As we labor to ascend to God (understanding that prayer is both the way of and the end of the ascent) we must prepare ourselves for the test of prayer. The first battle is getting to the place and time of prayer. This is what St. John talked about in Step 19: overcoming sleep, getting out of bed (or staying out of bed) and actually forcing ourselves to attend to the time of prayer. In Step 20 he talks about the next part of our struggle in prayer - alertness.
Alertness begins when we approach the time of prayer. "The bell rings for prayer. The monk who loves God says, `Bravo! Bravo!' The lazy monk says, `Alas. Alas.' Mealtime reveals the gluttonous, prayer time the lovers of God. The former dance and the latter frown when the table is made ready." We should not be surprised if we "don't feel like praying." This is part of our fallenness, our own sinful condition, the disorientation of our internal selves. There are many times when the desire for prayer is almost nonexistent. We must rouse ourselves to prayer. Alertness is doing battle with our laziness and our lack of interest in prayer. Alertness is motivating ourselves to attend to the things of God rather than the things of this world. It is the triumph of the spirit over the body, of the will for God over the will for self.
Alertness continues as we pray. "The inexperienced monk is wide awake when talking to his friends but half asleep at prayer." We learn from this that the labor of prayer is a labor with the thoughts. We are far too "lazy" and "undisciplined" when it comes to our minds. Instead of directing our thoughts and controlling them we allow them to run free, here and there, wherever they wish to go. So, during prayer, we find ourselves often thinking about all kinds of other things. How many times have we come to the end of a prayer only to realize that we have no idea what we just said? How many times in the middle of liturgy do we catch ourselves reviewing yesterday's events and planning for the rest of the day? Alertness is the struggle to control our minds and center them on the one thing that is needful. It is the attempt to center our mind in our hearts, to eliminate not simply the bad thoughts but even the good thoughts which distract us from the pursuit of God.
This is not easy. In our beginning attempts we will fail many more times than we succeed, but we must keep up the struggle. For, as St. John promises: "This is the twentieth step. He who has climbed it has received light in his heart."
1-3 Alertness defined.
Alertness keeps the mind clean. Somnolence binds the soul. The alert monk does battle with fornication, but the sleepy one goes to live with it. Alertness is a quenching of lust, deliverance from fantasies in dreams, a tearful eyes, a heart made soft and gentle, thoughts restrained, food digested, passions tamed, spirits subdued, tongue controlled, idle imaginings banished.
4-6 A description of the vigilant and the lazy.
The vigilant monk is a fisher of thoughts, and in the quiet of the night he can easily observe and catch them.
The bell rings for prayer. The monk who loves God says, "Bravo, Bravo!" The lazy monk says, "Alas, Alas!"
Mealtime reveals the gluttonous, prayer time the lovers of God. The former dance and the latter frown when the table is made ready.
7-9 The value and importance of keeping vigils and the dangers of excessive sleep.
Long sleep produces forgetfulness, but keeping vigil clears the memory.
The farmer collects his wealth on the threshing floor and in the winepress. Monks collect their wealth and knowledge during the hours of evening and night when they are standing at prayer and contemplation.
Excessive sleep is a bad companion, stealing half a lifetime or more from the lazy man.
10-13 The dissipation that comes from laziness.
The inexperienced monk is wide awake when talking to his friends but half asleep at prayer time. The lazy monk is a great talker whose eyes begin to shut when the sacred reading is started. When the trumpet sounds the dead will rise, and when idle talk begins the dozing wake.
The tyrant sleep is a cunning fiend who slips away from us when our stomachs are full and attacks strongly when we are hungry and thirsty. It proposes that we do manual work at prayer time, for in no other way can it interfere with the prayers of those who are keeping watch. Its first step is to attack beginners, trying to make them careless from their first day. Or it strives to prepare the way for the demon of fornication Hence until we conquer it we ought never seek to be absent from common prayer, since shame at least may keep us from dozing off.
14 John warns that we must also be alert at the time following prayer. It is then that the demons attack seeking to steal what we have gained from God.
When prayer is over, wait quietly and you will observe how mobs of demons, as though challenged by us, will try to attack us after prayer by means of wild fantasies. Watch carefully and you will note those that are accustomed to snatch away the first fruits of the soul.
15-16 The alertness maintained during the day can be sustained even when we our sleeping.
It can happen that our meditation on the psalms may persist even into our time of sleeping.
. . . the soul endlessly preoccupied by day with the word of God will love to be preoccupied by it in sleep too. This second grace is properly the reward for the first and will help us to avoid spirits and fantasies.
Such then is the twentieth step. He who has climbed it has received light in his heart.