“Without purity of heart, we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and should it ever happen for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule.” Saint Moses the Black
Saint Moses was a very dark skinned man who stood out from the lighter complexioned Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans around Alexandria. Thus, he was called the Ethiopian more because of his “burnt face” apperance rather than actually being from the specific African kingdom. After being enslaved (as people of any “race” in the Roman Empire was), Moses became a heralded monk known for great forgiveness and humility. He turned away a wealthy man who wanted to give him great wishes. But, he welcomed and conversed an aspiring Christian from Gaul (modern day France) named John Cassian.
It is easy to consider that having a pure heart is the pursuit of monks and nuns as we read this account in the Philokalia Vol. 1 (On the Holy Fathers of Sketis an on Discrimination). However, Jesus Christ gave us this promise in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8). We all have the responsibility to rid our inner selves of anger, lust, pride and other sins that keep us from experiencing God’s presence in our lives. Visiting a monk in the desert is a tall order. Becoming a monastic is not something that most of us are called to.
Developing and maintaining a prayer rule is a practical means anyone can use to cleanse the heart. We can ask the Lord to examine our hearts in our times of silence. We can repent even (and especially) of our “minor” sins and learn watchfulness to avoid temptations. Reading scripture and writings of early Christians can encourage us to develop such virtues as endurance, hospitality, love, and patience. Purifying the heart is not only a process of taking away spiritually toxic thought and behavior. We must also inject ourselves with things healthy for the soul.
Needless to say, prayer has to be more than presenting the Lord with petitions out of love. Prayer is also be a time for us to challenge ourselves to grow in God’s grace and leaving sin behind.
“If you cannot pray ceaselessly, pray frequently” St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
There is no substitute for following a rule of prayer. The Nativity Fast has come to an end and we (new calendar) Orthodox Christians begin 12 days of feasting the birth of Christ. It will be a struggle for me not to gorge on meats and dairy products after refraining from them for 40 days. Gluttony is one of my worst habits. However, I was blessed to learn how to strengthen my weakness in Compline (evening) prayers. I also picked up a quirky habit to pray at the 9th Hour (about 3 pm). The fast has been good to me.
The Apostle Paul taught us to pray without ceasing in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The constant prayer of the Church was behind Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5). There are stories of saints who were so focused on their union with God that nothing distracted them. Not only monks and nuns, some deeply religious person in our families may have achieved states of holy ecstasy that seem biblical.
But, how many of us can spend hours in worship every day? Moreover, even when we have time beyond our Sunday morning routine, what about the other days of the week? Even those who do not attend church on a regular basis call on the Lord in a time of crisis. Praying ceaselessly is a tall order for monastics, much more those of us who live in society.
Archpriest and educator Fr. Thomas Hopko advised people to “pray as you can, not as you think you should.” Chances are, we are able to carve out a few minutes to give to God to start the day. Saying a prayer before bed is not a stretch for most of us. These two places are perfect starting points. Sometimes we are in a rush in the morning, or we crash in the bed as soon as we get home. Maybe a quick lunchtime scripture is doable. Exact time and words are not the most critical thing about keeping a rule. What is critical is that we pray what and when we can on a regular basis.
From the one or two starting places, we can add times of prayer. Praying the Hours is an admirable goal. If, let us say, one is in traffic at 3 pm (Ninth Hour) it can be done either earlier or later. There may be six passages of scripture with the Third Hour (9 am). If it is not possible to read them all, read what fits in our time constraints. There is no “one size fits all” prayer rule. Find an experienced spiritual father or mother to help develop a rule with you.