Let Us Learn to Pray: Part Two
In this second article written by Saint Theophan the Recluse on prayer, he stresses the importance of slowing down, giving thoughtful consideration to each word and phrase, and saying everything from the heart. Also he stresses the participation of our physical bodies in prayer to cultivate a spirit of prayer. In what ways can you apply these to your morning and/or evening prayers, as we seek to deepen them and ourselves?
We must learn to pray. We should master the skill of saying the prayer, and reading with feeling in order to not just read out the necessary prayer, but also to invoke and strengthen a prayerful spirit in our souls.
To succeed in this we should:
First: Never pray hastily; we should rather pray slowly as if singing. In olden times, when all the prayers were taken from psalms, they were sung, not read.
Second: Perceive every word, not only understanding the idea consciously, but involving the appropriate emotion.
Third: In order to curb your desire to read quickly, make it a rule for yourself that praying is not just reading this or that number of prayers, but providing a definite time to pray, say, a quarter or half an hour—for as long as you are accustomed to pray. Do not worry about the number of prayers, but when the set time is up and you do not want to go on praying, just stop there.
Fourth: Having tuned yourself thus do not look at the clock, but take a stand as if you will stand there forever. Then your will not rush ahead....
Fifth: in order to enable the movement of prayerful feelings, reread and ponder over all the prayers of your prayer rule in your spare time, with due feelings, so that when you are praying you might know beforehand what feeling should be born in your heart.
Sixth: never read all the prayers one after another, but always intersperse them with your own prayers and bows. When you feel something suddenly coming into your heart you should stop your prayer and make bows. This last rule is the most important and necessary for cultivating a prayerful spirit... If you are overcome by some very strong feeling, retain it and make bows to the end of the set time without reading prayers.
Pray not only in the morning and evening, but if you have a chance—at any time of the day, bowing several times.
When you are too busy to fulfill your prayer rule, make it shorter, but do not pray hastily. God is everywhere. After getting up in the morning give thanks to Him and ask Him to bless the work of your coming day in your own words, then make some bows and that is enough! Never turn to God nonchalantly, but always with great reverence. He does not need either our bows or long prayers... A short, but strong cry of your heart —that is what reaches Him! And you are always able to do that.
You can also compile your own prayer rule. Memorize the prayers printed in prayer books and read them by heart with understanding and feeling. While doing this insert your own prayer. The less you depend on the book, the better. Learn some psalms, and when you are going somewhere or doing something while your head is not occupied with it, read them... That is your conversation with God. A prayer rule is a guide, not something to fulfill with the obedience of a slave. You should by all means avoid mechanical and formal reading. It should always be the result of thoughtful decision of your free will, performed with consciousness and feeling, not neglectfully. You should be able to shorten your pray rule when necessary. Family life is full of such instances. For instance, in the morning and in the evening you can read the memorized prayers. You can even omit some of them. Or you can even skip reading prayers at all, just making several bows with a prayer coming truly from your heart. You should be the master of your prayer rule, not its slave. It is to God only that we are servants, who must devote every minute of their lives to Him.
The prayer rule is a safety shell of prayer. Prayer is an internal matter, while the rule is only external. But just as a person without a body is incomplete, so is prayer without a prayer rule. We must have both, and fulfill the rule as much we can. There is an indispensable law: to pray within yourself always and everywhere. However, reading prayers requires allocating a definite time, place and measure for it. The combination of those three elements makes the prayer rule.
So, one must be guided by reason while deciding when, where and how long one should stand praying as well as what prayers to say. One can choose that according to one’s circumstance: whether one can spend more time for prayer, reduce it or postpone the time and change the place of praying... The main effort should be directed to properly saying internal prayers. It is internal prayer that must be said incessantly.
What does incessant prayer mean? To be constantly in the prayerful spirit means to turn one’s thoughts and feelings to God. Thinking of God means keeping always in mind His omnipresence, omnipotence and ability to see everything. Feelings towards God are fear of God, love for Him, the ardent desire to please Him only and to avoid all that displeases Him. The main thing is to commend oneself obediently to His will and to accept everything that happens to us as something sent directly by Him. One can have that feeling for God at any time, doing anything and under any circumstances, if that feeling no longer being sought but has already been established in one’s heart.
Our thought may be distracted by various subjects, but even in that one can attain the ability to stay with God while doing something else, and feel His presence. One must be totally concerned with those two things: thoughts and feelings for God. When they are there, there is prayer, even though it be without words. The morning prayers were established precisely for setting our mind and heart on those two things, so that later in the day we might take up our work with them. If in the morning your soul is filled with thoughts and feelings for God, then your prayer was successful, even if you have not read all the written prayers.
Supposing you started your daily work that way in the morning. However, the very first things you begin doing then distract you from God. What is to be done? You have to refresh your thoughts and feelings for God through your internal appeals to Him. And for that you must get accustomed to your short prayer and to repeat it as often as possible. Any short prayer leads to that. The best prayer of all is: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!" You have to get accustomed to it and never cease saying it. When it is fixed in you, that prayer will become the driving force and appeal to God with your thought and feeling. This is the whole schedule of your work of prayer.
Beginners should first of all learn how to pray appropriately according to the written prayers, in order to memorize the thoughts, feelings and words of prayer. This is important because the words with which we turn to God must be good and beautiful. When the beginner succeeds in that, he can start with both the established prayers, and those of his own.
Examples of short prayers are provided in the 24 short prayers of St. John Chrysostom at the end of the evening prayers. You can also choose other short prayers from the Psalms, church prayers, and you can even compile these established prayers into a rule for yourself.
The Prayer of St. John Chrysostom
O Lord, deprive me not of Thy heavenly good things. O Lord, deliver me from eternal torments. O Lord, if I have sinned in mind or thought, in word or deed, forgive me. O Lord, deliver me from all ignorance, forgetfulness, faint-heartedness, and stony insensibility. O Lord, deliver me from every temptation. O Lord, enlighten my heart which evil desire hath darkened. O Lord, as a man I have sinned, but do Thou, as the compassionate God, have mercy on me, seeing the infirmity of my soul. O Lord, send Thy grace to my aid, that I may glorify Thy holy name. O Lord Jesus Christ, inscribe me Thy servant in the Book of Life, and grant me a good end. O Lord my God, even though I have done nothing good in Thy sight, yet grant me by Thy grace to make a good beginning. O Lord, sprinkle into my heart the dew of Thy grace. O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me Thy sinful servant, shameful and unclean, in Thy kingdom. Amen.
O Lord, accept me in repentance. O Lord, forsake me not. O Lord, lead me not into temptation. O Lord, grant me good thoughts. O Lord, grant me tears, remembrance of death, and compunction. O Lord, grant me the thought of confessing my sins. O Lord, grant me humility, chastity, and obedience. O Lord, grant me patience, courage, and meekness. O Lord, implant in me the root of good, Thy fear in my heart. O Lord, vouchsafe me to love Thee with all my soul and mind, and in all things to do Thy will. O Lord, protect me from evil men, demons, and passions, and from every other unseemly thing. O Lord, I know that Thou doest as Thou wilt: Thy will be done also in me a sinner; for blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.