Why is it necessary to pray at home, and to attend divine service at the Church? Well, why is it necessary for you to eat and drink, to take exercise, or to work, every day? In order to support the life of the body and strengthen it. So also it is absolutely necessary to pray in order to support the life of the soul, to strengthen the soul, which is sick with sin, and to cleanse it, just as you employ some kinds of food and drink to cleanse the body. If you do not pray, you behave unadvisedly and most unwisely, supporting, gratifying and strengthening your body in every way, but neglecting your soul.
Saint John of Krondstat, like other faithful and God-pleasing men and women of our Christian Family, not only emphasized the importance of prayer, but also lived a life dedicated to prayer. If we wish to advance in our understandings and disciplines of prayer like St. John, we must then look to the teachings and lives of this and other saints, as we also maintain balance between communal and personal prayer. Essentially, we must commit ourselves to craft, mature, and then sustain a rule of prayer. Simply, this is how we grow in Christ, becoming better Christians. The Elder Ephiphanios of blessed memory was once asked, “How will be become better, Elder? We remain constantly in the same things.” The Elder answered: “My child, practice much prayer and then you will see the improvement. How should we do it? There is no magic wand for us to tap and have Christian progress come automatically.” Progress comes through a discipline of prayer.
Within the Metropolis of San Francisco, His Eminence has asked us, the clergy and the laity, to commit ourselves to a rule of prayer. “You ask about a prayer rule,” writes St. Theophan the Recluse.
Yes, it is good to have a prayer rule on account of our weakness so that on the one hand we do not give in to laziness, and on the other hand we restrain our enthusiasm to its proper measure. The greatest practitioners of prayer kept a prayer rule. They would always begin with established prayers, and if during the course of these a prayer started on its own, they would put aside the others and pray that prayer. If this is what the great practitioners of prayer did, all the more reason for us to do so. Without established prayers, we would not know how to pray at all. Without them, we would be left entirely without prayer.
When are we to pray? Ideally, in accordance with the Apostle Paul, we would pray without ceasing and offer up glory to God before, during and after every task. At the very minimum however, we ought to create a rule of prayer in both the morning in the evening.
“I would consider the morning and evening prayers as set out in the prayer books to be entirely sufficient for you” explains St. John of Krondstat:
Just try each time to carry them out with full attention and corresponding feelings. To be more successful at this, spend a little of your free time at reading over all the prayers separately. Think them over and feel them, so that when you recite them at your prayer rule, you will know the holy thoughts and feelings that are contained in them. Prayer does not mean that we just recite prayers, but that we assimilate their content within ourselves, and pronounce them as if they came from our minds and hearts.
With regards to our morning prayers, Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki suggests: “So then, all of us – clergy, monastics, and laity – should think of the Lord first, as soon as we rise from sleep, calling Christ to mind and offering this prayer as a commemoration, as first fruits and sacrifice to him, before every other concern.” Similarly, St. John of Kronstadt notes: “The only means by which you can spend the day in perfect holiness, and peace, and without sin, is most sincere prayer as soon as you rise from sleep in the morning. It will bring Christ into your heart, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and will thus strengthen your soul against any evil; but it will still be necessary for you carefully to guard your heart.”
When the sun sets, and we prepare to close the day, we are likewise reminded by St. John to pray:
Never sleep before saying evening prayers, lest your heart become gross from ill-times sleep, and lest the enemy should hinder it by a stony insensibility during prayer. Be sober, be vigilant. Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation. Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man comes. Watch therefore; for you know not when the master of the house comes – at even, or at midnight, or at cock-crow, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all –Watch.
Committing to prayer in the morning and in the evening, we should also set a realistic length of time for prayer. Saint Theophan writes:
…Set a definite length of time for prayer—- a quarter of an hour, a half, or a whole hour (whatever is appropriate for you level of prayer), and regulate your vigil so that the clock striking on the half hour or the hour signals the need of prayers. When you begin prayer, do not concern yourself with the number of prayers to be read, but only lift your heart and mind to the Lord in prayer, and continue in a worthy manner for the time set aside.
In this light, the morning and evening prayers compiled by the Metropolis are not only foundational but also realistic for most of us, as they are concise, truly no more than 5 or 10 minutes in length, which allows time for the reading of Scripture and a thoughtful reflection upon the Saints commemorated this day. Saint John explains:
At the end of your morning and evening prayers call upon the saints, so that seeing every virtue realized in them, you may yourself imitate every virtue. Learn from the patriarchs childlike faith and obedience to the Lord, from the prophets and apostles zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of the men, from the holy bishops zeal to preach the word of God, from the martyrs and confessors firmness before the infidel and godless, from the ascetics to crucify your own flesh and its lusts, and from the unmercenary ones not to love profit, and freely to help the needy.
To practice what I have preached, we close with a morning prayer of Metropolitan Philaret:
Lord, give me the strength to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely on Your holy will. Reveal Your will to me every hour of the day. Bless my dealings with all people. Teach me to treat all people who come to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unexpected events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me the physical strength to bear the labors of this day. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray in me. Amen.