And it came to pass, that as he was in a certain place praying, when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him: Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. Luke 11:1
Perhaps you have learned your prayers. But have you been taught to pray? Who better to teach than those who learned from the Master Himself? The saints, best of all the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Desert.
The following excerpt is from the teachings of St. Gregory of Sinai, as appears as one of the “Directives of the Fathers on the Prayer of the Heart” in the appendix of The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way (translated by Helen Bacovcin).
St. Gregory of Sinai
Having received the spirit of Jesus Christ by means of a pure prayer of the heart, we should communicate mystically with the Lord. But not understanding the greatness, honor, and glory resulting from grace and not caring about our spiritual growth through the keeping of the commandments and reaching true contemplation, we are careless and therefore fall into sensual habits and we throw ourselves into the abyss of insensitivity and darkness. It happens also that we think very little of God’s presence and do not realize that we should be as rays of grace. We believe but not with a living faith, and despite the new spirit which we have received in baptism, we do not cease to live according to the flesh. If we do repent and begin to keep the commandments, we keep only the letter of the law and not the spirit and we are so alienated from the spiritual life that even when we see it in others we imagine it as error and confusion. In this way we are dead in the spirit, alive but not in Christ and not in accordance with the conviction that what is born of the spirit should be spiritual.
However, what we have received in holy baptism of the life of Jesus Christ is not destroyed but is only buried as some treasure in the earth. But wisdom and grace demand a concern about this in order to reveal it and bring it into the open. But how?
Two methods can lead us to this actualization: In the first place, this gift is open to the one who keeps the commandments, we experience light and wisdom. In the second place, the method by which we can acquire this gift is ceaseless calling on the Lord Jesus or constant awareness of God’s presence. The first means is powerful, but the second is even more powerful and it supports the first. Therefore, if we sincerely wish to reveal the abundance of grace buried in us, we will hasten to acquire the habit of the second method, the prayer of the heart, and we will practice this imageless activity until it warms our heart and inflames it to unspeakable love for the Lord.
The action of this prayer in the heart can be present in two ways: Sometimes the mind anticipates and attaches itself to the Lord in the heart by continual remembrance; at other times the prayer comes first in sparks of joy, attracts the mind to the heart, and bids it to call on the Lord Jesus in reverential presence before Him. In the first case the action of the prayer can be noticed in the subduing of the passions through the keeping of the commandments and the warmth of the heart which results from the diligent calling on the Lord Jesus; in the second case the spirit attracts the mind to the heart and holds it there in the depths, keeping it from its usual wandering. From these two aspects of prayer the mind is either active or contemplative; when active it overcomes the passions with the help of God, and when contemplative it sees God as much as it is possible for a man to do.
The active prayer of the heart and mind can be accomplished in the following way: Sitting on a chair, bring your mind from the head into the heart and hold it there; from there call with your mind and heart, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” Regulate your breathing also, because rhythmic breathing can disperse distracting thoughts. When you are aware of thoughts, do not pay attention to them regardless of whether they are good or not. With your mind enter the heart and call on the Lord Jesus often and patiently and in this way you will soon overwhelm and destroy these thoughts through God’s name. + [See endnote.] St. John Climacus says that with the name of Jesus you can destroy the enemy, for a more powerful weapon does not exist in either heaven or earth.
When the mind becomes exhausted by such effort and the body and heart is weak from frequent calling on the Lord Jesus, you can stand and sing or you can think about some passage from Scripture. Or about death, or you can read, do manual work, or do some other thing.
When you take upon your self this activity or prayer, then you should read only those books which contain teachings about interior life, about temperance and prayer, namely the works of John Climacus, Issac of Syria, the ascetical books of Maxim the Confessor, Simeon the New Theologian, Hesychius, Philotheus of Sinai, and other similar writings. Leave the writings about other matters for a while, not because they are not good but because they are not appropriate to study when you aspire to keep your mind on prayer. Read only a little but deeply and try to assimilate what you read.
Do not abandon prayer books. Some people hold on to many methods of prayer found in prayer books while others give up prayer books completely and concentrate only on mental prayer. You should take the middle road: Do not say many prayers because you will be exhausted; but do not give them up altogether because of infirmity and weakness. If you see that the prayer is active in you and its movement does not cease in your heart, do not leave it and take a prayer book. This would be the same as if you left God in the depths of your heart and then tried to converse with Him from the outside. For those who do not yet have self-activating prayer is necessary to say many words, even without measure, in order to be in this prayerful atmosphere unceasingly until such and intense prayerful effort inflames the heart and begins self-activating prayer. He who finally tastes this sweetness should then shorten his active prayer and concentrate more on mental prayer as the Fathers suggest. When you become interiorly weak, it is necessary to pray actively or to read the writings of the Fathers. Oars are not necessary when the wind keeps the boat in full sail; they are needed when the wind subsides and leaves the boat.
A spirit of contrition is a great weapon against the enemy so that one does not give in to conceit because of the consolations received in prayer. He who guards the spirit of contrition avoids all manner of difficulties. Real and not imagined interior prayer is that in which the warmth from the prayer of Jesus comes, brings fire to the sphere of the heart, and burns the passions like weeds. It consoles the soul with joy and peace and comes not from the left or from the right or from on high but proceeds from the heart as the source of living water of the life-giving Spirit. Aspire to keep this Spirit in you heart by always guarding the mind from images. When united to the Spirit do not be afraid of anything, because He who said, “Courage, it is I, do not be afraid,” is Himself with you.
+ St. Nicophorus the Solitary teaches that “When you are successful at entering into the heart by this means … give thanks to God and continue in this activity unceasingly, for it will teach you what you cannot learn in any other way. If, however, after trying hard you do not succeed in entering the realm of the heart by this means … then do what I will now suggest and with God’s help you will find what you seek. You know that man communicates with himself interiorly in the breast. When the lips are silent we converse with ourselves, we pray, recite psalms, and lead different forms of conversation with ourselves. You can control this inner talking and instruct your mind to banish every thought and say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ Force yourself to repeat this cry constantly. Patiently continue with this activity for some time, and a way to the heart will be opened for you without any doubt. We have learned this from experience. If you do this with great desire and attention, the entrance into the heart will bring about a host of virtues: love, joy, peace, long-suffering humility, and others.”