Great Lent is a wonderful opportunity to deepen our spiritual lives. In the spiritual classic, Unseen Warfare, by Saints Nicodemus the Athonite and Theophan the Recluse, it is written: “The greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.” This goal is not simply a short term seasonal goal that we strive for once a year during the forty days preceding Pascha, but it is a goal we must strive to experience every day of the year.
A trap we often fall into is to get excited about Great Lent and its seasonal observances–fasting, intensified prayer and more frequent church services–which buoy us along while we are participating in them, but then we fail to sustain our personal spiritual disciplines after Lent is over. What happens after Pascha is that we experience a let down and return to our former spiritual state.
I would like to challenge us all to make this year different. Certainly, I want us to remain excited about Great Lent. Without a doubt, I want us to participate as fully as possible in the fast, in as many church services as we are able and in the extra almsgiving opportunities God affords us. This year, however, I would like us also to focus our attention on our own prayer rules and to more deeply establish them in our daily routine.
There is nothing more fundamental to our spiritual life and our relationship with God than our prayer rule; it provides the foundation of our spiritual life. When all the observances specific to Great Lent go away after Pascha, what will remain to help us keep the spiritual momentum will be our prayer rule. The secret to using Lent as a springboard to a closer relationship with God is to more deeply establish our dependency on our rule of prayer as the basis for everything else we do in our life.
Our prayer rule should consist of a morning and evening routine. The morning prayers in Orthodox prayer books are a good, standard way of beginning each day. Along with these prayers, we should also read the daily Scripture readings and lives of the Saints. These can be found in the Prologue or on our Archdiocesan website. In the evening, we should strive to say either the standard evening prayers or the Small Compline. In addition to this, we should be working through some Orthodox spiritual book, preferably a writing of a Church Father or a longer life of a Saint or Elder. I suggest we do not wait until the very end of the day, when we our fatigue prevents us from offering God our best. Also, it is important to think about the day already spent and keep track of our sins. Writing them down can help us to know ourselves better, serve as an ongoing preparation for a thorough confession, and also warm up our hearts for some time in the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer should be a part of all our prayer rules. We all have the need to guard our thoughts and our senses. With all the external and internal noise clamoring for our attention, we need to learn how to practice internal stillness. Our Lord taught us that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, but without cultivating inner stillness, it will be much harder to find. In addition, the Jesus Prayer is a readily available and powerful tool during the day to help us practice watchfulness, to wrench our mind away from distracting thoughts, and to learn how to be more present in each moment. A prayer rope can be used while saying the Jesus Prayer, and each person should be guided by his or her Father Confessor in the practice of this very important spiritual discipline of the Church.
Because we are made up of both body and soul, we do not want to neglect the body in prayer. Our prayers should ideally be said while standing, for standing has always been the best posture for prayer. Standing helps us be more attentive; it shows God that we are serious; and it serves as another way of offering ourselves to Him. In addition, full prostrations can also be an important component of our prayer routine. They help to engage the body, along with the soul, in prayer and worship of God. Prostrations are not just limited to Great Lent, but can and should be done (health permitting) throughout the year. Again, prostrations should be done under the guidance of one’s Father Confessor.
Indeed, Great Lent provides the perfect opportunity to strengthen our prayer rule. If we have been sporadic, then we can use this special season of grace to become more disciplined in our rule. If our rule has been routine, but we have lacked the appropriate attentiveness, then we can focus on bringing more warmth of heart and diligence. Each person should consult with his/her priest or Father Confessor concerning his/her rule of prayer. This is not something we want to establish on our own; rather we should fulfill our prayer rule in obedience and enjoy the benefits of accountability to another.
Great Lent is indeed a special season of grace. It can help us attain the goal so beautifully stated by Saints Nicodemus and Theophan: “The greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.” This should not only be the goal of a specific season. It should also be the goal of each day throughout the year. Let’s try and take advantage of everything Great Lent offers us in the way of spiritual tools and motivation, but let us also diligently work on our personal rule of prayer–a spiritual discipline that transcends any season and will prevent us from having post-Pascha withdrawals and the post-Lenten blues that typically try to sabotage our spiritual progress each year.