the prayer books and psalter to discover what God has for you.
- Work on this all the time.
- Don’t change the prayer rule frequently.
- Change the prayer rule as seldom as possible.
- Change your prayer rule only as necessary when life teaches that you are not doing too well with it – this needs testing by living through it.
- Things change organically, not by whim.
- A single [unmarried] person will have a different rule than a family man [or woman].
- A monastic will have a different rule than someone in the world.
- Everyone should have help from a spiritual father or priest with their prayer rule – do not go alone with this.
- Everyone needs someone to check their prayer rule.
- Someone should be aware of what you are doing.
- Mention changes to your prayer rule to your spiritual father or priest, [if nothing else] this is a sign of humility.
- Sometimes you cannot find anyone to help. Maybe this is true today.
- Ultimately God is the Teacher, Christ is the Master and the Holy Spirit guides us in spiritual direction.
- A lot of damage can be done by bad direction from people regarding the spiritual life.
- We have the Scriptures, the Fathers, the saints and God in our hearts to teach us.
- God does not need people to teach other people, but anyone who does confer with a priest because of their faith in God – [be assured] God will speak to you because of your faith.
- “Ask your father and he will tell you. Ask your teacher and he will teach you.” (Deuteronmony 32:7)
- Our rule is informed by us and received by us (from God through the Church, priest, saints and Fathers).
- God is not pleased because of our performance.
- We are not trying to impress God.
Things we Should do
- Consciously pray and use specific prayers.
- Put our mind and heart into them.
- The heart of our prayer is the Lord’s Prayer.
- Use other prayers from the tradition as found in Orthodox Christian prayer books.
- Incorporate the psalms in your prayer rule.
- Read a psalm per day or different ones based on circumstances.
- Read the Scriptures – read regularly but short [the Orthodox calendar has Gospel and Epistle readings for each day]
- The Church Fathers confirm this is the most effective method for reading the Scriptures – a little every day.
- You can always add more to the rule, but do not do less.
- Include some silence; this is particularly important in modern times; maybe add the Jesus Prayer during this time as well.
- Practice not engaging your thoughts.
- Thoughts and prayer don’t mix.
- No images, fantasies, thoughts during prayer – this requires practice.
- Use a short verse, prayer or a word to stay focused on the presence of God.
- Say the Creed once a day.
- St. Seraphim of Sarov had a strict, extraordinary prayer for himself, but he said if a layperson prays the following they will be saved:
- No exception – in addition to having a rule, every baptized person should be practicing unceasing prayer to stay awake to God every moment even when they sleep.
The earliest form of unceasing prayer was from Psalm 69:
“God, be attentive unto helping me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.”
- Practice unceasing prayer only when the mind is not engaged in conscious activity.
- Keep a short and regular rule.
- Never begin a prayer in your own words, this is never found in the Tradition.
- Do organically make your desires known to God [once the prayer has started], but these [desires] should grow out of the Lord’s Prayer and rest of the rule.
Remember the rule is not the totality of the prayer, it is a way in, and inevitably leads to the outgrowth to express one’s own needs, fears, petitions, supplications and intercession for others – casting all of these upon the Lord.
- Petitions can lead to prayer for others specific to your life.
- St. Macarius of Optina said the unceasing prayer of a pastor might be continuous intercession for his flock.
- Certain people come to mind during prayer.
- Prayer books can [be useful especially for intercessory prayers]:
- Prayers are given to us by the Church, from the saints and Fathers.
- Prayers also serve a pedagogical purpose.
- Some people may use the prayer book for life.
- A prayer book can be very helpful.
- Certain prayers [become] favorite prayers and speak to some people more than others. This is the same for certain saints, verses in the Bible, teachings of Christ, books of the Bible, etc.
- Fight temptation with [unceasing prayer].
- “Swim around” in the prayer book for a while to get to know the prayers that you discover and then you can use them during prayer, temptation, praise, thanksgiving.
- Priest, parents, friends may give us a prayer book as a starting point, but everyone has to discover which prayers they will use personally in their private prayer rule.