Every believer faces the danger of becoming habituated to the words of prayer and of becoming distracted during prayer. For this not to happen, one needs to do constant battle with oneself or, as the Holy Fathers put it, to “guard one’s mind” and learn “to enclose one’s mind in the words of prayer.”
How does one achieve this? First of all, one should not allow oneself to pronounce words when one’s mind and heart do not respond to them. If you begin to read a prayer, but in the middle your attention strays, go back to the place where your attention strayed and repeat the prayer. If necessary, repeat it three, five, or ten times – but get to the point that your whole being responds to it.
Once in church a lady appealed to me: “Batiushka, I have read prayers for many years: both the morning and the evening prayers, but the more I read them, the less I like them, and the less I feel myself believing in God. I am so tired of the words of these prayers that I no longer respond to them.”
I said to her: “Do not read the morning or evening prayers.”
She was astonished: “What do you mean?”
I repeated: “Put them away; do not read them. If your heart does not respond to them, you need to find another means of prayer. How much time do your morning prayers take?”
“Are you ready to dedicate twenty minutes every morning to God?”
“Then take one morning prayer – your choice – and read it over the course of twenty minutes. Read one phrase, be silent, and think about what it means. Then read another phrase, be silent, and think about its content. Repeat it again, thinking about whether it corresponds to your life, whether you are ready to live in such a way that this prayer would become real in your life. You read: ‘Lord, deprive me not of Thy heavenly goods.’ What does that mean? Or: ‘Lord, deliver me from eternal torments.’ What is the danger of these eternal torments? Do we actually fear them? Do we really hope to be delivered from them?” The woman began to pray in this way, and soon her prayer began to revive.
One needs to learn to pray. One has to work on oneself; one cannot allow oneself to stand before the icons and utter empty words.
The quality of prayer also manifests itself by what precedes it and by what follows it. It is impossible to focus on prayer when one is angry or, for example, if before beginning to pray one has argued with somebody or shouted at someone. This means that in the time preceding prayer we should prepare ourselves for it inwardly, freeing ourselves from whatever interferes with our prayer, and tuning ourselves in to a prayerful disposition. Then it will be easier for us to pray. And, of course, after prayer one should not immediately give oneself over to bustle. Having finished praying, give yourself some time to hear God’s response, so that something would sound in you in response to God’s presence.
Prayer is only valuable when we feel that, thanks to it, something changes in us, that we begin to live differently. Prayer can bear fruit, and these fruits should be felt.
To be continued.
Translated from the Russian.