One of the most common questions we receive at byzcath.org is from those seeking to start and keep a daily rule of prayer. Since a prayer life is something that can really only be undertaken and kept under the guidance of one’s spiritual father (or mother) we are always hesitant about making suggestions along these lines. Always we respond that the individual should contact his spiritual father for guidance. All too often, however, the inquirer responds with a story about how he has been searching for a spiritual father, and can we provide some guidance in prayer until he actually finds a spiritual father? Towards that end we offer the following:
The above two rules of prayer are short, coming to us from within the Byzantine Tradition. Each consists of the general introductory prayers together with a single psalm (Psalm 50 (51) (A Prayer of Repentance) in the morning and Psalm 140 (141) (An Evening Prayer for Protection)) in the evening together with the Jesus Prayer (150 repetitions (“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”)). If you begin these Rules of Prayers pray them as given. Stand before the holy icons or sit in your favorite chair and pray quietly. Your choice. Just be consistent. Don’t add anything to them. Don’t skip anything. When you find a spiritual father show them to him. Chances are that he will direct you to make no changes for at least a year (sometimes much longer). Prayer is a method of focusing the mind upon the Lord God. Don't make it more complicated then what is there.
Q1: Are't these prayers too short?
A1: No. They are about right for any adult who is seeking to start and keep a daily rule of prayer. A rule of prayer is about consistency, not quantity. Your spiritual father may add to this. But if you’re just getting started the rule needs to be simple enough to keep on a daily basis over long periods of time.
Q2: Can I add anything to this? Should I?
A2: Other then seasonal adaptations (referenced in the rules themselves) there is no real need to add anything. When one is starting a rule of prayer the “KISS Rule” (“Keep it simple, Silly”) applies. The simpler the rule the easier it will be to train yourself to keep it over long periods (think years, not days). A good spiritual father would not recommend changes to a rule of prayer unless it necessary. If you can keep these simple rules of prayer for several years running you might be ready to add to it, but that depends on your commitment and lifestyle.
The only addition we would make to this rule of prayer is to add the daily Scriptural readings from the liturgical calendar. These can be added either in the morning or the evening (or at anytime during the day). If you find yourself seeking more prayer throughout the day we can suggest praying the Jesus Prayer in limited amounts, but we advise caution. Sometimes those new at prayer get carried away and soon are attempting to pray all the time. They think this is fulfilling the Apostle Paul’s command to “pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). But too often it leads to burnout because they are not ready for this much prayer. Consistent prayer over time can be compared to a marathon race. You don’t become an athlete overnight or without the help of others. You build endurance over time, staring small and gradually building up your endurance. This takes years, not days or months. When you attempt too much without being in proper training you can set yourself up for failure, and the hurt that comes with it. It’s better to go about praying correctly from the beginning. This is why it is absolutely necessary to have both a good spiritual father and regular confession.
Q3. What expectations should I have in prayer?
A3: None whatsoever. Though the Lord is always present, we may or may not feel a sense of His presence in prayer. But it is not about that. We don’t pray for that reward. We pray to seek God and develop our relationship with Him, participating in his personhood. Remember that our greatest knowledge of Jesus does not come from study (even studying the Bible - as important as that is!) but from prayer.
Q4: Should I get a prayer book?
A4: You can if you want to. These rules of prayers are simple ones that can be kept over long periods of time. You can certainly do the same with a prayer book, be it a slim volume or a thick one. The key is discipline and consistency. Ten to twenty minutes twice a day over ten years is better then an hour on Monday, a half hour on Tuesday and then nothing for the remainder of that ten years. Most people will overreach and either become sporadic in prayer or stop completely. That's OK. Start again. And keep starting again. Eventually it will become second nature.