prayer rule

DEVELOPING A PRAYER RULE: BECOMING THEOLOGIANS

“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Evagrios the Solitary

We pray not to instruct or inform God, but to be intimate with Him.”

St. John Chrysostom

“In the Orthodox Tradition, one can be a theologian and mentally retarded.”

Fr. Andrew Damick,from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (1st Edition)

Not everyone can become an academic or scholarly theologian.  I do not say this to insult anyone’s intellect.  Much is said for desire and effort in achieving goals.  However, the demands of a seminary curriculum, reading volumes from ancient and modern scholars, writing almost endless papers defending conclusions based on history, scripture, and other topics; it is a special calling to be that sort of theologian. 

Theology literally means, “The study of God.”  If we are made in His image and likeness, does knowing Him require admission in a divinity school costing tens of thousands of dollars so that we can become members of the ordained clergy?  For those who feel called to some form of vocational ministry, yes.

Alix B. James Chapel at VA Union University (© John Gresham)

 However, God has always made Himself known to rather simple people with limited resources and little time for academic regimens.  Moses was a murderer with a speech impediment.  Gideon was a frightened farm boy.  The shepherds near Bethlehem were not the great scholars of Judea.  The Apostle Paul, who was a scholar, did not preach with fine words.  He only preached Christ and Him crucified (I Corinthians 2:1, 2).  Therefore, the way for every person to know God is not some complex and expensive degree program.  It is something as simple as a maintained prayer rule.

I heard a story of an illiterate Greek man who went into a church every morning greeting Jesus and asking Him for strength for the day’s work.  Every evening he went back to the church on his way home to greet the Lord again and thank Him for the day.  He did this in good times and bad times until he couldn’t work anymore and was placed in a nursing home.  A nurse was concerned for his seemingly lack of visitors.  However, he explained to a priest that Christ came to him every morning and evening encouraging him to be patient.  In time, the man told the priest, “Christ came to me and said He would take me to heaven in three days.”  On the third day as the priest was visiting, the man sat up and said, “Christ is here!”  That was his last breath.

Monk in prayer

I think every Christian culture has stories of ordinary people who, because of their regular prayers, had extraordinary peace in mind.  It is easy to dismiss slaves on a plantation or blacks in the Jim Crow South as being terrorized into submission.  However, many of those “old praying” mothers and fathers did not have a shred of fear in them.  God had given them a calm in the midst of their storms that even confounded their oppressors.  Such spirituality was the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement that sought reconciliation rather than revenge. 

Knowing God only takes a heart and mind willing to seek Him regularly.  This sort of theologian may never write a book or earn a degree.  That is not important.  The greater blessing is when his or her name is written in the Book of Life.  This is the calling and goal of all Christians. 

Developing a Prayer Rule: Measurement for a Pure Heart

“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. 

Saint Moses the Black

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. 

The Home: The Abandoned Church

 

The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.  I Corinthians 16:19

Father Jerome Sanderson quoted this text and I just couldn’t help but to think about how silly a lot of us Christians are when we complain about how ungodly our society has become.  Aquila and Priscilla had a church in their house.  The very dwelling place of this couple was dedicated to the worship of God whether it was the community of believers, or just themselves.  As the head of the household, Paul and other early Christian writers felt that the man of the house should also be the priest of his house and the wife to be the God-fearing helper to this domestic priesthood.  The children were to be brought up in the fear of the Lord and guest were to be exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When the persecutions of the Church ended, it was suggested by the early fathers that each home have, at least, a corner of their homes as a dedicated worship area.  It was to face eastward with a couple of icons, the Scriptures and other spiritual writings, and, perhaps, a lamp.  Some icon corners were very elaborate, others simple.  But, the purpose was the same; to bring the same spirit of worship seen in the church building on Sunday morning into the home for the rest of the week.  The husband was qualified to lead family prayers and the wife with him.  The children were to worship with tier parents.  In the case of no husband being around, the matriarch of the family would then  lead, as in the case of Timothy.  If the man was unmarried, he was still to conduct his own prayers with himself, or any believer that came to visit him.  Either way, the Christian home was a church in lock-step with the designated church where believers from all homes came together.

Fr. Jerome Sanderson

Fr. Jerome Sanderson

Over the years, too many Christians have not heard of this model.  Iconoclasm destroyed the use of holy images as such people ignorantly mistook them for idols.  Doctrines such as sola scriptura (scripture alone) and soul competency taught that individual believers could know what the Bible means for themselves without correction from anyone else, even the church.  Clergy were frequently put on a high pedestal due to their education.  Thus, laymen left the idea of being a priest to the scholars.  Chauvinism  gave men an arrogance above their wives that poisoned their ability to give themselves up for their wives as Christ did for the church.  Without such sacrificial love, they became poor priest when they did try to assume that role in their homes.  Combine these toxins with the various means of entertainment that have developed over time and the pursuits of the flesh that have been with us since the days of Adam and Eve; and we can see that the very church that Paul praised his friends for having is absent for too many people today.

From Darkness To Light (St. Moses the Black)

Sure, prayer in schools is a great idea.  But, if there is no church in the private homes, how can we hold the teachers and administrators responsible for making one in the public square?  God made husband and wife, male and female; not Assistant principal and Forth Grade Social Studies Teacher.  Yes, it would be nice if everyone came to church on Sunday.  But, if they don’t worship in the house they already live in, why would they come to a house that is only open on Sundays and Wednesdays?  And if they did come to the briefly opened church building without making their own homes houses of worship, is their worship that stable or genuine?  We can bemoan how America has strayed away from its Christian roots all day long.  But, without men and women taking their lay priestly roles seriously and making their homes a house of worship, we have no one to blame for this failure but ourselves.

This is how I got started

This is how I got started

I would challenge anyone to establish a prayer corner in their homes and make at least 15 minutes in the morning and night a time for prayer and scripture.  For my non-Orthodox friends, have a cross and Bible to start with.  Every Orthodox Christian should have a traditional style (Eastern or Oriental) icon of Christ, the Theotokos, and a favorite saint along with the scriptures and a prayer book.  I personally love the Trisagion Prayers.  But, use the opening prayers of your jurisdiction or what your priest recommends.  Read the scriptures of the day aloud.  Pray for those who are on your mind and offer your own words to God.  End with an appropriate closing prayer.  Push to add more time to your home worship.  But, don’t over-do it.  That would be a source of self-righteousness.  You will eventually become weary and quit, making you as bad as you were before, if not worse.  Again, talk to your priest or confessor about your rule of prayer.

No, this is not going to give you “supernatural breakthroughs of Gods ever increasing overflows for a shift to a next level anointing.”  But, with time and consistency, you may,

  • drop a few bad habits
  • understand scripture better
  • be more kind and patient

And some other good stuff that every Christian should strive for.  If St. Seraphim of Sarov is right, your light may rub off on someone else:

Obtain a spirit within yourself and a thousand souls will be saved.