The rule is for man, and not the other way around.
Archpriest Andrei Ovchinikov writes:
—There are three important components to a prayer rule: proper measure, consistency, and quality.
1. Proper measure. The proper measure adorns a person in any work—both earthly and spiritual. It is very important to find the middle, royal path. This is a surety of success. This law is important and relevant in our prayer rule. We have to force ourselves in prayer on the one hand, but refrain from zeal not according to reason on the other. We mustn’t be lazy, but it is also dangerous to overdo it. In my view, it is better not to complete something in a prayer rule, and leave the desire to pray for another day. Overdoing it more often than not causes aversion and inner protest. The fathers say that the small rule is without price. Obviously there is need of a spiritual guide here, who is experienced and discerning in the practical work of prayer. But this advice presupposes a measure of freedom and personal choice on the part of the inquirer.
Do not take on a long rule. Let it be something that you could do all your life. Remember: The rule is for man, and not the other way around. The proper measure found keeps a person in good spiritual shape, but also preserves joy in the heart and the desire for prayer. Take many factors into consideration: age, health, marital status, workload, and so on. The fruit of correct prayer labor is deep humility and inner peace.
2. Consistency. Be consistent in prayer. This is what the apostle Paul tells us to do. Success in any work depends upon our zeal and consistency—but not only on this. To be sure, the rolling stone gathers no moss. But we also have to remember that we are only God’s co-workers. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase (1 Cor. 3:7). It is essential that God bless our labors. The holy fathers talk about synergy—about our consistent labor in prayer and grace-filled help from on high. This is the pledge of our success. There can be no pauses in the labor of prayer. The labor of prayer reminds us of riding a bicycle or rowing upstream—only unremitting effort and work ensure our forward movement. The same laws are at work in prayer: Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). For the sake of our constancy in the work of prayer, dryness of heart and emotional boredom will with time give place to a robust spirit and the desire for prayer. This is a sign of progress and grace-filled help from above.
3. Quality. Quality is better than quantity. Anyone who has decided to take up the work of prayer should remember this. The quality of prayer can be determined by two signs: attention of the mind and depth of repentance in the heart.
St. John Climacus calls attention the soul of prayer. He counsels anyone to enclose the mind in the words of prayer. At first this may be very hard for everyone, but we mustn’t give up. If we put in the effort, God will definitely help us, and in time will send a guardian angel for our prayer.
Repentance in the heart and deep humility —this is the true table of oblation from which God accepts our spiritual sacrifices, the most important of which is prayer. Also, be at prayer like a burbling child and a guileless infant—forgive all those who have offended you and pray for them. Remember your irredeemable debt before God, and then it will be easier for you to forgive people. It is important to acquire inner lamentation of heart over your sins—the important sign of true repentance.
Understandably, it is possible to fulfill these conditions with a short prayer rule. Everything of authentically good quality is usually found as a limited edition. In teaching music to children we require them to play “purely” a simple scale, when learning a foreign language we have to correctly build a phrase, and a beginning driver has to keep from knocking over the flags when parking. Experience comes with time, and then more labors can be added. But we will fulfill with humility our small prayer rule, everyday and consistently, controlling the quality of our prayer, remembering that it is not our labors that determine success, but God’s all-powerful aid—with which everything is possible for us in this life and the next.
As you begin to build a prayer rule keep these three characteristics in mind. It would also be good to remember them as you regularly practice your prayer rule.
I will provide more specifics in posts to come.