Aside from attendance at the services of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), Eastern Christian monastics often used a private prayer rule for the “alone” time spent in their cell. All of these prayer rules are rooted in St. Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16) and frequently consist of a repetition of a prayer or a scriptural passage. Many if not most of them are centered around the Jesus Prayer: “ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. There are several variations of this prayer as well and this is just one example.
The Optina Prayer of the Five Hundred is one of the more interesting prayer rules, and one that can be adopted for everyday use by the laity. The Optina Monastery was the most important spiritual center in Russia prior to the Communist Revolution (the “Revolution”). The monks were subsequently dismissed or executed and the monastery was disbanded after the Revolution. The Optina Elders espoused the value of Hesychasm ( a tradition of mystical prayer in the Eastern Church) and the Jesus Prayer. They developed a sophisticated adaptation of the Jesus Prayer called the Optina Prayer of the Five Hundred. It combined the Jesus Prayer, the repetition of some additional prayers and an intricate rule for many prostrations and bows performed while praying. The monks using this rule were truly Spiritual Athletes, as just reading the rules for the prostrations and deep bows is exhausting!
The prayer rule consisted of three sets of the Jesus Prayer (or 300 repetitions in total); one set (100 in total) of the prayer: “Most Holy Theotokos, save me a sinner”; fifty repetitions of the prayer: “O Holy Angel of God, my Guardian, intercede for me”; and fifty repetitions of “All Saints of God intercede for me.” All the time these prayers are being chanted the monk did prostrations and full bows based on the prayer rubrics. The sets of prayers are divided by a prayer to the Theotokos. While this austere prayer rule might be difficult for many to do, I have found it to be an excellent prayer rule for when I am walking or exercising. Even though we may not be doing the prostrations and bows the monks are required to perform, we can still achieve a great prayer life by using this simple rule.
The structure of the Optina 500 also makes a very interesting theological statement and reminds us of Christian belief. Christian theology teaches only God is worthy of worship (latria). The Theotokos is worthy of hyperdulia, or a special and higher veneration than the saints. Finally, angels and saints are accorded dulia, or reverence. The Optina Prayer Rule calls for three sets of the Jesus Prayer, followed by one set of the intercessory prayer to the Theotokos. The volume of the prayers for each reminds us of the difference between latria and hyperdulia. The prayers to the Theotokos are then followed by 50 prayers to the Guardian Angel and 50 prayers to all Saints, asking them to intercede for us. This is a reminder of the difference between hyperdulia and dulia. Angels are a higher order of creation than mankind but are listed first, even though they are accorded the same level of reverence as the Saints. The structure of the prayers to the Guardian Angel and the Saints are also distinct from the Jesus prayers and the intercessory prayers to the Theotokos as they ask the saints and angels to intercede for us. This is the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of why we pray to Saints. The Jesus Prayer specifically asks Jesus to have mercy on us and the Theotokos to save us, which aligns with Christian theology. So, the Optina Prayer Rule of the 500 is not only a wonderful prayer in and of itself, but it is a reminder of our beliefs as Eastern Christians. Not bad for a simple prayer!