Saint Nilus the Ascetic Speaks on Prayer

Greatmartyr Theodore Stratelates

Beloved brothers and sisters,

(Saint Makarios of Alexandria)

O Lord, I praise, bless, venerate, glorify, and thank Your Goodness for all, through all, and in all; for You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears and my feet from slipping. I have sinned against heaven and before You. Have mercy on me, O Lord, and do not destroy me together with my transgressions. Try me, O God, and discern my paths; see if there is a way of transgression in me, and turn me away from it; and lead me into the Eternal way, O God, You Who have said: I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, for You are Blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.


by Saint Nilus the Ascetic

Do we contemporary Christians perhaps know what true prayer is, what its characteristics are and what its fruits are? The Saints of our Church, who were people of prayer par excellence, have passed on to us their sacred experience in an expressive and categorical manner. Prayer, they tell us, is the elevation of the mind towards God and conversation with Him. Prayer is the union of man with God, the work of the angels, the key to paradise, illumination of the soul, forgiveness of sins and the mother of virtues. Prayer is an invincible weapon, an unspent treasure, a bridge that saves from temptations and a wall that protects from sorrows. Prayer is a mirror of man's spiritual life and a never-ending labor.

One can therefore easily understand that prayer does not constitute a mere "religious duty" or an emotional relief. It is the atmosphere in which the soul lives. It is man's total about-face and offering of himself to God. An offering which, when accompanied by the struggle to uphold the commandments of Christ, attracts Divine Grace. And this is turn cleanses the heart, illumines the mind, transforms the whole and makes him Christ-like.

That is why the Christian who does not pray is not a true Christian. And a person who does not know how to pray is not a complete person.

"Just as the body" says the blessed Chrysostom, "without the soul, is dead, likewise the soul without prayers is dead."

During the oncoming temptations, only communion "in spirit and truth" with the God Who truly is the Almighty Lord, will nurture us and support us. Today, His word sounds even more arousing and salvific than ever before: "Watch and be vigilant and pray...that you may become worthy of escaping all that is to happen and to stand before the Son of Man (St. Mark 13:33 and Saint Luke 21:36).

Patristic Literature:: "A Word on Prayer"
(Philokalia [St.Nilus the Ascetic, 5th century]

Prayer is the ascent of the mind towards God. It is a spiritual work that befits the human mind more than any other preoccupation.

Prayer is born from meekness and the lack of anger. It brings joy and pleasure to the soul; it protects man from sorrow and depression.

Just as bread is food for the body and virtue is food for the soul, so the food for the mind (nous) is spiritual prayer.

Just as vision is superior to all the other senses, so is prayer more divine and sacred than all virtue.

He who loves God, always converses with Him like a son with his father and is averse to every impassioned thought.

Since prayer is an association of the mind with God, then in what state must the mind possibly be, in order to be able, without turning elsewhere, to approach its Lord and converse with Him without the mediation of something else?

If Moses in his attempt to approach the burning bush was hindered until he had removed the sandals from his feet, then shouldn't you who desires to see God and converse with Him, remove and cast out of yourself every sinful thought?

The entire war between us and the unclean demons does not occur for any other reason but for spiritual prayer, because prayer is extremely hostile and obtrusive to them, whereas for us it is a cause for our salvation, enjoyable and pleasant.

What do demons seek to arouse inside us? Gluttony, prostitution, avarice, anger, resentfulness and all the other passions that fatten the mind so that it will be unable to pray properly; because when irrational passions prevail, they do not allow the mind to move logically.

Do not think that you have acquired virtue if you have not previously struggled for it, even unto blood. Because, according to the Apostle (Ephesians 6:11) we must resist sin unto death, with a fighting spirit and an irreproachable manner.

A bound person cannot run. Nor can the mind, which works like a slave for a certain passion, be able to offer a true prayer, because it is dragged around and wanders here and there on account of impassioned thoughts and cannot remain undisturbed.

You will not be able to pray clearly if you are preoccupied with material things and are agitated by incessant cares, because prayer implies riddance of every care.

If you wish to pray, you are in need of God, Who grants true prayer to whoever persists tirelessly in the struggle of prayer. Invoke Him therefore by saying: "Blessed by Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come" (St. Matt. 6:9); in other words, may the Holy Spirit and Your only begotten Son come, because this is what Christ taught us, when telling us that we must adore and worship God the Father "with the power of the Spirit, Who reveals the Truth" (St. John 4:24).

First of all, pray to acquire tears, in order to soften with mourning the savageness of your soul. You will then easily confess with honesty before the Lord all the sins that you have committed and you shall receive forgiveness from Him.

Use your tears to succeed in every request of yours. For the Lord is greatly pleased when you pray with tears.

If during your prayer you shed fountains of tears, do not pride yourself that you are above many others. This is not your accomplishment; it is assistance for your prayer from the Lord, so that you will be able to thus confess your sins willingly and appease Him.

The praiseworthiness of prayer does not lie in its quantity but its quality. This becomes apparent in the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee and the words of Christ: "When you pray, do not ramble like the idolaters; for they think that with their chatter they will be heard" (St. Matthew 6:7).

Awareness of prayer means the gathering of the mind (nous) with piety, with devout concentration, with secret sighs and the soul's pain that accompanies the confession of our sins.

The devil greatly envies the person who prays, and he uses every possible trick with the intent to hinder his purpose. Thus, when demons see that you are willing to pray sincerely, they will intentionally remind you of certain supposedly necessary things. Soon after, however, they make you forget them, then they force you to look for them. And because you do not remember them, you become worried and sad. When you resume your prayer, they again remind you of the things you were looking for, so that your mind turns back to those things again, and eventually lose that fruitful prayer.

During prayer, your memory will bring you either fantasies of past things, or recent cares or the face of the one who has grieved you. Therefore, guard your memory well, so that it does not present you with its own cares. And continuously urge yourself to remain aware in Whose presence it is standing, because it is very natural for the mind to be easily carried away by memory during the time of prayer.

At times, by remaining standing during prayer, you can immediately concentrate and pray well; at other times, you may strive very hard, but not achieve your purpose. This occurs, so that you may ask for prayer with greater zeal; and after acquiring it, to have it as your inalienable achievement.

Blessed is the mind (nous) that during prayer does not form any shape whatsoever inside it. Blessed is the mind that prays without being distracted and continuously acquires an increased desire for God. Blessed is the mind which during the time of prayer becomes incorporeal and free from everything. Blessed is the mind which during the time of prayer remains uninfluenced by anything.

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

+Father George