In the third section of the second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) turns his attention to the topic of regularity in prayer, noting that “practice makes perfect” is also true of prayer:
A “practicing Christian” is, to the mind of the holy Fathers, not a man who more or less faithfully fulfils his Sunday duty, but rather one who day after day, his whole life long, prays several times a day, that is, practices his faith regularly, just as he regularly performs other functions necessary for life – eating, sleeping, breathing … Only in this way will his “spiritual activity” attain that natural character that appears self-evident in the case of the functions just mentioned. (72)
Both the Old and the New Testaments refer to regular times of prayer, a practice that the Fathers draw on and reinforce. The details of such times vary. Tertullian refers to the third, sixth and ninth hour found in the New Testament and adds to these one’s prayers at the beginning and at the end of the day and at night, giving the five hours that have been preserved by Islam. The Desert Fathers of Egypt knew only two (fairly short) set prayer times but sought ways of keeping the mind at prayer during the rest of the day and night. Palestinian monasticism knew more prayer times and developed the biblical notion of “seven times a day I praise thee.” Nevertheless, the purpose of such varying practices was that of acquiring “unceasing prayer.”
The observance of a fixed number of times of prayer, distributed throughout the day (and the night), which requires a certain self-discipline, has therefore, essentially the sole purpose of building bridges that enable our inconstant mind to make its way across the river of time. Through this practice the mind acquires that dexterity and facility of movement which no artist or craftsman can do without. To be sure, this is in part simply routine, but it is necessary in order to accomplish what is really at stake: the art – of carpentry, of playing the violin, of soccer… – and, indeed, of praying, which is the highest and most perfect activity of our mind, as Evagrius assures us. The better the training, the more perfectly natural the movement will seem to be, and the greater the joy, also, that we experience in the action. (76)
This training is not without trials however and “the most formidable opponent is a certain weariness, often indefinable, which can set in even when there is not lack of necessary leisure time” and which can lead to one doubting everything.
What should you do, then? You must force yourself, that is, activate the power of your will, so as to observe in any event the prescribed number of prayer times, even if the office itself has to be reduced to a minimum, one psalm, three Glory Bes, one Trisagion, and one genuflection – provided you are capable of it. If the soul’s oppression is too great, one must make use of the ultimate remedy.
If this battle against you increases in force, my Brother, and stops your mouth and does not allow you to recite the office, not even in the way that I have described above, then force yourself to get on your feet and walk up and down in your cell, while saluting the Cross and making prostrations before it, and our Lord in his mercy will allow [this battle] to pass. [Joseph Hazzaya].
When words seem to have lost all meaning, the only thing remaining is the physical gesture, a theme to which we shall later return and treat in detail. (77-79)