What does it mean to pray? In what sense is prayer “doing something”? While I was convinced of this long ago, I’ve been learning (painfully) that prayer is an activity that encompasses all parts of who we are. In other words, prayer is not just mental, it’s physical. Prayer is not just where we are, it’s where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s not just what we say, it’s what we mean – and that is not divorced from what we do. Says the Blessed Sophrony in his book On Prayer:
In our prayer we try to stand as a whole, uniting all our being, heart and mind most of all. In order to achieve this blessed union of the two most important components of our personality we do not have recourse to any artificial means (psychotechnics). To begin with we train the mind to continue attentive in prayer, as the Fathers teach – that is, carefully pronounce the Divine Name of Jesus Christ and the rest of the prayer. Concentrated invocation of the Divine name together with unremitting effort to live one’s life in accordance with the Gospel commandments leads to a state where both mind and heart actually function together.
“Unremitting effort to live one’s life in accordance with the Gospel commandments” is where I fail in prayer. I cannot pray always, as St. Paul commands, because of my hypocrisy. Even on my knees, on my face, or in Church – when I am praying with the utmost of my capacity – to I fall short. The rest of my life is suspect, so I my prayer life is handicapped.
It is not all bad news; progress can be made. I hope that I am becoming a little less hypocritical, able to live the Gospel a little more each day. I can also help my prayer life by working on other aspects of my life. A friend once advised me to keep cans of food in my car, and hand them out to the homeless I drive past. This, he said, was greatly influential in his prayer life.
Progress is possible, but does not often come quickly. This struggle, long and tedious, is precisely what the Christian life is.
It is essential to dismiss the idea of achieving the maximum result in the shortest time. Experience down the centuries shows that fusion of mind and heart achieved psychotechnically never lasts long; and, more importantly, does not unite our spirit with the Spirit of the Living God. Eternal salvation in the most profound sense is the question that lies before us. For this our whole nature must be reborn, the carnal to become spiritual. And when the Lord finds us able to take in His grace He is not slow to respond to our humble invocations. His coming is sometimes so all-consuming that heart and mind are both completely occupied by Him only. This visible world gives place to a reality of another, higher order. The mind ceases to think discursively: it becomes all attention. And the heart finds itself in a state difficult to describe: it is filled with fear but a reverent, life-giving fear. Breathing is restrained: God is seen both within and without. He fills all things, all of man: mind-spirit, heart-feeling and even the body, all together, live only through God.
“Oh Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy upon us and upon Thy world.” (On Prayer, 153-4)