Staying focused and attentive in prayer is a common difficulty for many Christians.
We often ramble in our thoughts as we pray; sometimes, we may succeed in keeping ourselves focused, other times not.
For many of us, praying with attention is a constant battle waged for many years without the slightest progress. Yet we might benefit from the advice of the people with great experience and skill in the art of prayer. On 23 January, the Orthodox Church commemorates the life of Saint Theophan the Recluse. Two of his related works, titled “Four discourses on prayer” and “The way to pray” can provide us with some remarkable insights, and even become our day-to-day companions and guides on the art of prayer. Here is a summary of Saint Theophan’s most essential teachings on the subject.
The saint cautions us upfront that the visible signs of prayer, such making the sign of the cross, bowing, reading or reciting from a prayerbook – aloud or silently – are not enough to be called a genuine prayer. Saint Theophan writes: “Prayer itself is the piercing of our hearts by pious feelings towards God, one after another – feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heartfelt prostration, brokenness, conformity to the will of God, etc.” Note that all of the above feelings should arise spontaneously, but not be sought after purposefully, as the latter can make us vulnerable to many spiritual hazards, such as falling into spiritual deception. Incidentally, we can put ourselves in the right state of mind and spirit by saying prayers aloud and understanding their every word.
So how do these general guidelines translate into the practice of prayer? Saint Theophan recommends some of the following practices to prepare our hearts and minds for understanding prayers:
1. Reading over the text in advance. It is not sensible to start a new prayer without familiarizing ourselves with it. We should read through its text first and check that we understand all of its content. We say most of our prayers in Church Slavonic, so we may have difficulty with some of its words or fragments. In many cases, we may need the help of a good spiritual advisor.
2. Preparation. Prayer takes preparation; one does not begin to pray immediately after finishing a full meal or taking his eyes off a computer screen. It is useful to stand or walk for some time in front of an icon to gather our thoughts, to separate ourselves from all things that are irrelevant and to concentrate on those that matter the most. Preparation may take us 15 – 20 minutes, or even an hour, but we should not rush it: surely, nothing bad is likely to happen to us during this time. As we prepare, we should give a thought about the One whom we are about to petition and about our position as someone who is about to petition the Lord of the Universe. These thoughts should bring us into a pious frame of mind, which should help us concentrate and hold our attention.
3. A good beginning is halfway to success. Avoiding unnecessary haste is crucial at this point. Only then could the words of the prayer be imprinted in our thoughts and make our petition our own before the Lord. Saint Theophan writes, “Pay attention to every word, and let the sense of each word enter into your heart; understand what you are reading and feel what you are understanding.” Again, understanding and feeling are most imperative in a prayer.
4. Pray according to your ability. Here, it is essential to select a prayer rule that we can follow without haste without interrupting the normal course of things. We must prioritise the quality of the prayer over the number of prayers and iterations thereof. To many of us, following this advice could bring us to revise our routine prayer rule.
5. Reading the same text multiple times. If we desire an attentive prayer, we must concentrate our thoughts on its content. We must first return any of our runaway thoughts, and then reread the part of the prayer that we had said without proper attention. We may find this practice enduring, but it is only by subjecting ourselves to such difficulties that we can teach ourselves the habit of utmost concentration. Saint Theophan concludes: “In this way, you will overcome this difficulty so that the next time, perhaps, it will not come up again, or if it does return, it will be weaker.”
6. Stopping periodically. A particular word or phrase might act so strongly on the soul, that the soul no longer wants to continue with the prayer. At such moments, we had better stop and let ourselves reflect on the grace-filled thoughts and sensations aroused by our prayer. We might wish to begin the prayer again to let ourselves penetrate it deeper. “This sort of grace-filled action on the soul during prayer means that the spirit of prayer is becoming internalized, and consequently, maintaining this state is the most hopeful means of raising up and strengthening a spirit of prayer in your heart,” concludes Saint Theophan.
7. Conclusion Just as we take time to prepare ourselves for prayer, we must wait for at least a few minutes before we resume our regular tasks, so we can keep in ourselves he grace-filled feeling achieved during prayer.
But Saint Theophan also underlines that we should not stop at that, we need to continue on and having accustomed ourselves to making petition to God for help with our minds and hearts, we must attempt to ascend to Him. “We must strive to reach the point where our soul by itself begins speaking, so to speak, in a prayerful conversation with God and by itself ascends to Him and opens itself to Him and confesses what is in it and what it desires,” writes the saint.
He is very familiar with the problem that one can pray for so many years with a prayer book, and still not have a prayer in his heart. The reason is that people only spend a little time lifting themselves up to God when they complete their prayer rule, and at other times, they do not remember God. Saint Theophan gives us the following recommendations on avoiding it:
1. We must compel our soul to contemplate of God and turn every action to the glory of God.
2. We must start doing so from the early morning before we embark on any project or task.
3. This will create within us the necessity to turn to God, the Theotokos, the saints or the angels with short prayers, in which it is easier to remain concentrated.
But this is not all. Saint Theophan teaches us about the third kind of prayer, for which we prepare ourselves as we practise the first two. For most of us, fulfilling Saint Theophan’s advice regarding the first two will be difficult enough. Yet it will still be useful for us to know some of the attributes of this third kind of prayer, even though it is beyond our reach for most of us. They are the unceasing turning of the mind and heart to God, accompanied by interior warmth or burning of the spirit. This is the limit to which prayer should aspire, and the goal which every prayerful labourer should have in mind so that he does not work uselessly in the work of prayer. This elevates us to an advanced stage of our inner growth characterised by three things: the fear of God, the remembrance of God, or walking before God, and this turning of the heart toward God with love (loving repetition of the sweet name of the Lord in the heart).
As we can see from the teachings of Saint Theophan, the goal of attentive prayer is within our reach. Our main problem is being neglectful of the advice of the saints and ascetics such as Theophan the Recluse. Let us all listen, and use it for our benefit.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds