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. 

Dormition Fast: What Am I Waiting For?

I was blessed to preach the Gospel last Sunday, July 28th and focused on the need to be in the presence of Christ. I got my traditional Baptist preacher three points across and called it a day.  Our clergy and laity thought it was a good homily and appreciate my public speaking ability.  All was successful, glory and praise be to God.

Speaker 1

Yet, a couple of items on Facebook woke me up to the fact that I still haven’t quite moved, or am not moving as I should from my paralysis. Yesterday, an article from the Orthodox website Pravmir described how St Timon and generations of Middle Eastern Christians (I am in the Antiochian Archdiocese) have taken that Gospel message to rise up and walk to love their neighbors despite the brutal persecutions they have gone and still go through.  Not an hour later, Fr. Barnabas Powell posted, “‘Your sins are forgiven’ – Jesus Christ.   So, what’s your excuse now?”

In a way, I haven’t quite been sitting on my spiritual butt. I have been reading a passage from The Art of Prayer once, and sometimes, twice a day and done a couple of other things to add to my prayer rule in the mornings.  I even chant in Byzantine tones during the first, third, sixth, and (when I’m not rushing to leave work) ninth hours.  My walk is not perfect.  But, by God’s grace, there has been some growth.

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I think a post from a friend and seminary classmate may have hit the nail on the head, “‘Whoever desires to eliminate future tribulations must bear the present tribulations with joy’ – St. Mark the Ascetic.”  I bear a good deal of bitterness and discouragement with my struggles.  Finances, health issues, my wife’s health, car and home repairs; like everyone else, I have a grocery list of trouble and woe.  When we let our problems overshadow our recognition of God’s presence, they distract us from spiritual growth and, often, lead us into sin.  I have forgotten this way too many times.

dormition-5

So, I’m using this year’s Dormition Fast to better identify and struggle against crippling attitudes and inactions. Along with following the Church’s dietary restrictions, I’ll be tweaking some things in my prayer rule and, perhaps, pick up a book to help me along the way.  Actually doing something outside of my normal comfort zone is in the cards as well.  Where the Holy Spirit leads, I will follow.

Lesson From Lent: King’s Kitchen Table

Imagine being a young black pastor in the segregated south and you have been called upon to lead a movement against injustice. The demonstration is having some success and the supporters of the evil structure have constantly threatened and denounced what you are doing.  One night, a particular threatening phone call shakes you.  Fear quickly invades your heart and mind as you consider the real possibility of death and the death of your young family.  It is at that point where your fine seminary education cannot help you.  Your saintly parents are too far away to come to your aid and comfort.  At that point, you come to a place where you must know God for yourself not through scholarship nor friends.  The only way to know Him at this point is by a deep, honest, and sincere outpouring of one’s self through prayer.  Then, and only by this knowledge of God, are you able to carry on with your life’s mission.  In a speech given in Chicago about a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this confession to his audience.

MLK_portrait_fi

In the current political and social climate, it is not unusual for us to speak, write, and demonstrate against the injustices we see around us. This is a good thing.  But, imitating Dr. King in seeking justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor does come with a price that is often overlooked by an American mind frame that wants to forget that he was a Christian minister.  Indeed, this is a price we all must pay if we pursue the will of God from any religious viewpoint.  In particular for we who claim to believe Him who taught us that self-denial and taking up the cross are the prerequisites to follow Him, we especially must make the effort  to tear our homes apart looking for the lost coin that will cover the cost.  We must come to deeply, honestly, and sincerely know God through prayer.

Too often we don’t try to make such an effort. Sure we may go to church practicing some pious ancient ritual, getting caught up in a spontaneous praises, or some variation of these extremes.  We read the Bible and other religious books and magazines to help us on our Christian journey.  On the surface, we know how to show people what religion we practice and how to apply our faith to just about every social concern.  My concern is that too many of us never try to go deeper than the surface show before men and confront the depths of how much we need God until, like Dr. King, circumstances drive us to a place where we can no longer run and hide.  More troubling is that we don’t even try to reach that point because we fail to recognize our real enemy, Satan and his legions, and how he makes war inside of us.  With our unwillingness to grow closer to God in this critical way, the devil is comfortable with us going through our motions.

in thought

Contemplating this new step in my journey

This Great Lenten Fast, I have added King’s Kitchen Table to my rule of prayer. I typically do this right after dinner keeping in mind a sermon from St. John Chrysostom of how donkeys and oxen eat and go to their work while we eat so much we become useless and unable to bend our knees for prayer.  After washing the dishes, which is a form of service, I offer the first prayer of the Trisagion, to the Holy Spirit, before sitting down to the table.  Afterward, I sit and offer one ode of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  I follow this up with a Psalm, the Gospel reading, and a prayer from The Veil from the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of the Hours.  The final offering is A Prayer for the Children of Africa in America written by the black abolitionist, Maria W. Stewart.  I end my time at the kitchen table by writing in my spiritual journal, examining my thoughts in light of the penitential prayers that I had offered.

Those who wish to pray at the kitchen table need not be as elaborate as this. The following elements are more important.  Timing; again, I keep this practice right after dinner.  So that during dinner, I am mindful that I have to pray after eating.  This mindfulness helps me to reduce my temptation for gluttony, a common sin that I have too regularly overlooked.  Thus, I see that if this bad habit can be overcome, by seeking oneness with God my other evils can be overcome as well.  Sacrifice; any nightly prayer activity means cutting away time from entertainment and rest.  Those who are very attached to watching TV can start by going to the table during commercials while that favorite show is on. In time, intentionally increase the time spent at the table vs. that in front of the screen.  Work; dishwashing is not the hardest labor in the world.  But, praying while working is common among monastics.  If not the dishes, folding clean laundry or some other chore can be done.  Uplifting music is a good addition to this routine.  Repentance; prayer is not simply offering God list of request.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus commanded people to repent for the sake of the kingdom.  Adorations, intercessions, praises; these things have their place.  But, repentance and self-examination brings us to struggle against the real enemy in ourselves.  Unless we struggle internally, anything we attempt, even what we succeed against, externally will be meaningless in our goal of salvation.

 

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.