As we noted in the beginning of our study of The Ladder, the goal of all spiritual labors is communion with God. We do not seek an abstract vision of the Divine, nor do we labor for a legal verdict declaring us "not guilty." Rather, we aim at communion and union; we set our sights on the true, intimate knowledge of God which is "life eternal" (John 17:3). According to St. John, prayer must be looked at as both the means to and the achievement of this knowledge.
The goal of prayer is God. This is important to note as we begin. In prayer and through prayer we seek Him. How easy it is for us to reduce prayer to the fulfillment of some external "rule of prayer" which must be completed before we can continue on with the fulfillment of our other "external" requirements. The great tragedy of our spiritual lives is that prayer itself can become part of this "world and its ways" rather than an abandonment of this world so as to pursue the next. "Rise from the love of the world and the love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except to cling to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possession others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him" Understood in this light, prayer thus is itself a means of purification and of judgment. "War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show up a monk's love for God. So your prayer shows where you stand." Prayer is a mirror, showing to us the true nature of our desires and of our love. If we love God, we will love to pray. The stronger the love for God, the greater our hearts will be drawn to the dialog of prayer, the more He will be the object of our thoughts and desires, the more He will consume us and become the end of our struggles.
Prayer has its external aspects: the words, the discipline, the posture, the knots on the prayer rope. But these external aspects must find their realization in the internal state of our soul. St. John outlines a continuous method of prayer which incorporates both of these: "Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul." For the true struggler for God, prayer is not episodic; it is a way of life. Its external expression changes: sometimes it is the reading of psalms, other times the singing of hymns, still further it may be the quiet saying of the Jesus prayer or the recollection of God in the fulfillment of our daily tasks. Gradually, prayer itself establishes its own rhythm in our lives. In the beginning we force ourselves to pray; in the end it is prayer itself which forces us.
For those who are beginning the spiritual life, prayer requires hard work. Here the external aspects of prayer dominate. We can only learn to prayer one way: by doing it. And by doing lots of it . . . over and over again, training our hearts to recognize and feel the words spoken by our mouths and considered in our minds. We force ourselves to practice. Very often this seems strange and foreign to us. It does not seem natural; we totter and stumble. We finish our prayers and feel as if we have simply said "words" without really praying them. We may often feel "hypocritical" in our prayers, as if they are external and therefore fake. This is the beginning of prayer. If we persevere, pushing ourselves to say the words and urging our hearts to join the mind and the mouth, prayer will become internalized. Prayer will not be something which comes from the outside, but it will come from the inside out. The words will flow from our hearts, rather than off the page. We will still say and think the same words, but these words will be ours, rather than someone else's. Our mouths, minds and hearts will be one. Our being will be united in prayer. This is the middle stage of prayer. If we persevere in this, not allowing our hearts to become distracted, the experience of prayer becomes so much a part of us that the words themselves fade away and prayer becomes ecstasy and the immediate presence of God. This is the third and final stage; this is deification, the heights of theosis, to which only the saints rise in this life.
As we struggle to pray, there are several attitudes which we must be careful to maintain. The first is humility. Satan tries to rob us of our humility during prayer by taking away from us the simplicity necessary to true prayer. He divides us by getting us to think about ourselves even as we are praying. We observe ourselves from the outside, thinking about how well we are praying, how long we have been praying, etc. To pray is to lose ourselves in God; it is to abandon the pursuit of self by pursuing God. Satan also tries to rob us of our humility after we pray by telling us how good we are and how effective and powerful our prayers are for others. Once again, notice how he tempts us to externalize our prayer and to focus not on God, but on ourselves as "pray-ers" The truth is: we cannot pursue God so long as we think about ourselves.
Another important attitude necessary for true prayer is gratitude. St. John advises: "Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer." All prayer to be true prayer must be eucharistic. This means that prayer must flow out of a thankful heart. Before it becomes intercession, prayer is first a response to grace received. A thankful heart is of necessity driven to give thanks. It cannot remain silent, but is must communicate its thankfulness to the Source of all blessings.
Still further, for our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition. St. John notes: "Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins." If we ever appear in God's presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer. It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light. Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion. Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others. St. John writes: "You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just."
1-3 Prayer defined.
Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves reconciliation with God.
Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears. It is an expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of angels, and is the nourishment of all bodiless beings. Prayer is future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated, sorrow done away with. It is wealth for monks, treasure of hermits, anger diminished. It is a mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one's condition, the future revealed, a sign of glory. For the man who really prays it is the court, the judgment hall, the tribunal of the Lord - and this prior to the judgment that is to come.
4-18 St. John then describes the necessary preparation for true prayer, the essential attitudes that help to foster prayer and the perseverance required to sustain prayer.
Those of us wishing to stand before our King and God and to speak with Him should not rush into this without some preparation, lest it should happen that - seeing us from afar without arms and without the dress appropriate to those who appear before the King - He should command His servants and His slaves to lay hold of us, to drive us out of His sight, to tear up our petitions and to throw them in our faces.
When you set out to appear before the Lord, let the garment of your soul be woven throughout with the thread of wrongs no longer remembered. Otherwise, prayer will be useless to you.
Pray in all simplicity. The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance.
. . . heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King.
In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that have more often won the heart of the Father in heaven.
Try not to talk excessively in your prayer, in case your mind is distracted by the search for words. One word from the publican sufficed to placate God, and a single utterance saved the thief. Talkative prayer frequently distracts the mind and deludes it, whereas brevity makes for concentration.
However pure you may be, do not be forward in your dealings with God. Approach Him rather in all humility, and you will be given still more boldness. And even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins. Heed Paul's cry regarding sinners "of whom I am the first" (1 Tim 1:15).
Make the effort to raise up, or rather, to enclose your mind within the words of your prayer; and if, like a child, it gets tired and falters, raise it up again. The mind, after all, is naturally unstable, but the God who can do everything can also give it firm endurance. Persevere in this, therefore, and do not grow weary; and He who sets a boundary to the sea of the mind will come to you too during your prayer and will say, "Thus far you shall come, and no farther" (Job 38:11). Spirit cannot be bound, but where He is found everything yields to the Creator of spirit.
19-37 In the following paragraphs, St. John describes the various stages of prayer, those things which lead to its degradation, appropriate forms of posture and when they should be used, the ultimate goal of prayer, and the value of prayer in and of itself - regardless of whether or not it offers us any consolation. He also speaks of how a monk must conduct himself at the times before prayer and the importance of being faithful to designated times for prayer.
The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by a single thought; the middle stage is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.
If you are careful to train your mind never to wander, it will stay by you even at mealtimes. But if you allow it to stray freely, then you will never have it beside you.
There is a difference between the tarnish of prayer, its disappearance, the robbery of it, and its defilement. Prayer is tarnished when we stand before God, our minds seething with irrelevancies. It disappears when we are led off into useless cares. It is robbed when our thoughts stray without our realization of the fact. And it is defiled when we are in any way under attack.
If we happen not to be alone at the time of prayer, let us form within ourselves the demeanor of someone who prays. But if the servants of praise are not sharing our company, we may openly put on the appearance of those at prayer. For among the weak, the mind often conforms to the body.
Total contrition is necessary for everyone, but particularly for those who have come to the King to obtain forgiveness of their sins.
Rise from love of the world and love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? Nothing. What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except simply to cling always to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possessions others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him.
Our good Redeemer, by speedily granting what is asked, draws to His love those who are grateful. But He keeps ungrateful souls praying a long time before Him, hungering and thirsting for what they want, since a badly trained dog rushes off as soon as it is given bread and leaves the giver behind.
After a long spell of prayer, do not say that nothing has been gained, for you have already achieved something. For, after all, what higher good is there than to cling to the Lord and to persevere in unceasing union with Him?
Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul. In this way, you will soon make progress. I have observed that those who were outstanding in obedience and who tried as far as possible to keep in mind the thought of God were in full control of their minds and wept copiously as soon as they stood in prayer, for holy obedience had prepared them for this.
War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show up a monk's love for God. So your prayer shows where you stand. Indeed, theologians say that prayer is a monk's mirror.
Someone who is occupied with some task and continues with it at the hour of prayer is being fooled by the demons, for these thieves aim to steal one hour after another from us.
38-48 Our prayer must be examined closely to determine its true quality and power. As prayer develops, John states, there is less need for words or images. Both can lead to distraction.
A child is examined each day without fail regarding what he has learned from his teacher. And it is reasonable to ask that there be a reckoning of each prayer we have undertaken, in order that we may have an idea of the power we have received from God. You should see to this. And when you have prayed soberly, you will soon have to cope with bouts of ill temper, something our enemies aim for.
When a man has found the Lord, he no longer has to use words when he is praying, for the Spirit Himself will intercede for him with groans that cannot be uttered (Rom 8:26).
Do not form sensory images during prayer, for distraction will certainly follow.
49-64 We must learn, St. John tells us, to seize the moment when the Spirit beckons us to prayer, especially when given an abundance of fervor and contrition. When in the midst of prayer we must drive off temptations and anything, good or bad, that might distract us or draw us to some other activity.
Do not stop praying as long as, by God's grace, the fire and the water have not been exhausted, for it may happen that never again in your whole life will you have such a chance to ask for the forgiveness of your sins.
A man stands before an earthly monarch. But he turns his face away and talks to the enemies of the king, and the king will be offended. In the same way, the Lord will be offended by someone who at prayer time turns away towards unclean thoughts. So if the dog keeps coming, drive him off with a stick and never give in to him, however much he may persist.
The hour of prayer is no time for thinking over necessities, nor even spiritual tasks, because you may lose the better part (Luke 10:42).
If you are always in dialog with the King in regard to your enemies, take heart whenever they attack you. A long struggle will not be necessary for you, for they will soon give up of their own accord. These unholy beings are afraid that you may earn a crown as a result of your battle against them through prayer, and besides, when scourged by prayer they will run away as though from a fire.
65-66 God, the true Teacher of prayer.
Always be brave, and God will teach you your prayer.
You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God, who "teaches man knowledge" (Ps. 93:10). He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just.