This is the 16th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.” The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Praying (III).
In this blog we will consider three quotes from the book, Orthodox Prayer Life by Matthew the Poor. All three quotes might be considered practical aspects of praying.
“If you insist on not praying until you are freed from distractions, you will never pray; for distracting thoughts decline and disappear when we persist in prayer itself. He who seeks perfection before action and labor will achieve nothing.” (St. Isaac the Syrian in Orthodox Prayer Life, p 194)
Again, when we consider that our life itself should be an offered prayer to God, there is no time in which prayer to God is inappropriate.
And as St. Isaac noted above if we wait until there are no distractions or no reasons not to pray, we will never pray. A similar notion is if we pray only when we “feel like it”, we may find ourselves never praying at all. Prayer is not a feeling. And prayer is part of the spiritual warfare we engage in, which means sometimes we have to do battle with our situation or circumstances or even with ourselves in order to get ourselves to pray.
“God does not demand of man not to have thoughts at all passing through his mind while praying. Rather he demands that man pays no attention to them or relish them. And you, brother, do not aspire not to have your thought distracted at all, but transform it from an evil to a righteous thought. So if your mind is occupied with divine matters, this is a higher degree of prayer, but the mind cannot always be occupied with contemplating God except by frequent prayers.” (St. Isaac the Syrian in Orthodox Prayer Life, pp 194-195)
There are many demands on most of us during the day, and these thoughts and concerns don’t leave us just because we are praying, but we can learn to put all of these extraneous thoughts, even ones that actually are important, into perspective so that we can pray – and offer them up in prayer too. We can transform our worries into prayer, we can transform our thoughts and plans into thanksgiving to God and to petition to Him to bless and guide us.
All the daily things that crowd into our minds, and the quote above from St. Isaac, brought to my mind another quote, this one from J.R.R. Tolkien in his book, The Fellowship of the Ring.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We have to decide what to do with the time that is given us to pray! We do not get to determine all of the events that may impinge upon our lives, but we do decide what we will do with the time given to us.
“However, a man may forget the goal of the spiritual life he lives in God. He can lose sight of the purpose of prayer. This is a serious sign that his prayer is in danger of being confined to a narrow scope, namely, the concerns of the self. Prayer is thus destined to shrink and cease to progress or grow. This is so even though the motives remain sound.” (Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p 265)
Remember, praying puts us in the presence of God and makes God present in our lives and in a special way in the world. Prayer is not selfish and self-centered, nor is it about self-love. Prayer is about getting beyond the limits of self and entering into God’s love. It is emptying the self in order to allow God to enter into our lives.
“Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit. Teach me to pray aright. Bless this day which you give unto me, your unworthy servant. By the power of your blessing enable me at all times to speak and act to your glory with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love, gentleness, peace, courage and wisdom: aware always of your presence.” (Archimandrite Sophronios, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church)
Next: Praying (V)
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This post actually hits right at the problems I’ve been having recently in my prayer time. I’ve been having troubles with distracting thoughts and it has been upsetting for me and making me feel like my prayer is fruitless. The quotes from St. Isaac the Syrian really get right to the point for me. Thank you for this post Fr. Ted!
I’m glad the words of St. Isaac were of help to you. Thank you for your comment.
Had Moses not received the rod of power from God, he would not have become a god to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1) and a scourge both to him and to Egypt. Correspondingly the intellect, if it fails to grasp the power of prayer, will not be able to shatter sin and the hostile forces ranged against it.” St. Gregory of Sinai.
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We must always be vigilant. Vigilance and discernment are the things we need. The Lord said to Joshua, son of Nun, “Whatever you do, think it over well” (Joshua 1:8). If we at first believe that what we are about to say will be to someone’s benefit, but then, after we use our discernment, we decide that our words will only hurt the other person then it is better to remain silent. Everything should be done with discernment. When one uses one’s discernment, then one is also vigilant. Vigilance is also needed in prayer. Our attention must precede our prayer. We must know that what we are asking for in prayer. You see, when we ask a favor of someone, we say, “I know you can help me if you apply yourself to it.” That means our attention is on the words we are saying when asking for help. If this is the case when we are turning to a person for help, how much more should our attention be focused when we are praying to the Lord, Who is our life! But we have found ways to shorten our prayer rule: we recite our prayers by rote or merely read them from the book. Our hearts and our feeling have no part is such prayer, and n the end we often do not even know what we have read.