The soul of prayer is attention. Just as the body is dead without the soul, prayer without attention is dead. The spoken prayer turns into empty words without attention and the one who prays is counted amongst those who take the Lord’s name in vain.
Pronounce the words of the prayer unhurriedly; do not allow the mind to wander about but enclose it in the words of the prayer. This path is narrow and sorrowful for a mind which is used to drifting freely about the world, this path leads to attention. Whoever tastes the great blessing of attention will love to constrict the mind on the path which leads to holy attention.
Attention is the initial gift of divine grace which is sent down to the one who labours and patiently endures in the podvig (ascetic struggle) of prayer.
One’s own efforts towards attention should precede the attention bestowed by God-the former should be the active evidence of a sincere desire to receive the latter. One’s own attention is gripped by thoughts and dreams and is shaken by them; attention bestowed by God is steadfast.
Renounce distraction of thoughts in prayer, despise daydreaming, dispel cares by the power of faith, strike fear of God into your heart and duly you will become habituated to attention.
The praying mind must be in a completely sincere state. A dream, however fetching and enticing it may be, is the frivolous creation of one’s own mind and takes the mind out of the state of divine truth and leads it into a state of self-delusion and deception, hence it is cast aside in prayer.
During prayer, your mind should be free of images and you should thus preserve it carefully, dispelling all images which spring up through the power of the imagination, for the mind in prayer stands before God who is unseen, Who cannot be represented in any material way. If the mind allows images in prayer, they become an impenetrable curtain, a wall between the mind and God. “Those who see nothing in their prayers, see God,” said venerable Meletius the Confessor.
If the image of Christ appears to you during your prayer either tangibly or makes itself manifest in your mind, or the image of an angel or any saint-in short, whatever image it is, do not take this appearance for a real one at all and pay no attention to it whatsoever, do not enter into conversation with it. Otherwise, you will be certain to become subject to delusion and to the most powerful spiritual injury, as has happened to many people. Man is incapable of communing with holy spirits until he is renewed by the Holy Spirit. As he still finds himself in the realm of fallen spirits, in their captivity and under their enslavement, he is only capable of seeing them and they often appear to him, having noted high self-regard and delusion within him, in the guise of angels of light or in the guise of Christ Himself to destroy his soul.
The holy Church uses holy icons to stir up devout remembrances and feelings and not at all to stir up daydreaming. When you stand before the icon of the Saviour, stand as if you were before the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who is everywhere present in His divinity as well as present in His icon; when you stand before the icon of the Mother of God, stand as if you were before the Most-Holy Virgin Herself- but keep your mind free of images: there is the greatest difference between being in the presence of Lord, standing before the Lord and visualizing the Lord. The feeling of the Lord’s presence brings a salutary fear over the soul, imbues it with a salutary feeling of reverence, but visualizing the Lord and His saints imparts a sort of materiality to the mind and leads it into false, proud self-regard and leads the soul into a false state, the state of delusion.
The feeling of God’s presence is such a high state! It is by this that the mind is kept from conversing with extraneous thoughts which vilify prayer; it is by this that man’s nothingness is strongly felt and that a special vigilance over oneself is made manifest, preserving man from even the slightest sins. The feeling of God’s presence is attained by attentive prayer. Reverently standing before holy icons greatly enables one to obtain this.
The words of the prayer, enlivened by attention, penetrate deep into the soul, wound and pierce, so to speak, the heart and imbue it with tenderness. The words of a prayer said in distraction seem only to touch the surface of the soul, making no impression on it at all.
Attention and tenderness of heart are recognised as the gift of the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can make the rushing waves of the mind cease, said Saint John Climacus. Another venerable father said “When we have tenderness of heart, then God is with us”, (Hieromonk Seraphim of Sarov).
The one who has attained constant attention and tenderness of heart in his prayers has attained the state of those blessings which are called poverty of spirit and mourning in the Gospel. He has already broken many of the chains of the passions and has already scented the aroma of spiritual freedom, he already bears the foundation of salvation in his core. Do not abandon the constrictions of true prayer and you will obtain holy peace, the mysterious sabbath: for no earthly tasks are done on the sabbath, the battle and podvig recede; in holy dispassion, without distraction, the soul stands before God in pure prayer and is at peace in Him through faith in His eternal goodness and by devotion to His all-holy will.
Attainment in prayer is first made manifest in the one who is an ascetic of prayer through the particular action of attention: it unexpectedly envelops the mind from time to time, encloses it in the words of the prayer. Then attention becomes far more constant and lengthier: the mind seems to latch onto the words of the prayer and is carried off by them towards union with the heart. Finally, tenderness of heart is suddenly added to attention, making man into a temple of prayer, into God’s temple.
Offer up to God prayers which are quiet and humble and not passionate or fiery. When you become the mysterious priest of prayer, you will go up into God’s tabernacle and from there you will fill the censer of prayer with holy fire. It is forbidden to offer up to All-Holy God the unclean fire-the blind and material inflaming of the blood.
The holy fire of prayer which is bestowed from God’s tabernacle is holy love, poured out upon true Christians by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The one who strives to combine prayer with the fire of the blood imagines, in his delusion, deceived by his self-regard, that he does service to God, when he actually rouses His anger.
Do not seek enjoyment in prayer: this is not at all natural for the sinner. The desire of the sinner to feel enjoyment is indeed delusion. Seek for your dead and hardened heart to come alive, so that it is opened up to feel its own sinfulness, its fall and unworthiness, so that it can see them and admit them with self-abandonment. Then the true fruit of prayer will be found in you-true repentance. You will groan before God and cry out to Him through prayer from the wretched state of the soul which has suddenly revealed itself to you; you will cry out as if from a dungeon, from the grave, from hell.
Repentance produces prayer and this daughter produces it two-fold.
Enjoyment in prayer is only the lot of the holy saints of God, who have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. The one who is distracted by the impulses of the blood, distracted by vainglory and sensuality and fabricates his own enjoyment, is in woeful delusion. The soul which is darkened by living according to the flesh, the soul deceived and deceiving itself by its pride is very capable of such fabrications.
The feelings produced by prayer and repentance are a lightening of the conscience in the world of the soul, reconciliation with one’s neighbour and the circumstances of life, mercy and compassion for humanity, refraining from the passions, coldness towards the world, obedience to God, strength in the struggle against sinful thoughts and distractions. Be content with these feelings, which do contain the savour of the hope of salvation. Don’t seek high spiritual states and delights in prayer prematurely. They are actually not at all as they appear to our imagination: the action of the Holy Spirit, from Whom the high states of prayer come, is inscrutable for the mind of flesh.
Learn to pray with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength. You might ask: what does this mean? You cannot find out in any other way than through experience. Try to constantly be occupied with attentive prayer: attentive prayer will grant you the answer to this question through holy experience.
The podvig of prayer appears onerous, boring and dry to a mind which is habituated to only being occupied with corruptible objects. The ability to pray is obtained with difficulty; when this ability is obtained then it becomes the source of constant spiritual consolation.
Prayer, as has been said above, is the mother of the virtues- obtain this mother, then! Her children will proceed from thence into the house of your soul and will make it into God’s shrine.
Offer up prayer to God before you begin any undertaking; draw God’s blessing onto your undertakings through this and judge your actions by this: the thought of prayer causes us to refrain from actions which are against God’s commandments.
The one who turns to God in prayer before any word or action, for instruction, assistance and blessing, carries out his way of life as if under God’s gaze and under His guidance. This ability is beneficial; nothing is swifter than the mind, said Barsanuphius the Great, nothing is more beneficial than to raise the mind to God when you encounter any need. (Answer 216).
In the difficult circumstances of life, offer your prayers to God more frequently. It is better to resort to prayers than to the empty notions of weak human reason which mostly cannot come to pass. It is better to lean on faith and on the almighty God through prayer than on one’s feeble reason through untrustworthy notions and assumptions.
Do not be mindless in your requests, so as not to anger God by your thoughtlessness: the one who asks for something negligible from the King of Heaven thus dishonours Him. The Israelites, when they had ignored God’s miracles enacted for them in the desert, asked for fulfilment of the desires of the belly, but while their meat was yet in their mouths, the wrath of God came upon them (Psalm 78:30-31).
Offer up to God requests which measure up to His greatness. Solomon asked Him for wisdom and received it, as well as many other blessings, because he asked wisely. Elisha asked Him for the two-fold grace of the Holy Spirit, before his great teacher, and his request was accepted.
Translated from the Russian by Nicola Dockray