On Prayer by St. Theophan the Recluse24 min read
Excerpts from the book “The Nature of the Spiritual Life, and how to adapt oneself to it.”
St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) was one of the most outstanding Russian spiritual writers of the last century and the editor and the translator of the famous collection of patristic writings “The Philokalia”. He was for a time the Rector of the St. Petersburg Spiritual Academy, then a diocesan bishop, and for about the last 30 years of this life a hermit in a monastery by the river Vysha in Russia.
I. The science of prayer. (From Letter 15).
You write that you prayed zealously and that immediately your mind was set at ease and you received an inner assurance that you would be freed from what was troubling you — as afterward actually happened…
Remember how you prayed then and always try to pray in such a way that your prayer should come from your heart, and not be merely uttered with your tongue and confined to your intellect…
I shall not conceal from you that though you have prayed like this you will hardly be able to do so always. Such prayer is granted by God or inspired by one’s Guardian Angel. And it comes and goes. From this, however, it does not follow that it is permissible for us to abandon the labour of prayer. True prayer comes to him who labours at prayer, and it will not come to him who does not. We see that the holy Fathers laboured a great deal at prayer and their labours enkindled within them the spirit of prayer. A description of how they achieved this has been left to us in their writings. All they have said on this subject form the science of prayer, which is the science of sciences. When the time comes, we shall study this science; now I have merely touched the subject in passing… Yet I may add that there is nothing more important than prayer. Therefore, one must labour at it more zealously than at other thing. May the Lord grant you the zeal for such labour!
II. Wandering of thoughts at the time of prayer. (From Letter 31).
Thoughts wander during reading or praying — but what can be done about it? There is no one who is free from this. However, there is no sin in this, but merely some imperfection. It becomes a sin when one voluntarily allows the development of thoughts unrelated to prayer. But when one’s thoughts wander without one’s consent, what fault can there be in that? It is also sinful, if, having become aware of the wandering of one’s thoughts, one allows this to continue. Rather must we, as soon as it is noticed that our thoughts are straying, recall them.
In order that during prayer there may be as little distraction as possible, one must exert oneself, and pray with warmth of feeling and for this purpose one should before praying awaken warmth in the soul by reflection and making bows. Get accustomed to praying in your own words. Thus, for instance, the essence of the evening prayer is to thank God, for the day and for everything that has happened in the course of it, both pleasant and unpleasant, and to repent and ask forgiveness for the evil one has done, promising to be better the next day, and to ask God’s protection for the night. Say all this to God from your own mind and from your own heart. The essence of the morning prayer is to thank God for sleep and renewed strength and to ask Him to help us through the day to do all things for His glory. This, too, say to Him in your own words and as coming from your own heart. Moreover, both in the morning and in the evening, express to the Lord your innermost needs, above all the spiritual ones, and if you wish material ones too, saying to Him like a child: “Thou seest, O Lord, my sickness and infirmity! Help me and cure me!” All this, and similar petitions, may be addressed to God in one’s own words without the aid of prayer-book. And it may even be better that way. Try this, and if it is successful you may dispense with the prayer-book entirely; but if not, you should pray with the help of a prayer-book, or otherwise, you may find yourself unable to pray at all.
In order that praying with the help of the prayer-book may collect your thoughts and warm your heart, in your free time — not at the time set apart for regular prayer — sit down and think over the contents of the prescribed prayers and let yourself experience the feelings contained in them. When after this you come to read them through at the time of prayer — whether morning or evening — all the thoughts and feelings which you evoked previously through reflection will be renewed: and will hold your attention and warm your heart. Never perform prayers hurriedly. And one thing more: take the trouble to learn prayers by heart. This helps very much to prevent distraction. One has to learn to pray, just as one has to learn any other thing.
III. Coldness. (From Letter 40).
The enemy of this fundamental disposition, and consequently our chief enemy, you have well defined as coldness. It is indeed a bitter enemy! But know that not every diminution of fervour denotes a fatal cooling. It may be due simply to a decline of physical strength, or to some indisposition. Coldness is disastrous only when it is the result of a voluntary departure, despite the warning and restraining efforts of conscience, from the will of God, with full awareness of the fact and with attachment to something of these words. This kills the spirit and suppresses the spiritual life. Fear this above anything else; fear like fire or death. Such coldness is due to neglecting to attend to oneself and to loss of the fear of God. Watch these two carefully, so that you may avoid that terrible evil. As to involuntary occasional coldness due to physical exhaustion or indisposition, for such cases there is only one rule: to endure this, not interrupting your established pious way of life in any detail, even though it will be performed without experiencing any pleasure. From him who bears it patiently, coldness soon departs, and there returns the habitual zeal, warm and coming from one’s heart. Be good enough to remember this and for the future to resolve, first on no account to allow zeal to grow cold voluntarily, and secondly, in the event of coldness due to chance causes, to persevere with your established way of life, confident that this dry performance will soon restore liveliness and warmth of zeal.
IV. A “short prayer” i.e. one consisting of a few words and repeated many times. (From Letter 42).
In order the more easily to accustom themselves to the keeping of God in the mind, Christians who are zealous use a special method, that is to repeat constantly a short prayer, consisting of two or three words. It is usually: Lord, have mercy! — Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner! If you have not yet heard of this, learn of it now; and if you have not been doing this, then begin to do so from now on.
V. Time needed for success in the spiritual life
(more exactly, the time needed to acquire an ever-present consciousness of God). (From Letter 43).
I shall give you courage! Start this zealously and continue unceasingly, and you will soon attain the desired result. You will become reverently absorbed in the One God; and with Him, there will come inner peace. I use the word “soon” — yet that does not mean in a day or two. Months perhaps will be needed — or maybe even years! Ask the Lord and He Himself will help you.
VI. A rule of prayer. (From Letter 47).
You ask about a rule of prayer. Yes, we must have some such rule because of our weaknesses, in order on the one hand not to give way to laziness, and on the other to keep our zeal within reasonable limits. The greatest men of prayer had a rule of prayer and observed it. Each time they would begin to pray with set prayers, and later only, if in the course of this, self-moving prayer would come to them, they would abandon set prayers and pray in this way. If they did so, all the more should we. Without set prayers, we would not know to pray at all. If set prayers had not existed, we would have been left entirely without prayer.
Nevertheless one should not amass a great number of prayers. A small number of prayers said properly is better than a large number said hurriedly, from which it is difficult to refrain when they are amassed immoderately in the ardour of one’s zeal.
For you, I think it is quite sufficient in the morning and in the evening to go through the prayers set out in the prayer-book as morning prayers and prayers before returning to sleep. But endeavour each time to perform them with all care and proper feelings. In order to do this the more successfully, take the trouble during your spare time, as a task apart, to read them all, think over them, and try to feel their contents, so that when you come to carry out your rule of prayer you will know the holy thoughts and feelings they contain. Prayer does not mean that we should just go through our prayers but rather that we should experience their contents in ourselves, and utter them as coming from our mind and our heart.
Then having thought over the contents of the prayers and tried to experience their emotions, I beg of you to learn them by heart, so that you need not trouble any more about the prayer-book nor the light when the time for prayer arrives and not be distracted while praying by what the eye sees but with greater ease remain mentally turned to God. You will see for yourself what a great help that will be. And indeed the fact that at any time and in any place you have, as it were, the prayer-book with you means a great deal.
Having thus prepared yourself, when you are standing at prayer endeavour to restrain the mind from wandering and do not allow the feelings to become cold or indifferent, exerting yourself in every way to maintain attention and to increase warmth of feeling. After each set prayer make bows — as many as you think appropriate — with your petitions for the needs you feel or with the usual short prayer. Through this your prayer will take a little longer, but its force will increase. At any rate after finishing the set prayers pray a little longer in your own words, asking God to forgive you for involuntary distractions and entrusting yourself into His hand for the whole day.
During the day, too, prayerful attention to God must be maintained. For this, as has already been said more than once, we need to keep God in mind; and for this in turn we have the short prayer. It is a good plan, in fact a very good one, to learn by heart a few psalms and to repeat them accompanied by reflection during work, sometimes instead of the short prayer. This is a most ancient Christian custom, already noted and introduced into their monastic rules by St. Pachomius and St. Anthony.
Having spent the day in this manner, in the evening offer your prayers more zealously and more recollectedly, increase both your bows and your petitions to God, and once again having entrusted yourself into God’s hands, go to sleep with the short prayer on your lips and fall asleep still repeating it or going through some psalm.
Which psalms should one learn? Learn those which appeal to your heart at the time of reading them through. Certain psalms appeal to some persons, whilst other psalms appeal to others. Begin with “Have mercy upon me, O God,” (Ps. 50), then “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 102) and “Praise the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 145) — psalms forming antiphons in the Liturgy; also the psalms at the beginning of the Rule of Preparation for Holy Communion: “The Lord tends me” (Ps. 22), “The earth is the Lord’s, and the contents thereof” (Ps. 23), “I believed, therefore I spoke” (Ps. 115), and the first psalm of compline: “O God, come to my help” (Ps. 69); the psalms of the Hours… and the like. Read the Psalter and make a choice.
Having committed all this to memory, you will always be fully equipped for prayer. When a disturbing thought comes, hasten either to fall down before the Lord with a short prayer or to repeat some psalm, especially: “O God, come to my help,” and the whole cloud of confusion will at once disperse.
And that is all concerning the rule of prayer. But I repeat: remember that all these are merely aids; the main thing is the mental standing in the heart before God with a feeling of reverence and the prostrating of oneself in the affliction of the mind before Him.
VII. A rule of prayer consisting of the “short prayer”.
(From the same Letter).
It has occurred to me to tell you also the following. One may confine the whole rule of prayer to making bows with one of the short prayers and with one’s own words of prayer. Stand and make a bow, repeating: “Lord, have mercy!”, or some other short prayer, and express your needs or give your praise and thanks to God. To prevent laziness from stealing in when recourse is made to this method; one should fix either the number of repetitions of a short prayer or the length of time the prayer should last or both.
This is necessary because there is in us some incomprehensible peculiarity. When, for instance, we work at something external, hours pass as if they were a minute. But when we begin to pray, hardly a minute passes, and it already seems that we have prayed for every long time. This thought does not cause any harm when one prays according to a fixed rule, but when one prays only by making bows with one of the short prayers, it presents a great temptation and can stop prayer which has only just commenced to develop, leaving the deceptive conviction that the time of prayer has been spent as it should. So experienced men of prayer, in order not to be subject to this self-deception, devised beads, which are recommended for the use of those who intend to pray not by means of the prayer-book but on their own. They are used in this way: one says .. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and passes a bead between the fingers; then repeats the words and again moves a bead, and so on. With each repetition one makes a bow or a prostration, according to choice; or with the small beads — a bow, and with the large ones — a prostration. The whole rule of prayer in this case consists of a definite number of repetitions of a short prayer accompanied with bows, between which one also inserts some prayers in one’s own words. In order here too not to deceive oneself through haste in the repetition of the short prayers and in making bows, when the number of bows and prayers is being fixed one should fix also the length of the time the prayer is to last, so as to eliminate any haste and, if such haste does insinuate itself, to make up for it by additional bows.
The number of bows one should make in place of the various offices we find laid down in the Psalter for Devotional Use, at the end, and in two grades — for the diligent and for those who are lazy or busy. Hermits, who exist even now, living in hermitages or in special cells in monasteries (as for instance at Valaam and Solovki), perform all the offices in this way. If you wish, you too may perform your rule of prayer, regularly or occasionally, in this manner. But first, take the trouble to learn to perform it in the prescribed form. Possibly you will not need to introduce this new rule. In case, however, you may require them, I am sending you beads. Do this: note the time it takes to go through your morning and evening prayers, then sit down and repeat with the beads your short prayer, and note how many times you get through the beads in the time you ordinarily spend in prayer. Let that number serve as a measure for your rule. You will do this not at the time of prayer but apart from it, though with the same attention. Perform your rule of prayer in this way, later on, standing and making bows.
On reading this, do not think that I am driving you into a convent. It was from a layman, and not from a monk, that I myself first heard of prayer with beads. Many laymen pray in this way. And it will come in useful for you too. When the use of prayers composed by others and learnt by heart ceases to have effect and no longer arouse emotion, you may pray like this for a day or two, and then return again to the memorized prayers. And so on — in turns.
But I repeat once more: the essence of prayer is the lifting up of one’s mind and heart to God; these little rules serve only as a help. We cannot do without them, weaklings that we are.
VIII. One must labour quite hard before success is achieved.
(From Letter 48).
You write that you can in no way control your thoughts, which are always wandering, and that prayer progresses not at all as you would like; and during the day, amongst occupations and meeting people, the thought of God scarcely enters your mind.
It cannot be done all of a sudden. One must take considerable trouble to gain even slight control over one’s thoughts. But what you expected, namely that one merely has to begin and success is already achieved — never happens.
IX. One must force oneself to pray.
(From the same Letter).
You have the book of the discourses of St. Macarius of Egypt. I beg of you to read the 19Stth discourse, the one telling us that Christians must force themselves to do anything good. There it is stated that “it is necessary to force oneself to pray unless one has the inner prayer” and that “in such a case God, seeing that a man strives hard and controls himself (i. e. his thoughts) against the desire of his heart, gives him true prayer,” i. e. prayer undistracted, collected and deepended, with the mind continually present before God. And as soon as the mind at the time of prayer begins to be with God, it will not afterward wish to depart from Him, for this is accompanied with such a sweetness that, having tasted it, one does not wish to taste anything else.
As to the nature of the effort we must make here I have already mentioned more than once: not to allow thoughts to wander at random, and if they should, to bring them back at once, reproaching oneself, regretting and feeling pain at this disorder. Concerning this St. John Climax says that “one must with an effort enclose one’s mind within the words of prayer.”
But when you have learned prayers by heart, as I wrote last time, you will perhaps have better results. It would be best of all to go to a church, there the disposition to pray would soon unfold itself because everything there is directed to this end; but for you it is inconvenient. Endeavour therefore to get used to praying undistractedly at home and for the rest of the time to abide as much as you can with God. In learning prayers by heart, remember to think over every single word and to experience the emotions expressed by each of them; then during prayer those words will fix themselves in your mind and give warmth to the feeling which accompanies prayer.
X. Preparation for prayer. (From the same Letter).
Do also this. Do not begin to pray immediately after household duties, taking, or running here and there, but prepare yourself a little in order to stand worthily before God. Arouse in yourself a feeling of the need for prayer, and just at this hour, for another may not come at all. Do not forget also to renew in your mind the consciousness of your spiritual needs and in the first place of your present need, i. e. of being able to control your thoughts during prayer, together with the desire to find satisfaction for your spiritual needs — namely in God alone. When you have in your heart the consciousness and feeling of these needs, the heart of itself will not allow your thoughts to wander elsewhere but will force you to entreat the Lord concerning your needs. But above all feel acutely your complete helplessness in all respects: feel that but for God, you would be lost entirely. If a misfortune threatens someone, and he has before him a person who can rescue him from it by a mere wave of the hand, will he in such circumstances look around in all directions? No, he will fall down before him and implore his help. The same will happen to you in prayer when you approach it with the feeling of an all-pervading danger with the realization that there is no one to rescue you except the One God.
We all are guilty of no small a fault in that, while we set about any other business only after some preparation, however small, we turn to prayer without a moment’s thought and hurry to finish it as quickly as we can, as though it were some incidental matter, an addition to what we happen to be doing, and not the most important of our affairs. How then in such a case can there be concentration of thought and any feelings during prayer? And so prayer goes anyhow, in a disorderly way. Don’t do that. Be so good as to deny yourself this fault and never allow yourself to have a frivolous attitude towards prayer. Convince yourself that such an attitude to prayer is a most serious offense — in fact, a capital crime. Regard prayer as the first thing in your life and experience it as such in your heart. Consequently, approach it always as the primary business of your life and not merely as a stop-gap.
Persevere. May God assist you. But take car2 to do what is laid down for you. If you will do this, then very soon you will see the fruit. Strive to feel the sweetness of true prayer. When you have experienced it, then this will draw you towards prayer and inspire you to the most strenuous and concentrated prayer.
XI. Everyday occupations. (From Letter 49).
There is amongst us a belief — indeed almost universal, that as soon as one begins to do something at home or outside, one leaves the realm of things Godly and pleasing to God. Because of this, whenever the desire is born to live in a manner pleasing to God or the conversation turns up on this subject, people usually assume that if one would do so in earnest, one must flee from society, flee from home — into the desert or the forest. However, neither the one nor the other is true. Domestic and social activities, on which depends the very existence of home and of society, are things ordained by God and their performance is not a departure into a sphere displeasing to God, but is an activity within His province.
The result of such a wrong belief is that people just do not trouble to think about God in the course of domestic or social duties. I see that this false idea possesses you too. I beg of you then to reject it and to embrace the conviction that everything you do in the home or outside in the social sphere, as a daughter, or a sister, or now as a citizen of Moscow, is of God and pleasing to Him. For there are special commandments concerning everything that belongs to these spheres. And how can the fulfillment of commandments be displeasing to God? By this false belief, you in fact make these activities displeasing to Him because you do them not in the spirit that He wishes them to be done. God’s affairs are done without any thought of God. As a result, they bring no spiritual benefit and at the same time take the mind away from Him.
Correct this idea then, and from now on start to do all work of this kind with the knowledge that there is a commandment to do all these things, and do them, as fulfilling God’s commandment. When you so adjust yourself, then none of the activities of everyday life will remove your thoughts from God, but on the contrary, will bring you nearer to Him. We all are servants of God. To each of us, He has assigned a place and a function and looks to see how it is discharged. God is everywhere. And He observes you too. Bear that always in mind, and do every task, whatever it may be as if it were given directly to you by God.
In this way do things about the house. And when someone comes or you yourself go out, keep in mind, in the first case, that God has sent you this person and is watching whether you receive and treat him in His way, and, in the second, that God has entrusted you with some task outside and is looking to see whether you will do it in the way He wishes.
If you so adjust yourself, neither domestic work nor an outside task, in short nothing, will take your mind away from God, but, on the contrary, everything will hold you close to Him, with the desire to execute the task in a manner pleasing to Him. You will do everything in the fear of God, and this fear will sustain your unceasing attention to Him.
As to what kind of work, whether within the family or outside it, is pleasing to God, I beg of you to make this quite clear to yourself by following the directions of books that explain the various types of work of this nature. Take care to understand this quite clearly, so as to distinguish between the proper kind of activities and those introduced by worldly-mindedness, by the passions, or by the desire to please people and this world. But after the firm resolution expressed by you to live in a way pleasing to God you will not need, of course, any special warnings against such activities.
XII. The arousing in the heart of feeling towards God during prayer. (From Letter 52).
Would you like to enter as soon as possible into this paradise? Then do this: when you pray, do not come away from your prayer without having roused in your heart some feeling towards God — either of reverence, or devotion, or gratitude, or of giving glory to God, or of humility and repentance, or confidence and hope…
XIII. Carelessness and haste during prayer. (From Letter 71).
But what has happened to your prayer? As you told me yourself, it was developing well and you already felt the good effect of it in your heart. I shall tell you what has happened. Having prayed hard and with warmth once or twice, and in the monastery of St. Sergius having experienced such immediate help as a result of prayer, you decided that your prayer was already established and that there was no need to worry much — your prayer would go on well of itself. Having entertained such a thought, when praying you began to do so carelessly and hurriedly and ceased to be watchful with regard to your thoughts. Because of this, your attention was frequently distracted, your thoughts dispersed in various directions, and your prayer ceased to be real prayer. You have done this once or twice, and prayer disappeared entirely. Begin then all over again to acquire prayer and to ask the Lord to grant it to you.
XIV. More about haste during prayer. (From the same Letter).
I suppose you began performing your rule of prayer hurriedly, anyhow, just to reach the end. From now on make it a rule never to pray carelessly. Nothing offends the Lord so much as this. It is better to go through only some of the prescribed prayers in the fear of God and with a feeling of reverence, rather than to say all of them carelessly. It is better to go through a single prayer, or even, falling on your knees, to pray in your own words, rather than to do that. You have begun to pray carelessly, and the result is that you do not experience the fruit of prayer. Be good enough then to reproach yourself thoroughly for such carelessness. Know that no one who prays with attention and zealously ceases his prayer until he experiences the effect of it. Oh, of what happiness do we deprive ourselves when we pray carelessly!
XV. A rule of prayer which consists of praying for a definite length of time. (From the same Letter).
Why we hurry when we are at prayer? It is incomprehensible. We spend hours doing other things and it does not seem long to us, but we have only just started to pray, and already we think that we have prayed for ages. So we begin to hurry to reach the end somehow or other. And there is no result from our prayer. What is to be done then? This is what some do in order not to be subject to such self-deception: they set aside for prayer a quarter of an hour, a half an hour, or an hour, according to what is most convenient for them, and they adjust their standing at prayer in such a way that the striking of a clock at the half-hour or at the hour informs them of the end of the period. Then, when at prayer, they no longer worry whether such and such prayers have been gone through, but their sole preoccupation is to lift up their spirit in prayer to the Lord in a proper manner throughout the time assigned. Others do this: having fixed the length of time for their prayer, they determine how many times during this period it is possible to go through their beads without haste. Then, when they are at prayer, they unhurriedly pass the beads through their fingers the number of times thus found and during that time they mentally stand before the Lord, either speaking to Him in their own words, or repeating some set prayers, or, doing neither, reverently prostrating themselves in spirit before His infinite majesty. Both the former and the latter so accustom themselves to pray that the minutes spent at prayer are for them minutes full of sweetness. And it is indeed rare for them to pray for just the time they have assigned but they make it twice or three times as long. Be good enough to adopt one of these methods. And keep to it unwaveringly. You and I cannot do without precise rules. But for zealous men of prayer, no rules are needed.
I have already advised you to learn prayers by heart and at the time of prayer to say them from memory, without having recourse to a prayer-book. You will find the results truly wonderful! When carrying out your rule of prayer, repeat a memorized prayer or a psalm and not only grasp the meaning of each word but experience also the feelings it inspires. Further, if your own words of prayer begin to arise from some word of a psalm or of a set prayer, do not check them, let them continue. After all, you are not obliged to get through such and such prayers, but only to remain at prayer for the period decided upon, the end of which will be shown of itself by the beads or by the clock. Thus there is no cause to hurry. Let one psalm only or a single prayer occupy the whole time. Someone has said that often in the course of time assigned to prayer he would complete only a single prayer — the Our Father. This is because in his case every word would develop into a whole prayer. Someone else has related how, after it had been explained to him that one could pray in this way, he stood during the whole of the Morning Service in reverent prayer, going through the psalm: Have mercy upon me, O God, and did not reach the end.
XVI. Prayer is the root of the whole spiritual life.
(From the same Letter).
Be good enough to get accustomed to praying in this way yourself, and maybe God will grant that you will soon develop prayer. And then no rules will be needed. Persevere, otherwise no good will come of you. If there is no progress in prayer, do not expect progress in anything else. Prayer is the root of everything.
XVII. Once again on the necessity of prayer in one’s own words.
(From Letter 79).
… everything lies in God’s hands. To Him then we must have recourse. But you write that you do not pray. Clever girl: Have you then enrolled yourself in the ranks of the pagans? How can we not pray? Do not pray using prayers in set forms only, but tell the Lord in your own words what is on your mind and ask Him to help you. Say: “Thou seest, O Lord, what is going on in me! There is that and this… I cannot master myself.
Help me, O All-merciful One!” Tell Him every detail of your need, and for each of your needs ask the corresponding help. And it will be prayer in the truest sense of the word. One may, moreover, pray in one’s own words always, without using set prayers at all, provided only that one does not give way to laziness.
XVIII. Miscellaneous short extracts from different Letters.
1) … One cannot be always occupied with spiritual matters: one must have some simple handicraft. But one should turn to it only when the mind is tired and incapable of reading, or thinking, or praying to God…. (From Letter 33).
2) … Before you begin to carry out your rule of prayer, and after it, pray in your own words, and between the prayers of your rule insert your own… (From the same Letter). ~ 3) … Pray persistently to the Lord, the Mother of God, and your Guardian Angel… (From the same Letter).
4) … The Lord is not exacting in trifles… (From Letter 38).
5) … Divergence may be to the right or to the left. The first consists in zeal beyond reason, the second — in laziness… (From Letter 39).
6) … How appropriate is, therefore, the constant petition: by whatever means (which Thou Thouself knowest), save me!… (From the same Letter).
7) … Success will not come at once, one must wait, labouring nevertheless untiringly. … Everything will come in time.
… That this is so is shown by the experience of all who have sought and been working out their salvation… (From Letter 43).
Source: Orthodox Life 1950 Vols. 3 and 4, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville