Practical Prayer and Other Spiritual Tools

There are essentially two types of prayer rules that we have in the Orthodox Church. It is important for us to understand these in order to best make prayer a part of our lives, or better put, to keep ourselves from using our spiritual powers of self-justification and personal laxity to excuse ourselves from praying regularly.

But before we discuss prayer, we should discuss the other spiritual weapon our Lord directed us to use in our struggle with the dark angels: the demons. In the Gospel reading appointed for a recent Sunday we hear quite specifically about these weapons (depending on which Local Church you attend for worship, this Gospel may have been on a different Sunday).

In the Russian Church, we read this Gospel on July 31/August 13 – the tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading in question is Matthew 17:14-23. Here we see the Apostles unable to cast out a particularly difficult demon. The father of the child afflicted with this demon wrongly attributed his possession to the moon, calling him a lunatic. Here the Lord strongly rebukes him for his incorrect faith, attributing spiritual power to the creation, rather than the Creator. He heals the child, and the Apostles come to Him afterwards and ask why they could not cast out the demon. (Apparently they had been having some success in this realm until they ran into this particular case).

Finding Strength in Obedience

The Lord explained to them that this kind goes out only by PRAYER and FASTING. In other words, the Lord instructs us here to use both prayer and fasting in our battle with the demons. Any soldier going into battle would be foolish to throw away half the weapons he had been provided by his commander, yet how often we sadly throw away fasting, considering it to be somehow anachronistic or otherwise not applicable to us today! How wrong and foolish this is!

Let us use ALL the weapons the Lord gives us in this real spiritual struggle—our daily war against the demons. If you do not know how to fast, talk to your priest. If he says you don’t have to fast, find another priest! In short, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and during the four extended fasting periods (preceding the Nativity of the Lord, Pascha, the Feast of Apostles Peter & Paul, and the Dormition of the Theotokos) we abstain from meat and dairy products, and sometimes from fish, and sometimes from alcohol. Those who fast will quickly see the spiritual benefits this spiritual sword brings to us, including increased spiritual clarity (in seeing ourselves for who we really are) which leads to repentance.

Frankly speaking, this is also the only way, in our days, that most of us outside of the monastic life practice obedience. In this case, obedience to the Holy Church in the fasting rules that are provided by this divine-human organism for our salvation. Do not neglect this important weapon that the Lord instructs us to use in our spiritual battle!

Protecting Ourselves with Prayer

Our other weapon then is prayer. There are certain prayer rules that we are not to shorten or skip, such as the prayers before and after Holy Communion. These must be read each time one partakes of the Holy Mysteries, although certainly the preparatory prayers can be read over the course of several days with the guidance and blessing of one’s priest.

Morning and evening prayers, however, have a much more flexible rule. There are a set of morning prayers in every prayer book, and a set of evening prayers. But if we are diligent to say these every day, we very quickly memorize them, which is not a bad thing at all. (Memorizing prayers is a pious and ancient practice of the Holy Church). But in our days, we tend to “pray” these prayers that we have memorized not with increased zeal, but with increased distraction, using our spare cognitive abilities not for prayer, but for various other thoughts which draw us away from prayer.

For this reason it is perfectly permissible to replace these prayers from time to time (when we notice we are particularly distracted) by something else. Remember, the prayer book is a text book. It is meant to teach us to pray. We can apply what we have learned by diligently reading our morning and evening prayers to other prayers.

Guidelines for Your Prayers

The first thing to do is figure out about how long you pray each morning and evening. It is probably somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes, but this will vary from person to person. So next time, time yourself. Let us say you pray for 15 minutes each morning and each evening. When you have gotten to the point that you are not really praying when you read your prayers make a switch: read from the Psalter for 15 mintues in place of your prayers, or say the Jesus Prayer for 15 minutes in place of your prayers. Or, if you can speak another language, read the prayers in the other language that you know (not the one you usually pray in). This will help you greatly to be attentive to your prayers.

Still, this article is supposed to be about practical prayer—not necessarily about better prayer (although we should always strive for quality first in our prayers. Quantity is not unimportant, but it is most certainly secondary).

How can we make it easier for ourselves to pray: morning, evening, and during the day? First, if you have an IOS device, get the OCN Prayer Book app. This will help in many ways, not the least of which is having your prayers literally at your fingertips. And we know that you have your phone in your hands almost all day every day, that you look at it first in the morning and last before sleeping.

So let’s take advantage of that habit, and use the Prayer Book app to help us say our prayers every morning and every evening! Second, or if you can’t get the Prayer Book app, use your usual calendar program to set alarms, reminders, etc., to pray throughout the day. These prayers needn’t be long, but if we touch base with God during the day this helps our prayer life greatly.

“O Lord, by whatever means save me!” is a particularly good prayer to put on one’s calendar. There are others. You should also have an icon in your work space (or study space, or wherever you spend the most time away from home), so that when your eyes pass over it, you will recall the Lord, or the Theotokos, or one of the saints, and react prayerfully to that recollection.

If you do not have a digital calendar, then make a notation in your Daytimer, or the calendar on your wall. However you manage your day, schedule prayer there. If you do that, I believe most of you will find that you will obey your calendar in this pious appointment, even as you do with more temporal appointments.

Our greatest temptation regarding prayer is to actually start. So let us decide today, right now, that we will make a diligent effort to pray each morning and each evening. Let us vow to take a portion of the Liturgy we have attended on the Lord’s day and keep it piously through regular, quality prayer at home (alone if we must, but ideally together with our families). And let us not forget to ask the Lord to bless this effort! We must work together with God if we hope to accomplish anything pleasing to Him. May He indeed bless you and grant you—through your effort and His Grace—to love prayer and fasting for the spiritual gifts and weapons that they are, and to use them accordingly!

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Fr. Gregory Joyce is the Rector of St. Vladimir's Church.…
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