The Prayer Rule

Orthodox Christians typically pray a prescribed set of morning and evening prayers, along with some additional prayers in preparation for communion and other occasions. We refer to this regimen as our “prayer rule”. In the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, the “little red  book” that contains these prayers has become rather iconic. Its entire contents are available on the Archdiocese’s website.

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The Antiochian “little red book”

I was given a copy of this book when I started attending an orthodox church. I was initially resistant to having to pray a prescribed set of prayers. I saw prayer as simply talking to God, and it seemed inauthentic to use someone else’s words in a conversation.

I can’t remember who it was exactly that pointed me to this passage, Luke 11:1-4:

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“‘Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”

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Here when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus prescribes a prayer for them, which we know now as the Lord’s prayer.

In the same way, the prescribed prayers in an Orthodox prayer rule are also a teaching tool. These are prayers from the Bible (like the Lord’s prayer or Psalms) or written by spiritual giants from Orthodoxy’s rich history, collected and preserved by the church ( St. Jonah Orthodox Church of Spring, Texas runs a large online collection of common Orthodox prayers). A lot of the prayers contain nuggets of profound theology. One of my favorite examples is this line from the Canon of Our Lord Jesus Christ:  

From a virgin didst Thou come, not as an ambassador, nor as an Angel, but the very Lord Himself incarnate, and didst save me, the whole man. Therefore I cry to Thee: Glory to Thy Power, O Lord.

A single line affirms the virgin birth and the divine nature of Christ, his incarnation, his power and his saving work, with enough nuance to emphasize the holistic nature of salvation- the whole man, as opposed to just the soul or just the body!

Just as valuable is what the prayers teach us about our proper attitude toward other people and toward God. For example, there is a famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian that is said every morning during Lent. It ends with these powerful words:

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother.

In my spiritual immaturity, I could never imagine ever saying this prayer myself. But through the Lenten prayer rule I do, and I am reminded at the start of each day that I am in a season of repentance and that in this time of all times I have to refrain from judging others.

The Orthodox are definitely not opposed to the idea that in prayer we are “talking to God”. Indeed, in the little red book are plenty of places where we are asked to “use our own words”. Rather these traditional prescribed prayers supplement our prayer life and help us to pray better. In using these prayers, I have benefited greatly from how the collected wisdom of Christ’s church surpasses my own narrow understanding. I have learned by contrast how often my own prayers were often shallow and self-centered, and I have been able to repent from these wrong attitudes toward God.

One concrete way in which my prayers have changed is that I have become more focused on seeking to repent, rather than seeking new spiritual experiences. I used to see prayer almost as an opportunity to “summon” God when I was seeking comfort or inspiration. But almost all the prescribed prayers in Orthodoxy emphasize repentance- they bring to mind Jesus’ parable of the publican and pharisee, how the publican wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ This is a far more healthy attitude toward God and toward prayer- a continual understanding that we fall short,  but through the mercy of Jesus Christ we rise again.

The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios

 

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  The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis is an autobiographical account of a restless,skeptical young  man in 1970’s Greece, sampling from a variety of mystical and occult influences. His story is anchored by a close relationship with Elder (now Saint) Paisios, a monk from Mount Athos. Dionysios’ explorations exposed him to a great deal of spiritual dangers, including literal attacks from demons. Saint Paisios’ prayers and influence protected Dionysios from the worst dangers. Nevertheless, Dionysios’ stubborn determination to test for himself the claims of the occult practitioners led him to India, where he sought out the tutelage of prominent gurus and cult leaders.

The bulk of the book is a brutally honest account of Dionysios’ time in India  as he seeks out various spiritualists around the country. The author and his traveling companions encounter a great deal of misery and exploitation, but all that pales in comparison to the otherworldly dangers they encounter. This part of the book contains vivid and unsettling accounts of demonic possession and spiritual bondage, as the author foolishly submits himself to the authority of the gurus. Dionysios eventually manages to escape India, and the book ends with Saint Paisios guiding him, slowly nursing him back to spiritual health.

The bizarre and startling episodes where Dionysios finds himself in the thrall of dark forces are gripping and well-written. The author is completely honest about his foolishness and naiveté, and as a character he is very relatable- simply a man wanting to find out the truth for himself.

Nevertheless, I thought that the most rewarding parts of the book were the gentle encounters with Saint Paisios during the author’s frequent visits. We get glimpses of the great man’s character as he counsels and cares for Dionysios. Saint Paisios finds himself in a position that many of us struggle in, showing love for someone who persists in foolish and self-destructive behavior. Young Dionysios ignores Saint Paisios’ warnings again and again to his own detriment, and yet the the saint continually demonstrates a deep compassion without judgment. The encounters between Dionysios and Paisios are filled with an intimate warmth and good humor, even as they occur in seasons where Dionysios’ life is in shambles. The monk’s faithful prayers for Dionysios serve also as a continual backdrop to the events in the book. In the darkest episodes of Dionysios’ journey in India, we see how Paisios’ intercessions from thousands of miles away are a decisive in warding off the worst of the dangers.

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Father Paisios of Mount Athos by Pietro Chiaranz

Thus I think it would be a mistake to approach this book focusing on Dionysios’ occult misadventures in India, as titillating as those accounts may be . Pay attention instead to the Christlike person of Saint Paisios, his humility,  patience, and joy. Inspired by his example of prayerful compassion, I have had to do a lot of fruitful reflection about what it means to love someone who is stubborn and wayward, to truly work for his best interests without succumbing to the temptation to judge him or to control him.

Finally, I would like to briefly comment on the excellent work that the translators did for the English version of this book. I cannot testify to its accuracy, since I don’t know Greek. However, the language is at once stirring and profound, especially in the parts where Dionysios is engaged in spiritual reflection after a visit with the saint. I will end this post with a passage from the end of the book that both demonstrates the effectiveness of the language, and serves as a celebration of the patient, unfailing love of Christ displayed through the works and life of Saint Paisios.

“Man takes one step, and God responds with a thousand in order to bridge the gap. Nevertheless, man’s small and insignificant step in God’s direction is absolutely crucial, because it reveals man’s intention and good disposition, giving God the ‘right’ to approach him, without infringing his spiritual freedom. Unlike the hate-filled, tyrannical devil, God deeply respects human freedom and never violates it. He desires a relationship of love with man, and love can exist only when people are free.”