In this battle to restore our life and relationship with God, the single most important activity we must undertake is prayer. So what then is prayer? St. Theophan the Recluse puts it very plainly:
“Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”
--St. Theophan the Recluse
St. Theophan also convicts us in this way:
“Prayer reflects our attitude to God, and our attitude to God is reflected in prayer.”
Also simply put:
“Prayer is communion of the intellect with God.”
-- Evagrious the Solitare
Prayer is the activity by which we discover and develop our relationship with God. It is also, the way we encourage virtue to rise inside of us. Since the Kingdom of heaven is within (Luke 17:21) prayer is within. It is just as intangible and undeniable as love or beauty. However, unfortunately it is entirely antithetical to modern life. This makes prayer that much more challenging. The author of Unseen Warfare said that:
“a single raising of your mind to God, and a single humble genuflexion to His glory and in His honor has infinitely more value than all the treasures of the world.”
According to the saints
“Prayer, by reason of its nature, is the converse and union of man with God, and by reason of its action upholds the world and brings about reconciliation with God; it is the mother and also the daughter of tears, the propitiation of sins, a bridge over temptations, a wall against afflictions, a crushing of conflicts, a work of angels, the food of all the bodiless spirits, future gladness, unending activity, a source of virtues, a means of obtaining graces, invisible progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, a demonstration of hope, a cure for sorrow…”
-- St. John Climacus
According to the Church Fathers, there are three kinds of prayer:
prayer that his physical
prayer of the mind and
prayer of the heart.
Prayer of the body would include standing, reading and making prostrations. This can also be viewed as prayer with the lips. Although prayer with the lips and physical prayer in general is a good starting point it is not the end goal.
Prayer of the mind is prayer with attention. The mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the moment or hour of prayer and prays consciously throughout, without distraction. The mind is focused upon the written or spoken words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own.
Prayer of the heart is the absolute goal of praying. This is the stage of prayer that is of feeling, also known as spiritual prayer. As the old saying goes, “The worlds longest journey is the 12 inches from the mind to the heart”. Here the heart is warmed by concentration so that what hitherto it has only been words or thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase not it is contrition itself and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity. This is prayer of the spirit which is the higher form of prayer. This is also communion with God.
The author of Unseen Warfare goes into detail describing the relationship between these three forms of pray thus:
“You are sure to have heard of these expressions: prayer with words, prayer with them mind, prayer with the heart, and maybe you have heard explanations of each of them separately. What is the reason for this division of prayer into its component parts? The reason is that owing to our negligence it sometimes happens that the tongue says the holy words of prayer, while the mind wanders away somewhere: or the mind understands the words of prayer, but the heart does not respond to them with feeling. In the first case prayer is merely words, and is not prayer at all; in the second case, prayer with words is connected with mental prayer, and this is in perfect and in complete prayer. Full and real prayer is when praying with words and praying thoughts are combined with praying feelings.”
Or more simply put:
“One should pray not only in words but also in mind, and not only in mind but also in the heart, so that the mind sees and understands clearly what is said in words, and the heart feels what the mind thinks.”
This higher form of prayer is difficult to attain and requires much practice and experience. St. Theophan goes on to explain that the,
“feeling of prayer reaches the point where it becomes continuous, then spiritual prayer maybe said to begin. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit praying for us, the last degree of prayer which our minds can grasp.”
--St. Theophan the Recluse
Here he draws the connection of God’s person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, connecting with and guiding our spirit. The thought of this is mind blowing. This is why they say prayer is the way to have communion with God. God dwells with the one who prays in the manner.
In the writings of the Desert Fathers, the monks of 4th century Egypt, there is a great story that illustrates how prayer in unseen warfare can be viewed. John the dwarf, a well know ascetic of the time said of himself,
“I act as a man sitting under a tree who looks attentively around him. This man, as soon as he sees wild beasts coming towards him to eat him, immediately climbs up the tree, and the beasts, after coming up to the tree walk around it for a while and then go away. And I, as soon as I observe mental beasts coming toward me and passionate thoughts, immediately rise up in my mind to the Lord, and the beast cannot get to me as they are forced to scatter every which way.”
-- St. John the Dwarf
Although prayer is direct communion with God, for most of us the activity of prayer is something we must force ourselves to do. Our lower nature calls us to be lazy, distracted, or pre occupied with “more important things”. However, having an established prayer rule and sticking to it is proven to improve ones life. And we must be encouraged that even when we don’t want to pray buy force ourselves to the stage of merely uttering the words, this is still a noble achievement.
“If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (Matt. 11:12).”
--St. Ambrose of Optina
It is better to pray with the words only than to not pray at all. This is because if we just simply show up on a repeated basis, God’s grace will nudge us forward to mental prayer, which will eventually help us to achieve spiritual prayer. In ones prayer life, perseverance leads to divine grace!
It is important to note that our prayer life should not be confined to set times of prayer and set prayers in general. The early mystics have handed down to us the concept of praying at all times. Prayer is not just a scheduled activity, but it is actually a state. We are called to be praying always and as much as we can. This does not mean setting aside time often throughout the day, resorting to prescribed prayers. St. Peter of Damaskos said is best:
"‘Pray without ceasing’ (I Thess. 5:17), that is, be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things. When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you; when you see the sky, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator; when you put on clothing, acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life. In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St. Paul commends (cf. I Thess. 5:16).”
-- St. Peter of Damaskos
In order to practice this we have been given what is called the Jesus prayer. This is a short and simple prayer that can be recited at anytime and in any location. You can be in a taxi cab, on a walk, driving or even in the shower, and this prayer can be on your lips, in your mind and in your heart. There are a few versions of it. The most common form is: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. The shorter version is simply: God have mercy on me a sinner. The early Church derived this from the parable of the publican and the pharisee as put for by Christ in the Gospel of Luke. Here the publican, who was considered not apart of the establishment, prayed: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
The amazing thing about the Jesus prayer is it’s meaning. Here we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and the son of God, and we ask for His mercy. Mercy in the original greek is a word that is used for olive oil, which was commonly used by doctors for healing. The word “mercy” is a word for healing. This is precisely what we who are practicing unseen warfare are seeking. We want to be healed from our afflictions, addictions, anxieties, and all the wounds that that we have.
In conclusion, we should resort to one of the great mystics of the Philocalia: