Effective prayer can be a struggle. So often when I approach my prayer time I find my mind distracted so that I simply go though a routine without any feelings. Usually, I memorize many of the prayers I say daily in addition to my intercessory prayers. Memorization etches the prayer in my mind making it available to me at any time.
What happens frequently, though, is that my mind takes control and begins to pray automatically This is not a good sign. Why? Because our prayers need to come from the heart with feeling and an awareness that we are engaged in a dialogue with God. We need to have the awe of His presence as we pray. An automatic prayer is not really a prayer. A prayer must come from the heart with feeling and understanding. I find I must continually remind myself of this. Too often I fall into the trap of just putting in my time to fulfill my prayer rule. It is not about the time we spend in prayer, but the sincerity with which we pray that is of the most importance.
Saint Theophan says,
When you are at prayer, recite your prayer or psalm from memory, and embrace each word, not just with thought, but with feeling. If during this your own prayerful cries arise from some word of the psalm or prayer, do not cut them off, but let them come.
We are taught to have a prayer rule and to stick with each day. We are told to memorize our routine prayers. But the danger is that our prayer time becomes too routine and we do not “embrace each word, not just with thought but with feeling.” We can easily fly through our prayer rule, like we are on automatic pilot, and never allow for those precious moments of spontaneous prayer where our heart is fully open realizing God’s mercy and help.
We do not need to have a complex set of prayers for effective prayer. We can have an effective prayer time with only one simple prayer such as the Jesus Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. But, we must be attentive to each word as we repeat the prayer over and over for our allotted prayer time. The words must drop into our heart and penetrate it deeply with feeling. With such attention, our hearts are opened and God’s grace reaches out to embrace us with His mercy.
Saint Theophan says,
Labor, for nothing will come from you otherwise. If you are not successful in prayer, do not expect success in anything else. It is the root off everything.