One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received regarding my spiritual life came just recently (yes, it's an instant classic with me) from my parish priest. I was talking with him, inquiring about a suitable daily prayer rule, and when I laid out what I had planned, he said something I'd never heard from a spiritual leader.
He said I really ought to consider scaling it back.
Coming from traditions within the Evangelical world where "going all out for Jesus" is expected, I have to say I was surprised. I unwittingly had been projecting the expectations (which were projected onto me by others) I had had of myself within Protestantism onto my prayer life in Orthodoxy. There is often the pressure to read a certain amount of Scripture in a day, pray for a certain amount of time...of course, ultimately these things are left up to the individual, but the examples that we were given to emulate often devote substantial periods of time to these activites, periods that, for many of us, are not reasonable to expect. I was translating that into something along the lines of, "Trisagion prayer, 'Arising from sleep,' the Creed, a kathisma of psalms, the epistle and gospel reading for the day, the litany of prayers for the living and the dead (along with others we added in), a benediction and veneration of all the icons in the corner--that was morning. Evening prayers consisted of a similarly long rule. The idea was, "this is what is laid out in the prayer book as 'Morning/Evening Prayers,' so I'm gonna do it all." Needless to say, the variables of day-to-day life with toddler made mincemeat of that expectation--we as people must be more flexible than a by the book approach to rubrics will allow--and I was left feeling as though I'd bitten off more than I could chew, or "should be doing more" to accomodate this level of a prayer life within my life.
Not so, said Father. It's interesting to hear something I never heard in my years as a Christian: that we are actually better served by doing a small amount of prayer, consistently, than we are in doing large prayer rules in what inevitably ends up being in fits and starts. Humbling, this, as I no longer am expected to see myself as immediately capable of something having to do with prayer; it has allowed me to reevaluate just how serious, how weighty a thing like prayer is, and how incapable I am of actually tackling regular audiences before the King of Glory.
Sit in the lesser seats, desire them. If God moves you, fine. But err on the side of smallness, I was told--have a "bare minimum" where you can be sure, at least, to "check in" with God--makes days like today where I actually was up early enough to do almost all of the whole aforementioned Morning Prayer shbang all the sweeter. And when these moments happen, be sure to thank God for them, like this fella did (and probably still does). Speaking of thankfulness, I was surprised after today's prayerfest when, upon pulling out from the garage today, I openly wept for the joy of and thankfulness for having a sweet, kind, playful, beautiful toddler; an amazing, loving, nurturing, radiant wife; a life that, I sometimes fear, has gone too well (Fr. Alexander attributed it to God's awareness of Fr. Alexander's weakness...probably a wise take, that)...there's a wonderful comfort in small steps with this God, where we develop our soul slowly, consistently, the way we develop our physical bodies.
Apparently growing up the way we should takes time, and God's all right with waiting...