Prayer Spirituality

Setting a Rule of Prayer

“…we have to wash dishes, work, parent, do chores – we need to consecrate all of these to the glory of God, including our rule of prayer.”

About this contentWhat 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

  • There are two types of [personal] prayer:
    • a set rule that we keep [privately]
    • continuous prayer that we use at all times
  • Everyone must have a [prayer] rule.
  • Establish the rule with some help of a priest or spiritual director so that it is part of the Church.
  • The time and the place of our prayer rule should not change often.
  • Should be at consistent times each day
  • Should be at a consistent time when you are able to be attentive
    • Not best to do this immediately after waking if still sleepy
    • Not best to do this right before sleeping if too tired to concentrate
    • Not best to do this right before or after eating
  • Should be at a consistent place physically conducive to uniting the mind and the heart to God in prayer.
    • Holy Icons
    • The Bible
    • Quiet, minimal distractions
    • Prayer corner
  • There are only general guidelines and principles for the prayer rule.
  • There are no specific techniques for the prayer rule.
  • The goal of prayer is to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit.
  • Inevitable results of praying include:
    • Intercession
      • one naturally wants to pray for others, not just one self
      • intercession for living and the dead alike – often they come to mind [during prayer]
      • asking the saints to pray for us
    • We are led into our own personal concerns and desires after praying the guiding prayers given to us by the Church.
    • Honestly hold yourself before God – this is where prayers in one’s words emerge, but we don’t begin with our own words, they come later in the prayer.
    • One can be led beyond words, into a “wordless” prayer.
    • In the Tradition, the verbal prayer as it develops becomes less wordy and closer to silence over time.
    • The prayer becomes more simple [over time].
  • Preparation for prayer requires:
    • guarding of the mind, thoughts and eyes at all times
    • attentiveness to the presence of God at all times

Thoughts during Prayer

  • Inevitably we will be bombarded by thoughts when we start to pray.
  • Often the bombardment is evil thoughts or sometimes just worldly cares.
  • When we try to fill our mind with God, we often find resistance in our thoughts.
  • We are not to be thinking during prayer – even good thoughts during prayer are obstacles to prayer.
  • Prayer is not thinking thoughts, we are giving up thoughts, we are emptying our mind of thoughts, we are putting aside thoughts.
  • Do not use your imagination at all during prayer or religious reading.
  • Imagination can be used to understand the text, but not to embellish or enhance the words.
  • You can experience a memory during prayer without bringing it to consciousness.
  • For example, knowing about God and the Scriptures comes together during prayer and during the Liturgy without bringing it all into consciousness every time.
  • The knowledge becomes part of you.
  • We do not make pictures in the mind.
  • An icon is a reality that exists just as a word has meaning, [the icons] are not imaginative.
  • We should not commune with our thoughts, we commune with the Gospel story as given to us in Scripture – not as we add to it with our psychological imagination.
  • It is difficult to empty the mind of thoughts – especially for beginners, but it is not impossible.
  • Thoughts
    • Thoughts are not in our control
    • Thoughts come from all kinds of sources
    • Thoughts will come [they are inevitable]
    • Abba Poemen said “Try to catch the wind, neither can you control your thoughts”, but you do not have to engage them.
    • We have some thoughts that we do not necessarily initiate or control.
    • It is no sin to have bad thoughts unless you engage them.
    • One of the points of prayer is to make the thoughts come and purify them as a result.
    • Expect a bombardment of thoughts for a long time.
    • Expect things to get worse before better.
    • Expect even to be embarrassed about them, or [to feel] that we should be past them.
    • The goal is not to be freed from the thoughts, but rather to no longer be bothered by them.
    • The deeper you pray, the more resistance [you will encounter].

We don’t try to bring the bad thoughts ourselves, but they will come, so what do we do with them? Nothing. Let them go. Good or bad.

  • When you realize your mind is wandering, you gently bring it back.
    • Gently bring yourself back, don’t engage the thoughts.
    • Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov compared this to warfare – if we engage the thoughts, then the adversary attacks.
    • Practicing continuous prayer [e.g. the Jesus Prayer] helps to not think so much, but rather to love much instead. [Love is even greater than prayer.]
    • If we are aware of ourself praying, then we are not yet praying.
  • Unite our hearts and mind in the words:
    • Put ourselves into the prayer
    • Lose consciousness that you are praying
    • Consciousness of the activity has to be overcome
    • Thoughts come, but let them go, direct them out by casting your burden on the Lord.

Attentiveness during Prayer

  • We are always praying as beginners. Even those who reach high levels of spiritual depth are still praying as beginners.
  • Saint Isaac of Syria, Saint Simeon the New Theologian, Saint Seraphim of Sarov all used rules of prayer, read the Gospel and went to Liturgy. They did not just focus on prayer. There are times for all of these activities.
  • We always need the Lords Prayer.
  • We always need to practice attentiveness in our prayer.
  • [If you lose attentiveness], don’t panic, just stand bring your mind back, expect the thoughts to come, don’t get depressed.
  • We pray to honor God, whatever struggle ensues, we accept with humility and devotion to God.
  • Impurity in prayer is when someone sets goals to achieve certain levels of spirituality. We pray to God, not to meet a goal.
  • Stop trying to reach spiritual heights and they may come sooner as a result of proper focus – that being God instead of our own goals.
  • If you realize that you have hardly paid attention at all – what should you do?
    • Attempt to do better next time.
    • Don’t go back and start again.
    • Come in where you are.
  • Why? there is no guarantee you will do better if you go back and start over.
  • It is more humble to just admit you lost focus and will try harder next time.
  • There is no need to despair. Despair is dangerous to the soul.
  • St Paul teaches us to forge ahead, forget what lies behind.(Philippians 3:12-14)
  • Forge ahead, this is a humble and wise way.
  • Theoretically we have things to do, such as practice charity [love] towards others.
  • Agape [unconditional love] is above prayer.

Prayer in the rhythm of life

Do what you are doing for the glory of God – we have to wash dishes, work, parent, do chores – we need to consecrate all of these to the glory of God, including our rule of prayer.

  • There should be a rhythm of life that includes our rule of prayer.
  • Practice continuous prayer [e.g. the Jesus Prayer] in between the rule of prayer, this offsets the struggle at our rule of prayer.
  • Avoid capricious whimsical attitude towards holy things like your rule of prayer, the Divine Liturgy and Church service attendance. Rather, be as consistent and reverent as realistically possible.
  • If you overslept and are running late for work or school?
    • Pray “I am a lazy sinner O Lord, have mercy on me.”
    • Go to work or class trying to be on time instead of being late trying to finish your rule of prayer because you overslept.
  • Having inner calm and quiet, not getting irritated about everything allows you to get by with less sleep which leads to more time to pray.
  • The rule of prayer is for quieting the person down, not to rev them up or make them feverish.
  • Have a quiet spirit while praying, do not try to exert physically or emotionally in your rule of prayer, don’t try to force anything.
  • The rule of prayer is not a performance, we don’t expect, we let God act.
  • Be calm during prayer.

Emotional feelings and/or visions during Prayer

  • Some physical or emotional feelings can occur during prayer or even visions.
    • The general rule is don’t try to make anything happen.
    • If something does happen – you reject it.
    • Don’t pay attention to it, focus on the rule.
    • Why? things can happen from our psyche, the devil or emotions and this is not the goal of prayer – the goal of prayer is love of God and neighbor.
  • [Feelings or visions] can certainly happen from the Lord, but the safe way is to first reject them, and if they are from God, He will make sure you get it.
  • In Scripture, we see that when God does communicate directly with His people, they know it, if not immediately, then eventually but always without a doubt. This happens repeatedly in Scripture
  • If anything like this happens – first reject it, second tell your priest about it and take your priest’s word for it.
  • It is better to be humble and misunderstood than to be prideful.
  • Special things like this [e.g. strong feelings and visions] are not necessarily that special – some people need them, some people don’t.
  • The end is that people love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. [Feelings and visions during prayer that are given by God] are all a means to this end.
  • It is not true that the holier one gets the more these gifts happen.
  • Actually the more spiritual you become, the less you need this stuff.
  • The more we are given, the more we are responsible for charity in life.
  • Never ask for special gifts, focus on the Lords Prayer.
  • Let John the Baptist be our example as greatest born of woman.
  • Let go of any strange supernatural things that happen from God. when they are truly from God you will know it.
  • Do not waste time trying to measure how well or poorly you prayed.
  • We do not and should not try to figure out if we are making “spiritual progress” – leave that to God.
  • You will come to see yourself clearly by actually praying rather than examining your performance in prayer.
  • Our task is to simply keep praying, seeking to be in the presence of God always, seeking to know and to do His holy will at all times.
  • What might appear or feel as spiritual regression, spiritual dryness, darkness or perceived abandonment, might actually be maturation, consult your spiritual father if concerned.
  • In between Egypt and the Promised Land is desert.
  • Prayer is part of spiritual warfare, so expect resistance.
  • Faith and prayer in such moments of spiritual dryness and/or seasons of suffering is most pleasing to God.

Why does God give His people gifts?
To use for the good of other people.

Charity is above prayer.
Charity is evidence that the prayer is working.

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