I found this a few weeks ago on an Orthodox forum. Orthodox Christians are really into prayer. Pray, pray, pray – it’s one of the main tenets of an Orthodox life to be sure. Fortunately we are given very practical guidance on how to do this.

Helpful Information for Keeping a Prayer Rule
By St. Theophan the Recluse

You ask about a prayer rule. 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. However, one does not have to do many prayers. It is better to perform a small number of prayers properly than to hurry through a large number of prayers, because it is difficult to maintain the heat of prayerful zeal when they are performed to excess.

I would consider the morning and evening prayers as set out in the prayer books* to be entirely sufficient for you. 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.

After you have considered and felt the prayers, work at memorizing them. Then you will not have to fumble about for your prayer book and light when it is time to pray;  neither will you be distracted by anything you see while you are performing your prayers, but can more easily maintain thoughtful petition toward God. You will see for yourself what a great help this is. The fact that you will have your prayer book with you at all times and in all places is of great significance.

Being thus prepared, when you stand at prayer be careful to keep your mind from drifting and your feeling from coldness and indifference, exerting yourself in every way to keep your attention and to spark warmth of feeling. After you have recited each prayer, make prostrations, as many as you like, accompanied by a prayer for any necessity that you feel, or by the usual short prayer. This will lengthen your prayer time a little, but its power will be increased. You should pray a little longer on your own especially at the end of your prayers,
asking forgiveness for unintentional straying of the mind, and placing yourself in God’s hands for the entire day.

You must also maintain prayerful attention toward God throughout the day. For this, as we have already mentioned more than once, there is remembrance of God; and for remembrance of God, there are short prayers. It is good, very good, to memorize several psalms and recite them while you are working or between tasks, doing this instead of short prayers sometimes, with concentration. This is one of the most ancient Christian customs, mentioned by and included in the rules of St. Pachomius and St. Anthony.

After spending the day in this manner, you must pray more diligently and with more concentration in the evening. Increase your prostrations and petitions to God, and after you have placed yourself in Divine hands once again, go to bed with a short prayer on your lips and fall asleep with it or recite some psalm.

Which psalms should you memorize? Memorize the ones that strike your heart as you are reading them. Each person will find different psalms to be more effective for himself. Begin with Have mercy on me, O God (Psalm 50); then Bless the Lord, O my soul (Psalm 102); and Praise the Lord, O my Soul (Psalm 145). These latter two are the antiphon hymns in the Liturgy. There are also the psalms in the Canon for Divine Communion: The Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 22); The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (Psalm 23); I believed, wherefore I spake (Psalm 115); and the first psalm of the evening vigil, O God, be attentive unto helping me (Psalm 69). There are the psalms of the hours, and the like. Read the Psalter and select.

After you have memorized all of these, you will always be fully armed with prayer. When some disturbing thought occurs, rush to fall down before the Lord with either a short prayer or one of the psalms, especially O God, be attentive unto helping me, and the disturbing cloud will immediately disperse.

There you are; everything on the subject of a prayer rule. I will, however, mention once again that you should remember that all these are aids, and the most important thing is standing before God with the mind in the heart with devotion and heartfelt prostration to Him.

I will repeat once again that the essence of prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God; these little rules are an aid. We cannot get by without them because of our weakness. May the Lord bless you!

Excerpted from The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It
(Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996).

*If you are interested in a prayer book, I recommend the Little Red Prayer Book. You can find some of the same prayers online here.

Radical Shifts

June 28, 2010

I’m currently reading Surprised by Christ by Rev. A. James Bernstein. Fr. James was raised by Orthodox Jewish parents, went on to become a Christian who helped found the “Jews for Jesus” organization and later he became an Orthodox Christian. It’s an interesting path, and I am especially interested in it in light of recent conversations I’ve had regarding Messianic Judaism. I am hopeful that the book will spur some interesting discussion here, but for now I want to highlight the foreword written by Metropolitan (then Abbot) Jonah:

Theologically addressing basic presuppositions, Fr. James shows that Orthodox Christianity has a vision of God and salvation radically different, and far more healthy, than the culturally conditioned presuppositions of American popular religion. To become an Orthodox Christian is not a matter of accepting a few additional doctrines, like the veneration of Mary and calling salvation “theosis.” Conversion demands a radical shift, not only in which church one attends, but in the very ways we think about God. How we think about God conditions our experience of Him. Conversion to Orthodox Christianity means that we have to change our basic presuppositions in order to open ourselves more fully to the great mystery of God’s Presence, love and mercy. We have to discard the old ways of thinking about God and salvation, which, insofar as they are erroneous, block the experience of God and present obstacles on the path to salvation.

My husband and I have been hearing a very similar message from our priest. We are to be converting, not merely adjusting. Since we were lapsed Protestants, our conversion does feel very much like a real conversion. We find that we are seeing the world from an entirely new perspective. It’s actually really exciting – kind of like have back-to-back lightbulb moments for the past year or so. We have experienced some of the radical shift that the Metropolitan mentioned, but I think it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

First Confession

June 25, 2010

Our chrismation is scheduled for July 4th. This secular holiday will soon have a very new meaning for us!

Since chrismation is nigh, we’ve begun thinking about and preparing for our first confession. Confession is one of those things that a lot of Protestants really, really don’t like. Yet the Bible is very specific on the topic: Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16). Though it would seem that there’s not a lot of wiggle room in this verse, reception of this command seems to vary. Many blow over it as if it’s a nice idea, but not really for them, except perhaps at a time and place of their own choosing. Others do find it important and set up accountability groups or partners to whom they can both confess and encourage. This is certainly a step in the right direction, though depending on the spiritual maturity of those involved it may be a bit of the blind leading the blind.

For me personally, the idea of confessing in the presence of a priest was not a hurdle to overcome on my journey to Orthodoxy. I did think that it was a curious custom, but initially it was something that I was neither for nor against. As I contemplated the concept, I realized that without confession the priest has no idea what is going on in the lives of most of his parishioners. I thought about some of my Protestant friends and their churches. I may know many of the things that my friends struggle with, but do their pastors have any idea? In every scenario I could think of, I determined that the answer was “no.” How in the world can a person pastor a group of people when they do not really know those people as individuals? What kind of church has no (or very limited) accountability within its body? How can people really grow or mature without the involved guidance of someone who is spiritually more mature? After this line of questioning I began to see the sacrament of confession as a very good thing indeed.

Another reason to confess is to prepare oneself to receive the Eucharist. We know that one must be careful to not partake of the Eucharist in an “unworthy manner;” such a manner may include hidden immorality, disunity, doctrinal heresy, or disorder. We need to examine ourselves, and part of this examination is confession before God in the presence of a priest who visibly represents Christ. Why not just confess to God without the presence of a priest? We know that the “heart is deceitful” and as St. Paul wrote, “if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” (1Co 11:28) I know that I try to be introspective and aware of what it is that I do, but at the same time I will readily admit that I can easily rationalize my behavior. I imagine this rationalization is not so easy when confessing in the presence of a priest.

My husband and I have both been really looking forward to our first confession. I believe it will be cleansing and edifying. I am looking forward to the direction that it will provide. It may seem strange, but I am very excited to confess my sins.

Does God care how we worship Him, or is it a matter of our own preference?

Does our church reflect that Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, or does it accomodate the changing world and ever-changing tastes?

Does your church look like a lecture hall, or like a temple?

These are issues that I never fully considered before my introduction to Orthodoxy. Oh, I certainly had opinions on worship; the traditional Protestant type worship often seemed dead, and the more contemporary version of the same often seemed overly emotional. There were elements of both that I could appreciate, but nothing that I could consistently latch on to as “true worship.”

Furthermore, as a Protestant I felt that worship was so dependent upon various aspects beyond my control: Which songs were we singing today? If the songs were among my least favorite, then there went the whole experience and the chance to really worship. Is the choir good today? Is the worship leader present? If not, then chances were good that my mind was on the quality of the music rather than worshiping. And if there was bad theology in a song? Oh well, it rhymes nicely. Perhaps worst of all, worship was mostly a preparatory exercise to hear a sermon; that is to say that worship was a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.

But let’s really get to the heart of the matter here: What does it mean to really worship God? And what about worshiping Him the way that He wants to be worshiped, rather than the way we prefer to worship?

Orthodox worship is a serious – but not stuffy – affair. As I pondered this ancient form of worship, it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t up to me to decide the best way to worship God. Maybe, just maybe – it wasn’t about how I felt about the worship – maybe it was about how He felt and what He wanted. Maybe it shouldn’t be about having the right music to “get in the mood” to worship – maybe it should be about worshiping regardless of how I feel.

When I changed my perspective, the pieces began to fall into place. I’ve been attending Divine Liturgy for almost a year, and it’s more or less been the same thing every Sunday. Yet weekly I am amazed by the enormity of the beauty and wonder that I witness. For the first time I feel like the focus of worship is completely on God and not even slightly on me or how I feel. Pay close attention to many Christian hymns and songs and you will find that somehow the worship has become intertwined with the individual and his feelings. Look at the words to Amazing Grace, for example. It’s a nice song but it hardly qualifies as worship.

I’ll close with these comments from Fr. John Matusiak:

We do not gather for worship to be entertained, to be “relevant,” or to “appeal” to this group’s “taste” at the expense of the whole. While humans have the need to worship, worship must offer a glimpse of the divine, not an affirmation of humanity. Worship must always be seen as focused on God, period, and not on “me.”

Conversion Stories

June 8, 2010

I was excited to see some of my posts featured at the recently launched Journey to Orthodoxy website (filed under the “mainline Protestant” category). The website offers a variety of conversion stories from people of all backgrounds. I know that I would have devoured these stories about a year ago when I was initially looking into Orthodoxy.

For those interested in learning more Orthodoxy in general, there is also a good collection of links here.