The desert fathers left us a treasury of apothegms and aphorisms which were distilled from their own spiritual experiences. They are precisely sayings which convey wisdom and warn against excessive zealotry. They follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ who also was a giver of wisdom rather than law, who in fact is wisdom incarnate. Wisdom is not law which tells us exactly what to do for it also encompasses how often, how much, to what degree, with whom, under what circumstances as well as when and where we are to carry out a particular behavior.
When we set off to form a prayer rule or any kind of spiritual discipline, we may want to keep in mind the words of St. John of Gaza (ca. 530) who said:
“Do not bind yourself with strict rules, but do whatever the Lord gives you the strength to do. And do not neglect your reading and prayer; little by little, you will gradually spend the day pleasing God. For our perfect fathers were not limited by any particular rule. Indeed, their daily rule included singing Psalms a little, repeating by heart a little, examining their thoughts a little, working for a living a little, and all this with fear of God. For it is said: ‘Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.'” (Georgi Parpulov in THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BYZANTIUM, p 78)
Moderation in all things is a good rule, as well as varying one’s discipline so that “little by little” you “gradually spend the day pleasing God.” It isn’t done on the first day you try, nor all at once nor by trying to be the spiritual giant on day one. We grow in the faith. We do as much as God has given us strength to do, not according to what strength He may have given others for them to do His will. This is why one rule cannot serve all Christians – such a rule doesn’t serve us but becomes our master. We gradually become with perseverance, patience and persistence the Christian we believe we are called to be. We work out our salvation during the course of our life, not just in one day, even though each and every day is significant to our spiritual development. The spiritual life is not a sprint but a marathon lasting a lifetime. [Another bit of wisdom is God promises to forgive us on the day we repent, but He doesn’t promise us a tomorrow on which to repent!]
We also find in the advice of the monastics wisdom concerning how to handle various temptations and problems by turning to the Psalms. This is wisdom that goes beyond just sticking to a regime of saying fixed Psalms at set times. A 10th Century manuscript offers the following advice as to which Psalms to say for special needs:
“The Psalms said as prayers are the following:
Against despondent thoughts – Psalm 54, 53.
Against lewd thoughts – Psalm 34, 37.
Against rancorous thoughts – Psalm 30.
Against captive thoughts – Psalm 12, 16.
Against thoughts of forsakenness – Psalm 70, 72.
Against multitudinous thoughts – Psalm 68, 142.
Against thoughts of despair – Psalm 26.
Against blasphemous thoughts – Psalm 139.
Say the same Psalm also against any torment and difficulty.
In want of prayer – Psalm 24, 25.” (Georgi Parpulov in THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BYZANTIUM, p 85, 88)