Saint Theophan the Recluse
May the grace of God be with you.
You write: ‘My prayer is somewhat cold and weak’. The coldness and weakness aren’t in the prayer, but in the person praying. Try to pray as you should and your prayer will go better.
If a school-child writes carelessly, the teacher will scold them and threaten them with some sort of punishment. This makes the child more attentive and they begin to write more carefully.
So scold yourself and threaten divine punishment, so that you can concentrate and pray properly. When it comes to our human activities, we’re conscientious and careful enough, so as to avoid being criticized by other people. When it comes to matters of God, though, we deal with them casually, because the Lord keeps silent, is long-suffering and gives the opportunity to serve him to us, his children, who have benefitted so greatly from his goodness. How bitter the hour will be when we have to give an answer before his dread judgment seat, when we’ll have to confess our guilt and our negligence.
Where did your prayer go? It was fine until now. You felt its beneficial action in your heart. Let me tell you where it went. Because you prayed a couple of times with attention and fervor, you had speedy assistance from Saint Sergius [Radonezhskij]. Did you imagine that your prayer had been firmly established in your heart and that it would simply continue on its own thereafter? This is why you began to pray hastily and carelessly.
You’ve also stopped guarding against bad thoughts. Your mind’s given over to daydreaming and wandering. The result: you pray… without praying! There’s nothing left for you to do now but start again to strive to acquire real prayer, asking for the Lord’s assistance in this. Never think that any spiritual work is well-established and secure, particularly prayer. Always pray as though you’re doing so for the first time. You see, whatever’s done for the first time is performed with fervent zeal.
I’m afraid you’re beginning to carry out your daily prayer rule hastily and carelessly, in an effort to finish it as soon as possible. See that it doesn’t happen again, because it saddens the Lord excessively. It’s better to say just a part of the set prayers with fear of God and reverence, rather than say them heedlessly. It’s even better to say just one ‘Lord have mercy’ from the heart, on your knees, with contrition, rather than to pray at length without proper attention. Chastise yourself thoroughly for this inattention of yours, because of which your prayer is fruitless. Those who pray carefully and assiduously always enjoy the beneficial fruits of prayer. What blessings we lose when we pray carelessly!
How is it that haste in prayer occurs and what is it due to? It’s not entirely clear. We spend hours on other tasks and think that the time flies by. At prayer, on the other hand, we think time stands still. We’ve barely started to pray when we think hours have passed. So we’re led astray by this illusion and hurry to finish as quickly as possible. There’s no benefit from prayer like that. What should we do in this instance? Some people assign a specific length of time for prayer. It may be a quarter of an hour, a half or a whole hour, but they make sure to set a clock so that they know when the time’s finished. While they’re praying, they aren’t concerned about the number of prayers they say, but only with their undistracted and whole-hearted communion with the Lord. Others again do the following: they set aside a time for prayer and calculate how many times they can say their komboskini, then they can say the prayer without hurrying. At the time of prayer they say the komboskini slowly and carefully. There are others who have become so accustomed to prayer, because they’re so aflame with divine love that, when they pray, they feel nothing but elation and joy. Such people rarely carry out their normal prayer rule; mostly they double or triple it. Choose the method that suits you best and apply it gladly, strictly, and conscientiously. You can’t make spiritual progress without a specific prayer rule. People who are truly zealous in prayer, of course, have no need of rules.
I’ve already written to you about learning by heart the normal daily prayers so that you can say them without opening the manual of prayer every time. When you pray, embrace each word not only in thought but in emotion. And if sometimes, a word in the psalms or the prayers occasions a spontaneous plea on your part, don’t smother it. Let it well up freely and don’t worry about whether you’ll then be able to complete the normal round of psalms and appointed prayers. It’s enough that you’re in genuine communication with the Lord. What’s the use of saying all your prayers quickly and carelessly? In the time available, say just one prayer or one psalm but with concentration, attention, due reverence and contrition.
Somebody told me that, at the time of prayer, they often never got past ‘Our Father’ because their mind dwelt in concentration on each word of the prayer. And somebody else told me that one time, during the morning service, his mind was caught up and his heart filled with contrition at the words of psalm 50, to the extent that he was unable to say anything else. If you also learn to pray like this, then, by God’s grace, you’ll experience inner prayer. Then you won’t need rules. Strive, because you’ll get nowhere otherwise. If you fail in the area of prayer, don’t expect to succeed in any other area of the spiritual life. Prayer is the source and root of all good things.
May the Lord bless you.