Prayer as an Important Aspect of Our Spiritual Life

St. Nilus

Beloved brothers and sisters in Our Risen Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ,


O Lord my God, I confess that I have sinned against You in thought, word and deed. I have also omitted to do what Your Holy Law requires of me. But now with repentance and contrition I turn again to Your love and mercy. I entreat You to forgive me all my transgressions and to cleanse me from all my sins. Lord, fill my heart with the Light of Your Truth. Strengthen my will by Your Grace. Teach me both to desire and to do only what pleases You. Amen.

by Monk Moses

Part II.

Abba (Father) Serapion says that the stance of people in prayer must be like that of soldiers standing guard, constant, vigilant, in a state of emergency and courageous readiness.

The great teacher of prayer, Saint John Chrysostom, whose entire life was a petition, has this to say:

"We must pray with ever vigilant attention. And this will be possible if we understand well with Whom we are conversing, and that during such time we are His servants offering sacrifice to God. We must pray with contrition, with tears, with reverencel, with sincerity, with great calmness. Our sins should not stop us from prayer. We should be ashamed of our sins, but they should not keep us from our prayers. Even though you are a sinner, approach God with prayer, that you may be reconciled with Him; give Him an opportunity to forgive your sins, which He will, in order to reveal His love for mankind."

And the holy Father continues:

"If you are afraid to approach God because of your sins, you are actually hindering Him, to the extent, at least, that is dependent upon you, from expressing His goodness and the wealth of His providential care. Remove afar, therefore, every hesitation and doubt about prayer because of sin."


Compressing lengthy, beautiful and comprehensive homilies of Saint John Chrysostomos on prayer, we offer the following salient points to help the praying person. Prayer must be a systematic and regular practice in our life, with a pious and reverent stance, and with absolute attention. To pray as we should, with the reverence appropriate to conversation with God, we should be aware of the great benefit of prayer,, independently of knowing whether there have been specific responses. The person whose prayer is truly a conversation with God is transformed into an earthly angel.

God does not ask that we converse with Him using beautiful words, but that what we say emanates from a beautiful soul. Prayer does not need mediators, formalities, or appointments at prescribed hours. God's door is always open wide and He awaits us. If we are withdrawn from God that is something totally dependent upon us. He is always near. We need no particular eloquence. He hears us no matter how softly we speak. He understands us completely even if we say little. All hours are appropriate and all places good. And prolonged instruction in the art of prayer is unnecessary. It is sufficient that we want to pray, then learning becomes rapid and effortless.

It is the manner of prayer that is significant. We must pray with perspicacity and contrition seeking spiritual progress, forgiving others and asking others their forgiveness, being truly humble. Our prayers will be received and heard if we are praying as God wants us: If we persist in our prayers, if we seek what is profitable to our souls and the souls of others, if our motives are pure and if we avoid focusing exclusively on material things. And please note that all the prayers of the Prophet Moses and of Saint Paul were not heard by God, simply because it was not expedient.

It cannot be overemphasized that when we pray, our efforts should not focus exclusively on the idea of receiving. The objective of making our soul better is necessary and this too is accomplished through prayer. The one who prays with this objective becomes stronger than the force of worldly things and is able to fly high above them all.

We mentioned earlier that prayer is obstructed by much sleeping, much eating, much talking and luxury. If these are obstacles to effective prayer, certainly vigils, fasting, silence, quietude and asceticism are the wings which make our prayers fly higher.

Vigils are inseparable from the life of prayer. As there is no bird without wings, there cannot be a life of prayer without vigils. A night without the memory of God is like a garden with flowers, a tree without fruit, a house without a roof. The prayers best loved by God are those of the night: before we sleep, after we sleep a little and arise at midnight, and early in the morning, before dawn. In this way we dedicate the night not only to bodily rest, but also to the well-being of the soul. By sacrificing some of our sleep, we give something of our own to God who sacrificed His Son for our sins. Nocturnal prayer makes our sleep sweeter because the words of prayer continue to be active and stimulate beautiful dreams. It is said that Saint Arsenios the Great would begin his prayer each Saturday night just as the sun was setting in the west. He would conclude just as the sun arose to shine in his face on Sunday morning. That is how he measured his time of prayer!

A simple and frugal diet of fasting gives clarity to the mind and vigilance to the soul. A person who has eaten to satiety cannot pray, nor can one pray who is starved. One should eat just enough not to be hungry, perhaps a little less.

Silence is the adornment of the people of God who measure their words and do not use their tongue as a lethal weapon. The person who is easy-going with words may find it difficult to pray effectively. Loquacity confuses, tires and obscures. Silence concentrates the mind, gives rest to the spirit, and keeps it in constant readiness. Monks persistently search for the most quiet corner possible to set up their sanctuary. The objective is to have external quietude penetrate into the soul, for without inner silence and peace, external quiet is of no avail. When the serenity of the soul is accompanied by gratitude toward God, great results can be achieved.

According to Saint Makarios of Egypt, guarding our thoughts and praying with much quietude and peace are fundamental to prayer. And, according to Saint Ephraim the Syrian, the one who prays purely will burn an d banish demons, while he who prays carelessly will become the demon's laughing stock.


An Elder (Geronda) of Mt. Athos used to tell young monks: "Do not strike up a conversation with your thoughts and imaginings!" Another elder said: "Above my cell many birds will fly. I cannot forbid them. But that which I can do is to disallow them to make their nest on my roof!" Saint John of the Ladders says: "Even if your mind is constantly distracted from your prayer, you must struggle unceasingly to recall it. We shall not be condemned because our attention was distracted in prayer, but rather because we did not attempt to bring it back."

The "thoughts and imaginings" of which the first elder spoke trouble many of us a great deal and can be serious obstacles to prayer. A long and difficult struggle may be needed to cut them off completely. This is so because, in many cases, even though these thoughts and imaginings are foreign to our true nature, they have nonetheless become very familiar. They have established their lairs in us. We have become accustomed to them and, as a matter of course, consider them quite natural. When they come to disturb our prayer, concentration can be quickly lost. And these thoughts may not leave us when we want them to go away, especially if they correspond to our uncontrolled desires, if they are indicative of a weakness in our will. As we said, the struggle can be long and difficult. Let us be honest and not try to hide or justify our weakness.

There are many other and varied obstacles to prayer. There is hesitation, anxiety, and pain related to nonexistent illness. There is ill disposition, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, impatience, remembrance, weariness. We may recall details that we thought had been relegated to oblivion: telephone numbers, sayings of elders, irritations and annoyances of the past. All these can be problems to beginners, but they should not dishearten us. In addition, there are imaginings and demonic fears that usually trouble those who are advanced in prayer, and sometimes beginners to a lesser degree.

More fundamentally, we can say that the devil uses our negligence and our inattention to leave the heart unenlightened by the life of prayer, bringing a myriad of vain thoughts and imaginations to draw us away from the essence of prayer. But we must keep in mind that which is exclaimed in the Divine Liturgy: "The doors, the doors, in wisdom, let us be attentive!" The doors of the mind and of the heart must be well guarded, so that the originator of evil will not control them and be able to enter freely.

It is most difficult to guard our thoughts and protect them from evil theories, demonic deceptions, false visions. Very particular attention is needed here. The purpose of prayer is not the vision of God, but the pouring out of His mercy. A strong desire to see God may be the beginning of error. Let us live as unworthy and incapable, as we certainly are, and if God should will to appear to us, the all well and good. But this should not be our agonizing purpose.

There was once an ascetic who was praying in the desert and a temptation came to disturb him. Humbling himself as usual, the ascetic was tempted with the presence of a false light. Deeming himself unworthy to look upon the divine light, and wanting to shun false lights, he buried his face in the sand. The temptation disappeared and an inexpressible peace filled the heart of the ascetic. This story illustrates how very much aware and sober we must be.

Let us therefore guard against obstructions. Let us stand courageously, like the ascetic mentioned by Saint Neilos the Ascetic, who had been bitten by a snake while praying. He did not move until he had completed his prayer. "And he who loved God more than himself was not harmed at all."

A characteristic of contemporary man, who is easy-going in some ways, is a strong sense of hurry, and great impatience. He expects a great deal quickly and without much toil. The impatience which possesses him makes him want to hurry in prayer; he wants instant results, here and now. He wants to reap fruit before even sowing. Without a drop of sweat, he expects miracles, visions and revelations. Such pure but naive desires of contemporary man, who in spite of his folly does not cease desiring God, are frightfully and dangerously exploited by the many wolves in sheep's clothing, who have infiltrated the spiritual fold of Christ.

With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George