Reflection on Inattentive Prayer and Practical Ways to Fight Distraction in Prayer

Inattention and distraction during prayer are probably the most common problems most Christians face.
Archpriest Vladimir Dolgih | 02 February 2022

We often go to church for years or even decades, and have no progress in our prayer. I do not pretend to be a spiritual father, but I wanted to share my reflections on prayer.

In most cases, after a person enters the Church, he is told not about the love of God, not about the importance of the saving act of Christ, not about the need to read the Gospel, but about how to prepare for Holy Communion and what prayer rules he should follow. Many of us have a certain mindset for reading Canons and Akathists, but we don’t care about the quality of their execution, or we remember, when we are preparing for confession, to once again add inattentive prayer to the list of our sins.

Certainly, inattentive prayer is a sin. Even the Venerable Neil of Ancyra in the 4th century said that the distraction of the mind in prayer is equal to a violation of the 3rd commandment of Moses. Indeed, reading prayer rules thoughtlessly, we fall under the accusatory words of Christ: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying, These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matthew 15:7-8). Therefore, we see that something needs to be done about inattentive prayer, but what exactly?

Here the Holy Fathers and ascetics of the faith come to our aid. In addition to many others, this is another important argument why ascetic literature should be read not only by monastics, but also by lay people. To begin with, it is necessary to clearly understand that prayer is not ticked boxes in the list of read canons, akathists and prayer rules, but a conversation with God, a conversation with the loving Father. By and large, prayer is a subjective matter, and it is not so important what words it will have. However, the problem is we don’t really know how to pray, and if we try to say something with our own mind, we end up with 10-12 clumsy sentences. This does not mean that one cannot pray using one’s own words, but only that, due to our own feeble mind and spiritual inferiority, we have to use, so to speak, the “groundwork” of those who knew how to truly communicate with God. Be that as it may, in the aggregate it is important to note that we should add our own stream of thoughts, requests and words of gratitude to the prayer rule that we are accustomed to read.

Therefore, the purely psychological fixation of many of us also plays a role, when it seems that changing the usual prayer rule will lead to something irreparable. We begin to feel inner discomfort if the ordinary rhythm of spiritual life begins to fluctuate. Let everyone answer themselves how many times they got into a situation similar to the one when, having overslept in the morning, we are trying to put our prayer rule into the 5-7 minutes left before we have to get going. And then, once again having read the prayers thoughtlessly, we move on with a calm soul. Well, what is the point of it? Let us read 1-2 prayers in these 5 minutes, but carefully, thoughtfully, because all the same, the amount of time spent will be the same, only in this short period we will calmly talk with God, these moments will become a moment of eternity in the temporary run of our earthly life.

Although I have already said that prayer is a subjective matter and cannot be forced into some strictly regulated verbal formulations, it nevertheless has certain “mechanics”, understanding which will allow us to learn attention and composure. Not far away from the above example, I would like to draw our attention to the advice of Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh, who offered to pray using an alarm clock. He said that we need to start it around the time when we know that we will be able to devote time to prayer, for example, at 7-8 o’clock in the evening. As soon as it rings, we need to stop doing everything else and devote time to God. Such method will discipline us to a certain extent, which is of great importance in any ascetic deed. Slightly interpreting Vladyka Anthony’s words, let’s apply them to our example above. Here we know that we have only 5 minutes to pray. We set the alarm for 5 minutes, knowing that it will ring after this time, turn the phone upside down so that there is no temptation to look at the clock, and calmly, slowly pray. When the alarm rings, we will finish the current prayer and get going for work. Here we have a chance, according to Metropolitan Anthony, to really put our whole heart and soul into this, albeit a small, prayer rule.

Further, for example, we are used to pray immediately after our daily activities. We shouldn’t do that, for example, St. Theophan the Recluse wrote about this: “Let prayer be the most common thing for us, however, it requires preparation. What is more common than reading or writing for those who can read and write? – Meanwhile, however, when we sit down to write or read, we do not suddenly start, but we hesitate a little before, at least so much as to put ourselves in a suitable position.” One must prepare for prayer, and St. Nikita Stefat invites us to think about death before prayer. Death is always sobering. When you clearly realize that you will die and stand before God in your dirty and smelly sackcloth, you understand how unimportant all your earthly aspirations are. In order for the words of prayers to be truly perceived by our hearts, St. Theophan offers three methods: “Do not start praying without preliminary, albeit brief, preparation, do not do it casually, but with attention and feeling, and do not immediately go on with your ordinary chores right after you stop praying.” He says that half the success of attentive prayer is concentration and slowness from the first words. This is where we often get into trouble, since the very familiar “Heavenly King” and “Trisagion” and up to the Lord’s Prayer, we thoughtlessly mumble the words, not really bothering with mental concentration. Every word of a prayer must be connected with our mind. Words composed by one of the saints should become my personal request addressed to the Almighty. “Thus, starting to pray,” continues St. Theophan, “in the morning or in the evening, stand a little, or sit, or walk around, and put an effort into sobering up your thoughts, diverting it from all earthly affairs and objects. Then think about who the One to Whom you will turn in prayer is, and who you are, now about to begin this prayerful appeal to Him – and correspondingly setting in your soul the mood of humility and with reverent fear in your heart stand before God.”

Even with the most careful preparation, thoughts will still scatter, therefore, after reading a prayer without attention, you should always return to its beginning. Here it is necessary, as they say, to wear down. When my inner sinful voice begins to speak to me about fatigue, late time, etc., it is important, having gathered the will, to continue to persevere in this direction until this very voice is silent or the prayer is read with attention. The problem may also lie in long prayers, which are even more difficult to focus on. As soon as we get distracted even for a moment, we immediately lose the semantic bundle of sentences, and further reading of such prayer will often no longer make sense. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) advises dividing long prayers into small sentences or phrases and taking a short pause between them (for 1-2 breaths). Such actions will help to better maintain focus and not be distracted from the essence of the spoken words.

The same thing that I said about the “Trisagion…” applies to the completion of prayers. Having approached the end of the prayer rule, the mind begins to relax, and “It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos,” and other concluding prayers again escape our attention. Therefore, here, too, one must not rush, so that all the efforts used are not wasted by the thoughtlessness of the last words spoken.

I have considered only a small part of the richest ascetic heritage contained in the spiritual works of the Holy Fathers. We see that many tips are of a practical nature and are, to a certain extent, a kind of exercise that can be literally outlined. May God grant us to not forget about this and to not neglect such important help of our saints.

Translated by

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