Here’s my strategy for making a prayer rule.
A prayer rule is the plan you make about saying your prayers and reading Scripture every day. You might do it all at once each day, or you might (like me) split it up into many shorter times during the day. Preferably you have a spiritual mother or father who can guide you on setting up your prayer rule. If not, pray about it and come up with the best plan you can.
Psalm 118/119:164 says “Seven times a day I will praise you,” and that was taken as the pattern for monastic prayer. I used to have a once-a-day prayer time (I had a “get it over with” attitude), and when I changed to 4 shorter times a day I was surprised at how it totally changed my relationship with God. Suddenly I was making myself aware of him four times a day and not just once. Gradually those four times linked together, and became remembrance of him all the time. My prayer life really took off, and for the first time I wanted to spend time in prayer. So I recommend trying multiple shorter times. See how that works for you.
There are many excellent Orthodox (and Catholic and Protestant) personal-prayer books to choose from. They’ll give you short forms for morning and evening prayer, for starters. My husband thrives on prayer book services like that. I don’t. I want the say-these-words part of prayer to be as short as possible, so I can get on to the spontaneous part. So when I’m using written prayers like that, I memorize them as quickly as I can, and then I don’t need to pull out a book.
Funny, for a writer, that I’m so allergic to wordiness. I actually took some akathists and parakleses and reduced them to short essential lines, like a litany, so I could read down through the main ideas quickly, rather than reading the longer, more elaborate version. However I recognize that this kind of litany isn’t part of Orthodox worship, so far as I know; we have the litanies ending “Lord have mercy” or “Grant this O Lord,” but not a litany to St. Michael, for example. So I made a litany out of the Akathist to St. Michael. In doing this I’m admittedly outside the main stream of Orthodoxy, so I can’t say confidently that you (or I) should do it; the elaborate and extensive poetry is what Orthodox worship is mostly like, for sure.
What should you include in a prayer rule? Here’s a list to try for, every day:
- Praise God. Begin by praising God for his glory, kindness, forgiveness, for taking care of us, for arranging the day ahead of us (or, in the evening, just completed). All those things and others. Just gaze at him and praise him.
- Intercessory prayer–ask God to help people, or yourself. Offer the names of everyone you love, and those of people who are in fear, sorrow, danger, or need. St Basil has a lovely line in his Liturgy, “And also those whose names we have forgotten, due to the great multitude of names, but you know the name of each.”
- Confession–this is good to do at the end of the day, or before falling asleep. Ask God to forgive you for your sins, the ones you noticed and the ones you didn’t even notice.
- Bible study–or just plain Bible reading. I have read the bible so much (three times all the way through) that it gets overly familiar and I tune out. So I tend to read books or commentaries that follow along Bible passages. My standby is Joanna Manley’s The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox, which follows the Orthodox lectionary all through the year. I like the Catena Aurea (“golden chain”) of St Thomas Aquinas, which is his personal digest of passages from the Fathers, and covers all four of the Gospels. I got a nice hardback 4-volume version on Amazon for $100, but I bet you can read it online, or on your phone, for free. — These days, I’m reading the Antiochian website daily readings, and then checking Manley’s volume for the Fathers’ commentary. The one thing I don’t care for in Manley’s book is that she used the New King James, which I find inaccurate and un-graceful often enough.
- While you’re reading, take a look at the saints of the day, and read up on their stories. I like the OCA Saints Lives site for this. They provide an icon of the saint and a few paragraphs about each saint’s life.
At present, I begin the day by kneeling before the icon of the Theotokos, and asking her to guide my day. I also venerate the icons in my bedroom, my study, and my icon corner. I read the short version of the lives of the saints of the day in the Great Horologion, a book so hefty it requires its own stand. (You can now get it in two volumes.)
Once I’m in my office, I pray through the intercessory prayer list I keep on my computer, which includes a 1/6 portion of my church directory. I used to print up a list of the church members in 6 columns for this, but since my present church has a photo directory, I use it instead. Then I read the Antiochioan website daily readings, and compare it with The Bible and the Holy Fathers. Then it’s on to the OCA lives of the saints.
About 1:00 PM, I pray the Trisagion prayers and a 100 knot prayer rope. At the end of the work day, I read my shortened litany to St Michael, based on the Akathist to him. At bedtime, I pray the Trisagion prayers, and the prayer that includes the line, “if during this day I have sinned in thought, word, or deed, forgive me all.” After some sleep I wake up naturally sometime in the wee hours each night (I’ve been doing this 40+ years), and pray the Trisagion prayers and a 200-knot prayer rope. Then, after some more sleep, it’s time to get up, kneel, and pray to the Theotokos again.
I change my plan all the time. For example, I have moved my bible-reading time from 5:00 pm to the middle of the night, to bed time, to morning. I’m always trying to find the right spot where I can read deeply and thoughtfully, and not just rush through.
This is the important thing, though. I usually find that I am not quite fulfilling the entire plan. Most days I am omitting something. I think this is good. It’s how we should be. We should always be challenging ourselves to do more than we actually can. (Or, more honestly, more than we want to. If we wanted to fulfill the plan, nothing’s stopping us. Except ourselves.)
If you are failing every day to complete your entire prayer rule, then you’re just about at the right spot. Your prayer rule should require more of you than you are able (or willing, maybe) to do.
There is this great quote from Robert Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto”:
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
That is, it’s good for you to keep striving to reach something. Don’t make your goals reasonable and fulfillable. Challenge yourself to do something that you probably will not do.
The reason this is good is that it keeps you humble. If you have a prayer life you can fulfill easily, you get complacent. You think you have a bargain with God, and you are keeping your side of the bargain.
But if you are slipping up every day and not quite getting there, how beautiful it is! You come to God in humility, and acknowledge that, no matter what your mouth says, your actions say that he is not your top priority.
So that’s what I wanted to pass along. Come up with a prayer rule (with your pastor’s help if possible), and start into doing it, and if you find you are not quite doing it, then you’re in the right place. Jesus came for sinners, not the righteous (Luke 5:32). When you know yourself as a sinner, and the whole spiritual life opens like a flower.