Continuing discussion on prayer, drawing on materials from the talk I gave to the Orthodox youth at last weekend’s festival for the altar-feast of the Romanian parish, I should like to share some thoughts on preparing to pray, and as we celebrate the feast of St Theophan the Recluse, we may profit from his guidance on prayer.
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark
In our hectic lives, we rush around from one task to the other, and whilst we are completing one, our mind is already moving on to the next. We never seem to be in one place, but several at the same time. We ask one person to hold the line on one telephone, whilst we take a call on another: juggling all the time.
And… from this mad world, we suddenly expect that we can put down everything and pray. Needless to say, it doesn’t work! We come to confession and confess that we find it hard to pray; that our mind is distracted during prayer; that we end up saying prayer only with our lips.
How do we expect it to be any other way? Words from St Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) to which we will return shortly:
“Prayer does not come about as you expect – by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.”
We seek to pray with attention and without distraction, but must be clear that the first step in trying to do this begins before we even begin to pray, and here we should listen to St Theophan.
With directness, he challenges us with what we know is true, when he says, “Though we make painstaking preparations for every other task (no matter how trivial), we do not prepare for prayer. We take up prayer with flighty thoughts, willy-nilly, and rush to get it over with, as if it were an incidental, though unavoidable, bother—and not the centre of our life, as it should be.”
How true this sadly is. Our priorities in terms of getting ready for other things – social events, lectures, concerts/recitals, interviews, far outweigh our efforts to get ready to pray.
We can find time to preen ourselves, iron our clothes to perfection, do our hair and make-up, make food for visitors, and preparation for so many other things – but prayer? Preparation for prayer?
Does it even occur to us that there is even a need to prepare for prayer?
St Theophan asks, “Without preparation, how can there be a gathering of thought and feeling in prayer? Without preparation, prayer proceeds shakily instead of firmly…
With authority, he warns us:
“…under no circumstance allow yourself to come to prayer with your heart and mind unprepared, your thoughts and feelings scattered in a dozen directions. Such a careless attitude toward prayer is a crime, a serious one – a capital one. Consider prayer the central labour of your life and hold it in the centre of your heart. Address it in its rightful role, not as a secondary function!”
What should we do? We should listen to St Theophan, and translate his advice into action.
- Prepare yourself to stand properly before God – do not just jump into prayer after gossiping and gadding about or doing house chores… stand for a moment, or sit, or walk, and strive in this time to focus your thoughts, casting off from them all earthly activities and objects.
- Schedule the time and rouse the urge to pray precisely at that hour. Another opportunity may not come.
- Do not forget to re-establish your sense of spiritual need. Bring your need for God to the front of your mind… awaken in your soul the feeling of humility and reverent awe of standing before God in your heart… call to mind the One to Whom you are praying, Who He is and who you are, as you begin this prayerful petition to Him.
- When the heart is conscious and feels the need for prayer, then the attentive heart itself will not let your thoughts slide to other matters. It will force you to cry out to the Lord in your prayers…
- Most of all, be aware of your own helplessness. Were it not for God, you would be lost.
- Toil! God will be your helper.
- Take care to fulfil your prayer rule. If you begin to fulfil it, soon, very soon, you will see the fruits of your labour.
- Strive to experience the sweetness of pure prayer. Once experienced, pure prayer will draw you on and enliven your spiritual life, beckoning you to more attentive, more difficult, and ever-deepening prayer.
- As you stand piously before God, all of this preparation may seem small and insignificant, but it is not small in meaning. This is the beginning of prayer and a good beginning is half the work.
By following these instructions, we can begin to arrive at the right disposition to pray – whether at home or in church, and when we come to church, we should arrive in good time, BEFORE THE SERVICE BEGINS, allowing us time to venerate the icons, stand in silence as we come into the house of God, light our candles, write out any commemoration lists, adjust to the stillness of the temple, and forget the busyness and noise of the world we should have left behind at the door.
We should do very little different at home, as we approach the icon corner as a holy place, in which we light the candles and lamps and stand quiet and still before we begin to pray, unhurriedly, with diligence and attention.
Until the tragic schism of the 17th century, our Russian Orthodox forebears performed special entrance prayers and bows: essentially the prayer before prayer. Our Jordanville prayer books preserve a form of this in the seven-bow beginning, to be said before any form of prayer:
1. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. (bow)
2. O God, cleanse me, a sinner, and have mercy on me. (bow)
3. Having created me, O Lord, have mercy on me. (bow)
4. I have sinned immeasurably, O Lord, forgive me. (bow)
5. My sovereign Lady, most holy Mother of God, save me, a sinner, (bow)
6. O Angel, my holy Guardian, protect me from all evil. (bow)
7. Holy Apostle (or martyr, or holy father Name) pray to God for me. (bow)
Then: Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us. Amen.
Such entrance prayers are valuable, inasmuch as they mark a boundary and moment of transition in our daily lives, as we leave worldly concerns behind to stand before God and commune with him in prayer.
Let us slow down, approaching prayer with awe, remembering that Moses was told to stop and take off his sandals before he approached the Burning Bush, where he had converse with the Living God.