The goal of all spiritual labors is communion with God. We do not seek an abstract vision of the Divine, nor do we labor for a legal verdict declaring us “not guilty.” Rather, we aim at communion and union; we set our sights on the true, intimate knowledge of God which is “life eternal” (John 17:3). According to St. John, prayer must be looked at as both the means to and the achievement of this knowledge.
The goal of prayer is God. This is important to note as we begin. In prayer and through prayer we seek Him. How easy it is for us to reduce prayer to the fulfillment of some external “rule of prayer” which must be completed before we can continue on with the fulfillment of our other “external” requirements. The great tragedy of our spiritual lives is that prayer itself can become part of this “world and its ways” rather than an abandonment of this world so as to pursue the next. “Rise from the love of the world and the love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except to cling to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possession others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him” Understood in this light, prayer thus is itself a means of purification and of judgment. “War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show up a monk’s love for God. So your prayer shows where you stand.” Prayer is a mirror, showing to us the true nature of our desires and of our love. If we love God, we will love to pray. The stronger the love for God, the greater our hearts will be drawn to the dialog of prayer, the more He will be the object of our thoughts and desires, the more He will consume us and become the end of our struggles.
Prayer has its external aspects: the words, the discipline, the posture, the knots on the prayer rope. But these external aspects must find their realization in the internal state of our soul. St. John outlines a continuous method of prayer which incorporates both of these: “Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul.” For the true struggler for God, prayer is not episodic; it is a way of life. Its external expression changes: sometimes it is the reading of psalms, other times the singing of hymns, still further it may be the quiet saying of the Jesus prayer or the recollection of God in the fulfillment of our daily tasks. Gradually, prayer itself establishes its own rhythm in our lives. In the beginning we force ourselves to pray; in the end it is prayer itself which forces us.
For those who are beginning the spiritual life, prayer requires hard work. Here the external aspects of prayer dominate. We can only learn prayer one way: by doing it. And by doing lots of it… over and over again, training our hearts to recognize and feel the words spoken by our mouths and considered in our minds. We force ourselves to practice. Very often this seems strange and foreign to us. It does not seem natural; we totter and stumble. We finish our prayers and feel as if we have simply said “words” without really praying them. We may often feel “hypocritical” in our prayers, as if they are external and therefore fake. This is the beginning of prayer. If we persevere, pushing ourselves to say the words and urging our hearts to join the mind and the mouth, prayer will become internalized. Prayer will not be something which comes from the outside, but it will come from the inside out. The words will fl ow from our hearts, rather than off the page. We will still say and think the same words, but these words will be ours, rather than someone else’s. Our mouths, minds and hearts will be one. Our being will be united in prayer. This is the middle stage of prayer. If we persevere in this, not allowing our hearts to become distracted, the experience of prayer becomes so much a part of us that the words themselves fade away and prayer becomes ecstasy and the immediate presence of God. This is the third and final stage; this is deification, the heights of theosis, to which only the saints rise in this life.
As we struggle to pray, there are several attitudes which we must be careful to maintain. The first is humility. Satan tries to rob us of our humility during prayer by taking away from us the simplicity necessary to true prayer. He divides us by getting us to think about ourselves even as we are praying. We observe ourselves from the outside, thinking about how well we are praying, how long we have been praying, etc. To pray is to lose ourselves in God; it is to abandon the pursuit of self by pursuing God. Satan also tries to rob us of our humility after we pray by telling us how good we are and how effective and powerful our prayers are for others. Once again, notice how he tempts us to externalize our prayer and to focus not on God, but on ourselves as “prayers” The truth is: we cannot pursue God so long as we think about ourselves.
Another important attitude necessary for true prayer is gratitude. St. John advises: “Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer.” All prayer to be true prayer must be Eucharistic. This means that prayer must fl ow out of a thankful heart. Before it becomes intercession, prayer is first a response to grace received. A thankful heart is of necessity driven to give thanks. It cannot remain silent, but is must communicate its thankfulness to the Source of all blessings.
Still further, for our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition. St. John notes: “Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins.” If we ever appear in God’s presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer. It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light. Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion. Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others. St. John writes: “You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just.”