Saint John Climacus on Prayer

‘On Prayer’ is the 28th chapter of St John Climacus’ ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’, a treatise comprised of 30 chapters (steps) concerning the spiritual life.

St John urges his readers to “pray in all simplicity” and to forget over-complicated words in prayer. The “simple and unadorned lisping” of children is enough to win the heart of the Lord. St John reminds us that the tax collector and the prodigal son both received forgiveness by a single phrase. Our prayer should therefore contain more heart than intellect. The reader is warned that our minds can be distracted in searching for words.

St John goes on to explain that we should start our prayer with thanksgiving. We should then move on to confession and contrition of soul. Only at the end should we petition God.

First, however, prayer must be approached with preparation. By this, St John means that we must approach God in all humility, not with boldness. If we approach in humility, we will be given boldness. We are taught to prepare ourselves for our set times of prayer with unceasing prayer throughout the day (the Jesus prayer).

St John structures prayer in another way saying: “the beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start with a brief prayer, the middle stage is concentration on what is being said or thought; and its conclusion is rapture in the Lord”.

Prayer is difficult many times because the mind is naturally unstable. We are told however that “God is powerful to establish all things” and that “faith gives wings to prayer”. We cannot rely only on ourselves to improve our prayer: “always be brave, and God will teach you your prayer”.

St John’s chapter on prayer should only take a little longer to read than this small article. However, it is a treasure well worth sourcing from a book that remains timeless and invaluable for Orthodox Christians.

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