I do not wish to discuss the piety that we must have at the time of prayer, but rather the method of prayer in order for it to become truly pious prayer. From my personal experience, from discussion I have had with different people, monks, priests, and also laymen, I have employed a certain technique of prayer – not in the mechanical sense, but in the sense of a certain course of action one takes which opens the spiritual heart in order to understand what holy prayer means.
Prayer is an act of concentration and detachment from material reality – one’s anchoring into a realm that is new for any man, even if he is a believing man, because genuine prayer does not mean the mechanical reciting of some texts and the direction of attention, every now and then, to the meaning of the words. In prayer one is to be seized and carried off. It is a going out of yourself and making straight for God in a mysterious way which is not even understood by him who practices it. Prayer is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the first place, one who prays knows that he is engaging himself in an activity full of demonic snares. Anyone – no matter how rarely he has prayed – who has desired to feel the sweetness of prayer knows by what difficulties and temptations he will be hit. On the other hand, stay in front of the television for hours on end and watch a movie full of trivialities and the commonplace and not one other thought will distract you from the dissipation that occurs on the screen.
Set yourself to prayer – I am not speaking of those who pray mechanically, but of those who come with the good intention to pray – and a thousand other thoughts will assail you, contrary to your good intentions. Memories and stupid and unimportant preoccupations will invade your mind, as well as anger, bad words, jokes, and whatever else can distract you from prayer which would unite you with God.
This experience, which is painful for those of us who pray and live with it for years, gradually improves through very simple exercises, such as I will set forth further on.
He who wants to have his prayer improve must, before anything else, realize that he is a sinner. He must watch over his attitudes, actions, and thoughts and realize how sinful it is every day and every hour, just as the prayer from the Rule for Holy Communion says. Then, step-by-step, he must make a shield against the temptations of the world, as much as possible and not be frightened if, at the beginning, this shield is easily penetrated by the temptations of Satan. In time, the shield strengthens him and it is more difficult for the devil to penetrate beyond it. No one, however, is spared temptations as long as he lives in the flesh. The roads of temptations are many: some come to us through our feelings, others through the imagination, others through impious memories, others through the heart, and others through the rational mind. The most advanced fathers themselves confess the temptations which they suffered in their earthly life. St. Symeon Metaphrastes, in a prayer from the Rule for Holy Communion says, “What sin is there that I have not committed? What evil is there that I have not meditated in my soul? I am guilty of fornication and adultery, of pride, arrogance, condemnation of others, censure, idle conversation, unworthy laughter, drunkenness, gluttony, hatred, envy, cupidity, avarice, usury, self-love, etc.” And St. Symeon the New Theologian, in the seventh prayer from the prayers before Holy Communion after he has laid out all his sins, adds: “Thou knowest also my wounds, and Thou seest my bruises. But also Thou knowest my faith. And Thou beholdest my willingness, and Thou hearest my sighs. Nothing escapes Thee, my God, my Maker, my redeemer; not even a teardrop, nor a part of a drop…”
It is good that we know that just as God knows all our deeds and thoughts and intentions – “All things are naked and manifest before Thine eyes…” – so also He knows our repentance and tears and regrets. If someone lives all these things, he begins to be integrally formed in the spirit. That is, he gains a sort of immunity from the evils of the world; he is no longer so strongly disturbed by the malice of Satan, offenses from his neighbors, and all that usually creates sufferings for us. According to the expression of St. John of the Ladder, “I have partly closed the windows of the soul to the world.” In this case, prayer begins to become all the more devout, all the more genuine.
The holy Fathers say that the devil tries to agitate us at the time he sees us praying. This explains why we are so tempted at the time of prayer. Temptations which we have never had in our lives rush at us during prayer with a fury which we would not be able to withstand if we did not cry out to the Savior to help us. Prayer is a conversation with God in which he who prays takes his position on the lowest step of humility. The devil fell because of his arrogance and therefore humility enrages him, because he cannot do anything against it. He can perhaps turn a good deed against you through self-praise or by having someone else praise you. Anything performed with good intentions can be subverted unto your destruction if you let yourself be tempted. But humility and repentance are untouchable by him.
As I have already said, at the time of prayer satanic assaults are innumerable – thoughts besiege you, memories abduct your mind from prayer, past anger [i.e. remembrance of wrongs] becomes very present. All of a sudden, some unimportant matters – for example, “What time is it?” or “Is it raining outside or is the sun shining?” – become very important, and the evil spirit drives you to interrupt your prayer “just for a moment” in order to look at the clock or the weather or some other unimportant thing.
The experience of the saints or of men of prayer gives us some solutions in the fight against the spiritual temptations to which we are subjected by the devil at the time of prayer.
As soon as you prepare your heart for prayer and have purified your mind of the cares of the day which, no matter what, you will not be able to vanquish completely, set yourself to prayer. In that moment, the angel of prayer who watches over you comes to your right side, and the devil cunningly and covertly sets himself on your left. You must take a pious position, appropriate for the attitude of prayer: be it on your knees, or standing – your position must express a relationship to prayer.
(Those advanced in prayer teach not to hold any images in the mind during prayer, but) for us common folk who pray, it is better that we have before us icons of the Savior and of the Mother of God and of the saints to whom we wish to pray. The icon, however, is only your step toward the spiritual – toward the heart of Jesus, toward the compassion of the Holy Virgin, and toward the goodness of the saints. In fact, do not see the icon except as a gate of entrance into the world of divinity.
If you pray aloud, do not be carried away by the sound of your own voice; do not embellish the words with a kind of soft wave which accentuates the sounds and blurs the meaning, leaving you with only the monotonous sound of your voice. In that moment, prayer abandons you, leaving you with only the barren prayer of the lips, which, in any case, is better than no prayer at all, because at least the flesh prays. Be careful in your pronunciation of the words and put the accent, through the modulation of your voice, on their spiritual meaning, and keep yourself alert and your heart directed toward God. If you pray mentally, know that thought is more rapid than the uttering of words, even if it is just your mind. The word is slower than thought. Linguists have ascertained that at the moment we think, we are thinking in words. Especially when we are praying or speaking with someone mentally, our phonetic organ imitates the uttering of the words, even though the vocal cords make less movement than when we speak out loud. Nevertheless, these imperceptible movements have a certain inertia, so that the thought proceeds much further before the sub-vocal pronouncing. Additionally, the thought skips over many words which remain only intended, so that the accumulation of many unsaid words diverts us from the meaning of prayer, and we lose its sweetness. That is why we must carefully pronounce every word mentally, with the same care that we pray aloud.
Often our mind abandons prayer and goes to and fro, far from God. However what remains is a light of vigilance which is kept alive by the angel of prayer. When your mind runs off, stop the prayer for a moment and call your mind back. The presence of the angel who helps you to pray will immediately be felt in the sense that the angel will remind you of the exact moment in which your mind wandered off – even the words which you had said at the moment it fled. Resume the prayer from the phrase where the word was, and continue to pray. Repeat this calling back of the mind, no matter how many times it wanders and, with patience, you will manage to discipline it.
In order to preserve the vitality of prayer, it is important to change the position of your body when you feel that you are tired and that the mind is ready to run off. Some changes can be more significant, as, for example, the falling onto your knees if you had been standing. Others are less extensive, but have the same exact effect. A simple change of the positioning of the hands, such as, lifting them up or rotating the palms so that they are turned up in a supplicatory position, or joining together the palms…or raising them above your head – all of these movements express actions of bodily piety which call your spirit back to prayer from its wandering.
All prayer requires certain obligatory prayers, called the Beginning Prayers, which are composed of: “O Heavenly King…”, “Holy God…”, “Most Holy Trinity…”, “Our Father…”, Psalm 50, the Creed and at least one prayer to the Mother of God. … These prayers are obligatory even for those who practice the prayer of the heart.
It is very important to read the Akathists to the Savior, the Mother of God, and if it is available the saint of the day; the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God, and the Canon of Repentance. Finally add prayers for special purposes: parents, relatives, friends, enemies, for the dead, etc.
All of these endeavors and personal prayers are only drop of water. The great prayer – saving and unifying – is the Holy and Divine Liturgy, from which the Christian cannot be absent on the days that are fixed by the Church. Confession and Communion are obligatory. They are the crown of our endeavors and put upon our prayers the seal of the Holy Spirit and deify us through the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.