Returning to our series of meditations on The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, today I want to pick up his theme of attention at prayer.
With attention, prayer becomes the inalienable property of the person praying; in the absence of attention, it is extraneous to the person praying. With attention it bears abundant fruit; without attention, it produces thorns and thistles.
St. Ignatius provides us here with both encouragement and warning. Prayer is necessary and, in a sense, mandatory for all Christians - for what is Christianity if not relationship with God, and what is prayer if not conversation with God? Relationships without conversation quickly die and become little more than a distant memory. Likewise Christianity without prayer quickly loses its true essence and becomes little more than one philosophy among many instead of the relationship that it is meant to be. But, as our Savior warns us, when we pray we must not heap up vain words. If we pray without attention to the words and to God's loving presence, then we are doing little more than heaping up vain words. As Fr. Dimitru Staniloue said, when we pray without attentiveness we are doing nothing more than talking to ourselves.
Prayer without attention becomes a pathway to egotism, neuroses, self-esteem, and a pharisaical attitude. Instead of regarding all others as angels and one's self as the only sinner among angels, the complete opposite happens. We begin to regard ourselves as the angels and all others as sinners. All meekness and humility disappears and we are left with nothing but our own pride and vanity. When the Fathers warn us of the potential for spiritual delusion, this is what they are talking about.
Attentiveness at prayer leads to meekness and humility, to that attitude that all others and angels and I myself am the only sinner. Such attentiveness, however, is a gift from God and we must await it and pray for it in hopeful expectation that, in His own time, God will grant it. When the gift is given prayer becomes something that wells up from within us, not something exterior to us that we have to force ourselves to do. That being said, however, until such a time as true prayer is given we must force ourselves to pray, to keep our prayer rule daily and to force our attention to remain with God in prayer. This is very difficult to do. As St. Ignatius points out:
Fallen spirits, knowing the power of prayer and its beneficial effect, endeavor by all possible means to divert us from it, prompting us to use the time assigned to prayer for other occupations; or else they try to annul it and profane it with mundane distractions and sinful inattention, by producing at the time of prayer a countless swarm of earthly thoughts, sinful daydreams and reveries, imaginings and fantasies.
During my own prayer time I know that my mind is often in a million other places and not always with God. I am distracted by what I have to do at work that day, what my goals are for my future life and for my family. I am often distracted with worry for my wife and children, or finances, or political situations. I often even find myself distracted by seemingly holy thoughts; maybe I should pursue a vocation to the married priesthood, or perhaps I could help promote Eastern Christianity in another way, or perhaps I should go on the road and give talks introducing people to the Eastern Christian tradition and encouraging them in the ways of the Jesus Prayer, etc., etc., etc. Such thoughts are nothing more than distractions, temptations meant to divert my attention from the true task at hand.
It is also not uncommon for folks to be tempted by lustful thoughts during prayer. The Fathers of the Philokalia mention this peculiarity, as does St. Theophan the Recluse. A key to dealing with such temptations is to give them no power. Certain Fathers use the image of a fly buzzing around the room (for me a mosquito is more to the point). Temptations have no power to distract us unless we allow them to, just like a fly (or mosquito) buzzing around the room can do us no harm and is really more a nuisance than anything. Even St. Teresa of Avila spoke of simply ignoring temptations when they arose during prayer and simply continuing on with prayer as you normally would. I've found that occasionally it can be helpful to talk to God about my temptations when they arise during prayer, in that way turning the temptation itself into a prayer and making my prayer time itself more "conversational."
But what does St. Ignatius tell us? How can we maintain a certain level of attentiveness at prayer? He divides attentiveness into two categories: "wrapped attention" or undistracted prayer, and "artificial attention." The first I mentioned above as a gift of God beyond our power to gain. For some it is given almost immediately, and for others it only comes after years of suffering and toil in prayer. The second is well within our means to attain if we are willing to put in the work. St. Ignatius tells us:
Especially helpful in holding the attention during prayer is an extremely unhurried pronunciation of the words of the prayer... so that the mind may quite easily stay enclosed in the words of the prayer, and not slip say from a single word. Say the words in an audible voice when you pray alone; this also helps to hold the attention.
I find praying audibly to be very effective for holding my attention, and I typically do this while I'm driving to work as that's the only alone time that I really get throughout the day. Audible prayer is effective first because you have to put the effort into speaking the words, and then also you hear the words being pronounced. Oftentimes when my mind starts to drift despite the fact that I'm praying audibly I find it helpful to sing the Jesus Prayer - St. Augustine tells us that "he who sings prays twice" after all.
So, slow steady pronunciation, wrapping the mind in the words of the prayer and focusing on their meaning, an attentive and loving awareness of God's presence; these are all means of "artificial attentiveness" at prayer. It is hard work. Even the Fathers admit that. We will fall. We will get distracted. Sometimes we may even set aside our prayer time completely to pursue other activities (I know I've been guilty of this). But the point is that we ought not to be cast down when this happens. Simply repent. Ask God's forgiveness for your weakness. Beg His aid and ask Him to bestow the strength and perseverance necessary to pray. Above all, ask in hopeful expectation for the "wrapped attention" in prayer, even if it takes years and years for such attention to be given. The journey may be long and arduous, but to goal is worth the sweat and blood. May heaven consume us!