During this month of December, while we as Orthodox Christians are preparing for the feast of the Nativity, trying to slow down and center ourselves on the meaning of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the rest of society is speeding up. The shopping malls are filled to capacity, and so are all the streets and highways leading there. The post office and other delivery businesses are in their busiest season. Companies are throwing celebratory holiday parties. Families are baking, shopping, writing annual Christmas cards and letters, decorating and traveling and worrying about how they can possibly “afford Christmas” another year. It is easy to get caught up in this “holiday spirit.” Most of these activities are well-intended, but all together they can create a stressful, overwhelming and very busy atmosphere.
We can easily let this feeling of being overwhelmed with so many important activities tempt us to believe that we don’t have time for things like our prayer rule, almsgiving, spiritual reading, worship and reflection alone or with family. Although every one of these Christian habits is essential, I want to specifically focus on the prayer rule. Another way to refer to a prayer rule is a daily “quiet time” spent in a routine of prayer, reflection and spiritual study. Ideally, these should occur both in the morning and in the evening, keeping in mind that our prayer rule should not be self-directed but worked out in consultation with our father confessor. Of course, not everyone will be able to spend the same amount of time in prayer or have the same routine, but we should all seek to rise from sleep thinking about God and pause at the end of the day to again reinforce our relationship with Him. This is not a duty in the sense that we should feel compelled, but a blessing and a great gift that we should cultivate with a profound sense of thanksgiving. Attentiveness during prayer is very important. A helpful tool in nurturing attentiveness is to “warm up” our hearts and minds by recalling the sins and shortcomings of each day. This should be done as a prayerful act, and should not take more than a couple of minutes. Writing these sins down daily can also help in self-awareness and as an ongoing preparation for confession.
The Evil One tempts us to view our prayer rule as a duty, as just one more thing we need to do each day in the midst of many other responsibilities. God wants us to view our time in prayer as an encounter with Him, as an opportunity to connect and deepen our relationship with Him. We don’t always realize that our commitment to daily morning and evening prayers has a residual effect on the rest of our day and night. This is also true of the cumulative effect of prayer on us if we sustain and even deepen our prayer rules in a consistent way over time. The fruit of consistency in prayer is the increased remembrance of God throughout the day. Our goal in life should be to ceaselessly remember God and to cultivate within us the awareness of His presence in our life at all times and in every place.
When we go through life remembering God in our thoughts and remembering His presence in our lives, we become increasingly aware of ourselves in the healthiest way. The fruit of this self-awareness is a greater watchfulness over our thoughts, senses, actions and inner dispositions and attitudes. We become sensitized to the image of God within us and in everyone around us. In our neighbor we find God, and through our neighbor we find God. The things that are happening around us seem to lose their randomness; we begin to recognize the loving and merciful Providence of God. God is not absent from the moment to moment of our existence. As the All-Powerful and All-Knowing Good God, He is constantly working in our lives for our well-being and salvation. We can never say that God is responsible for anything truly bad; but He is the giver of every good and perfect gift, as we say in our Divine Liturgy. To correctly understand God’s Providence. we must come to understand that God doesn’t allow anything to happen in our lives unless it can contribute to our salvation. Without daily prayer consistently practiced and combined with correct theology, we are neither aware of ourselves nor of God to the degree necessary to accept His will in our lives.
This whole discussion on the importance of a prayer rule began with our need to prepare for the Nativity of Christ. The meaning of this Feast is the incarnation and birth of God, the Savior of the world. When we think about the meaning of God’s incarnation and the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, we should think of how Jesus can become incarnate in our lives and be born in our hearts. Jesus can only dwell in a heart that is open to Him, that desires to be with Him, to listen to Him, speak with Him and obey Him. Not only is this a basic understanding of prayer, but without prayer no heart can reach this state of openness and desire for God. Everything in the Christian life begins with prayer. St. Makarios of Egypt taught: “The crown of every good endeavor and the highest of achievements is diligence in prayer. It is in prayer that the saints experience communion in the hidden energy of God’s holiness and inner union with it, and their nous itself is brought through unutterable love into the presence of the Lord. Prayer rightly combined with understanding is superior to every virtue and commandment.”
May our month of December serve as a true period of preparation for the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity. My prayer is that God would inspire us to use the great gift of prayer as the centerpiece of this preparation: prayer as both a ceaseless state of remembrance of God and as a morning and evening routine of prayers, reflection and spiritual study.