Selections from The Arena, On Prayer
by St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov)
CHAPTER 17: ON PRAYER
Prayer is the daughter of the fulfilment of the Gospel
commandments, and is at the same time the mother of all the
virtues, according to the general opinion of the Holy Fathers.
Prayer produces virtues from the union of the human spirit with
the Spirit of the Lord. The virtues which produce prayer differ
from the virtues which prayer produces; the former are of the
soul, the latterof the spirit. Prayer is primarily the
fulfilment of the first and chief commandment of those two,
commandments in which are concentrated the Law, the Prophets and
the Gospel.  It is impossible for a person to turn with all
his thought, with all his strength and with all his being towards
God, except by the action of prayer, when it rises from the dead
and, by the power of grace, comes to life as if it received a
Prayer is the mirror of the monk's progress.  By examining
his prayer a monk discerns whether he has attained salvation or
is still in distress on the troubled sea of the passions outside
the sacred harbour. As a guide to such discernment he has the
divinely inspired David who, talking prayerfully to God, said:
By this I know that Thou delightest in me,
that my enemy does not triumph over me.
And because of my innocence Thou hast helped me
and secured me in Thy presence for ever. 
This means: I have learned, O Lord, that Thou hast shown me
kindness and hast taken me to Thyself on account of my constant
and victorious rejection, by the power of prayer, of all enemy
thoughts, images and feelings. This kindness of God to man
appears when a person feels kindness and mercy towards all his
neighbours and forgives all offenders.
Prayer should be a monk's chief task. It should be the centre
and heart of all his activities. By means of prayer a monk clings
to the Lord in the closest manner and is united in one spirit with
the Lord.  From his very entry into the monastery, it is
essential to learn to pray properly, so that in prayer and by
means of prayer he may work out his salvation. Regularity,
progress and proficiency  in prayer are opposed by our corrupt
nature and by the fallen angels who strive their utmost to keep
us in their slavery, in the fallen state of aversion from God
which is common to men and fallen angels.
CHAPTER 18: ON PREPARATION FOR PRAYER
On account of the signal importance of prayer, preparation
should precede its practice. Before praying, prepare yourself;
and be not as one who tempts the Lord.  When we are
going to stand in the presence of our King and God and converse
with Him,' says St. John of the Ladder, 'let us not rush into it
without preparation, lest seeing from afar that we are without
the weapons and clothing required for standing in the presence of
the King, He should order His servants and slaves to bind us and
banish us far from His presence and tear up our petitions and
fling them in our face. 
The first preparation consists in rejecting resentment and
condemnation of our neighbours. This preparation is commanded by
our Lord Himself: When you stand praying, He orders, forgive,
if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father, Who is
in heaven may forgive you your offenses. But if you do not
forgive, neither will your Father Who is in heaven forgive you
your offenses.  Further preparation consists in the
of cares by the power of faith in God and by the power of
obedience and surrender to the will of God; also a realization of
one's sinfulness and the resultant contrition and humility of
spirit. The one sacrifice which God accepts from fallen human
nature is contrition of spirit. If Thou hadst desired
sacrifice, I would have given it; says His Prophet to
God on behalf of everyone who has fallen and remains in his
fallen state. It is not merely some partial sacrifice of body or
soul, but even total holocausts do not please Thee. The
sacrifice for God is a contrite spirit; a contrite and humble
heart God will not despise.  St. Isaac the Syrian
repeats the following saying of another holy father: 'If anyone
does not recognize himself as a sinner, his prayer is not
acceptable to God.'
Stand at prayer before the invisible God as if you saw Him,
and with the conviction that He sees you and is looking at you
attentively. Stand before the invisible God just as a guilty
criminal convicted of countless crimes and condemned to death
stands before a. stem, impartial judge. Exactly! You are standing
before your sovereign Lord and Judge; you are standing before the
Judge in Whose sight no living soul will be justified. 
Who always wins when He is judged,  Who does
not condemn only when, in His unspeakable love for men, He
forgives a man his sin and enters not into judgment with His
servant.  Feeling the fear of God, and feeling from
the action of this fear the presence of God when you pray, you
will see without seeing, spiritually, Him Who is invisible, and
you will realize that prayer is a standing by anticipation at the
awful judgment of God. 
Stand at prayer with bowed head, with your eyes cast to the
ground, on both legs equally and without moving; assist your
prayer by sorrow of heart, sighs from the depth of your soul, and
abundant tears. A reverent outward demeanour at prayer is most
essential and most helpful for all wrestling at the work of
prayer, especially for beginners in whom the disposition of the
soul conforms largely to the posture of the body.
The Apostle orders thanksgiving when we pray: Persevere in
prayer, he says, and keep wakeful in it with
thanksgiving.  The Apostle says that thanksgiving
is ordered by God Himself: Pray without ceasing; give thanks
for everything, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 
What is the meaning of thanksgiving? It means praising God for
His countless blessings, poured out on all mankind and on
everyone. By such thanksgiving the soul is filled with a
wonderful peace; and she is filled with joy in spite of the fact
that sorrows beset her on all sides. By thanksgiving a man
acquires a living faith so that he rejects all worry about
himself, tramples on fear of men and devils, and surrenders
himself wholly to the will of God.
Such a disposition of the soul is an excellent preparatory
disposition for prayer. Therefore since you have received
Christ Jesus as Lord, says the Apostle, so walk in
Him (live in Him), rooted and built up in Him, and
established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in
it by thanksgiving, that is, by means of thanksgiving
obtaining an abundance of faith.  Rejoice in the Lord
always. Again I will say it, Rejoice! ... The Lord is near. Be
anxious about nothing, but in every circumstance, by prayer and
supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known
to God.  The importance of the spiritual effort of
thanksgiving is explained with particular fullness in 'Direction
in the Spiritual Life' by the holy Fathers Barsanuphius and John.
CHAPTER 19: ON ATTENTION AT PRAYER
Prayer requires the inseparable presence and co-operation of
the attention. With attention prayer becomes the inalienable
property of the person praying; in the absence of attention it is
extraneous to the person praying. With attention, it bears
abundant fruit; without attention it produces thorns and
The fruit of prayer consists in illumination of mind and
compunction of heart, in the quickening of the soul with the life
of the Spirit. Thorns and thistles are a sign of deadness of soul
and pharisaical self-esteem which springs from the hardening of a
heart which is contented and elated by the quantity of the
prayers and the time spent in reciting those prayers.
The rapt attention which keeps prayer completely free from
distraction and from irrelevant thoughts and images is a gift of
God's grace. We evince a sincere desire to receive the gift of
gracethe soul-saving gift of attentionby forcing
ourselves to pray with attention whenever we pray. Artificial
attention, as we may call our own unaided attention unassisted by
grace, consists in enclosing our mind in the words of the prayer,
according to the advice of St. John of the Ladder. If the mind,
on account of its newness to the work of prayer, gets out of its
enclosure in the words, it must be led back into them again. The
mind in its fallen state is naturally unstable and inclined to
wander everywhere. But God can give it stability and will do so
in His own time in return for perseverance and patience in the
practice of prayer. 
Specially helpful in holding the attention during prayer is an
extremely unhurried pronunciation of the words of the prayer.
Pronounce the words without hurrying so that the mind may quite
easily stay enclosed in the words of the prayer, and not slip
away from a single word. Say the words in an audible voice when
you pray alone; this also helps to hold the attention.
It is particularly easy to practise attentive prayer when
performing the rule of prayer in one's cell, and one should train
oneself to do so. Beloved brother, do not refuse the yoke of a
certain amount of monotony and compulsion in accustoming yourself
to the exercises of your monastic cell and especially to the rule
of prayer. Arm yourself in good time with the all-powerful weapon
of prayer. Accustom yourself to the practice of prayer while you
have the opportunity.
Prayer is all-powerful on account of the all-powerful God Who
acts in it. It is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word
of God.  Prayer by its nature is communion and union
of man with God; by its action it is the reconciliation of man
with God, the mother and daughter of tears, a bridge for crossing
temptations, a wall of protection from afflictions, a crushing of
conflicts, boundless activity, the spring of virtues, the source
of spiritual gifts, invisible progress, food of the soul, the
enlightening of the mind, an axe for despair, a demonstration of
hope, release from sorrow, the wealth of monks. 
At first we must force ourselves to pray. Soon prayer begins
to afford consolation, and this consolation lightens the coercion
and encourages us to force ourselves. But we need to force
ourselves to pray throughout our life,  and few indeed are the
ascetics who, on account of the abundant consolation of grace,
never need to force themselves.
Prayer acts murderously on our old man, the unregenerate self
or nature. As long as it is alive in us, it opposes prayer like
death.  Fallen spirits, knowing the power of prayer and its
beneficial effect, endeavour by all possible means to divert us
from it, prompting us to use the time assigned to prayer for
other occupations; or else they try to annul it and profane it
with mundane distractions and sinful inattention, by producing at
the time of prayer a countless swarm of earthly thoughts, sinful
day-dreams and reveries, imaginings and fantasies.
CHAPTER 20: ON THE CELL RULE
The cell rule consists in a certain number of prostrations, in
a certain number of prayers and psalms, and in the practice of
the Prayer of Jesus. It is fixed for each person according to his
powers of body and soul. As these powers vary indefinitely in
individuals, the rule is offered to ascetics  in the most
varied forms. The general principle for the rule of prayer
consists in this, that it should on no account exceed the
ascetic's strength, or sap that strength, or undermine his health
and so force him to give up every kind of rule. Abandoning the
rule of prayer is generally the result of a rule, adopted or
imposed, which is beyond one's strength. On the other hand, a
moderate and prudent rule remains a monk's property for the whole
of his life, goes on developing and growing naturally till the
end of his life, and gains character both in outward form and
inner value according to his progress.
For a strong and healthy body a rule requiring a greater
number of prostrations and a larger quantity of prayer is
indicated, and less for a weak body. Human bodies differ so much
from one another in strength and capacity that some are more
exhausted by thirty prostrations than others are by three
CHAPTER 21: CONCERNING BOWS
Bows are divided into bows to the ground and bows from the
waist.  They are generally appointed for the evening rule
before going to bed. It is best to make bows before reading the
evening prayers, that is, to begin the rule with bows. Bows tire
and warm the body to some extent and reduce the heart to a state
of contrition in such a state, the ascetic prays with greater
zeal, warmth and attention. The prayers have quite a different
taste when they are read or said after bows.
Bows must be made extremely unhurriedly for the bodily labour
must be animated by mourning of heart and prayerful cries of
grief on the part of the mind. When about to make prostrations,
give your body a most reverent attitude, such as a slave and
creature of God should have in the presence of his Lord and God.
Then collect your thoughts from wandering everywhere, and with
extreme unhurriedness, just aloud to yourself, enclosing the mind
in the words, and from a contrite and humble heart, say the
prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a
sinner. Having said the prayer, unhurriedly make a
prostration, with reverence and the fear of God, without
excitement, with the feeling of a person repenting and asking for
the forgiveness of his sins, as if you were at the feet of the
Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Do not picture to yourself in your
imagination the form or figure of the Lord, but have a conviction
of His presence; have a conviction that He is looking at you, at
your mind and heart, and that His reward is in His hand. The
former is impermissible fancy, which leads to disastrous
self-deception; but a conviction of the presence of the
omnipresent God is a conviction of a most holy truth. Having made
the prostration, bring the body to reverence and calm again, and
again say unhurriedly the above prayer; then make a prostration
again in the way described above.
Do not worry about the number of bows. Pay all your attention
to the quality of your prayer performed with prostrations.
Without speaking of the effect on the spirit, a small number of
bows made in the way described above will have a much greater
effect on the body itself than a large number made hurriedly,
without attention, for quantity. Experience will soon prove this.
When you get tired, pass from prostrations to bows from the
waist. The extent of the bow from the waist is fixed by this,
that when making it, the extended hand should touch the ground or
Regarding it as one's imperative duty in making bows to ensure
the soul's abundant working which consists in attentiveness,
unhurriedness, reverence, and the intention to offer penitence to
God, the ascetic will soon discover the quantity of bows his
constitution can stand. By slightly reducing this number as a
concession to his weakness, He can make a daily rule for himself:
and when it has been approved and blessed by his spiritual father
or his superior, or by a monk whom he trusts and whose advice he
follows, he can perform the rule daily.
For the spiritual guidance of our beloved brethren we shall
not be silent about the following: bows performed for number, and
not animated by the right working of the mind and heart, are more
harmful than profitable. Having performed them, the ascetic
begins to rejoice. There,' he says to himself like the
Pharisee mentioned in the Gospel, 'God has granted me again today
to make (say) 300 prostrations! Glory to God! Is that an easy
matter? In these times, 300 prostrations! Who keeps such a rule
nowadays?' And so on. We must remember that bows heat the blood,
and by heating the blood excessively, they help to stimulate
mental activity. Having reached such a state, the poor ascetic,
just because he has no idea of the soul's true working,
surrenders to mental activity harmful to the soul, surrenders to
vainglorious thoughts and fancies, based on his ascetic labour,
through which be thinks he is making progress. The ascetic enjoys
these thoughts and fancies, cannot have enough of them, adopts
them, and so plants within himself the fatal passion of conceit.
Conceit soon begins to make its appearance in the secret
condemnation of neighbours and in an open disposition to preach
to them. Obviously such a disposition is a sign of pride and
self-deception; unless a monk considered himself above his
neighbour, be would never dare to teach him. Such is the fruit of
all bodily labour, unless it is animated by the intention to
repent and unless it has repentance as its solo aim, if the
labour is given a value in itself.
True monastic progress consists in this, that the monk sees
himself to be the most sinful of all men. 'A brother said to
Saint Sisoes the Great, "I see that my thought is constantly
with God." The holy man replied "It is no great thing
that your thought is unceasingly with God; it is a great thing
when a monk sees himself beneath every creature." Such
was the manner of thought of the true servants of God, true
monks. It was formed in them from the right working of the soul.
Accompanied by the right working of the soul, even bodily labour
has vast significance, being the expression of repentance and
humility by acts of the body. See my humility and my labour,
and forgive me all My sins,  cries holy David prayerfully
to God, combining in his pious effort bodily labour with deep
penitence and profound humility.
CHAPTER 22: ON ADAPTING THE CELL RULE TO THE MONASTIC RULE
In some Russian communitiesextremely fewwhich
follow the rule of Sarov Monastery, the evening rule is performed
in church with bows. In some cenobitic monasteries the rule is
performed without bows. In the majority of monasteries the
evening rule is left to the choice of the brethren, and is
performed in the cells by those who wish to do so. In Sarov
Monastery, and in other communities which follow its rule, the
labours are so considerable that, over and above the church rule,
hardly any of the brethren can perform the cell rule. But some
have great bodily strength, so that the physical labours even of
Sarov and Valaam monasteries are not enough to exhaust their
bodies, so vigorous are their constitutions.
For those who have a superabundance of strength, or live in
communities in which the rule is not combined with bows, or where
there is no common evening rule, we offer the following humble
advice: the evening rule should be adapted to the rule given by
the Angel to Saint Pachomius the Great. It should be adapted
because at the present time, both on account of our feebleness
and on account of the generally accepted rules in our
monasteries, it is impossible for us to accomplish fully and
exactly the rule given by the Angel to suit the monks of
antiquity. What we have said should cause no offense. Our own
monastic discipline is also blessed from on high; it corresponds
with our weakness and our time. In conformity with what is
prescribed by the rule taught by the Angel, the cell rule can
assume the following order: Glory to Thee, our God, glory to
Thee. Heavenly King; Trisagion; Our Father; Lord have mercy (12);
Come let us worship ... Psalm 50; the Creed. Then the Jesus
Prayer; Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
With the Jesus Prayer some make twenty prostrations and twenty
bows from the waist, others make thirty prostrations and thirty
bows, others forty prostrations and forty bows, and so on. It is
useful to add some prostrations and bows to the prayer to the
Mother of God: My most holy Lady, Mother of God, save me a
sinner. After finishing the appointed number of prostrations and
bows, one must on no account remain idle and allow the mind and
heart to turn indiscriminately to whatever thoughts and feelings
present themselves; one should pass immediately to the set
prayers or the Jesus Prayer. Having performed the bodily labour
and thereby warmed the body and blood, the ascetic gets a special
disposition for spiritual activity as was said above, and unless
he at once gives his soul correct and saving activity, it can
easily turn to wrong and fatal activity, to vain and harmful
considerations and fancies. The fruit obtained by correct bodily
labour must be guarded with care and used with profit. The
invisible thieves and enemies never sleep! Our own fallen nature
will not be slow to produce the weeds  that are native to it.
The purity, alertness of mind and compunction of heart obtained
by prayer with prostrations must at once be used for prayer
without bows, said with the lips unhurriedly and quietly, aloud
to oneself, with the enclosure of the mind in the words of the
prayer, and with the sympathy of the heart with the words of the
In communities where the evening rule is not performed in
church but in the cells, the Prayers Before Sleep should be read
after bows. Besides this, those who wish and who feel that they
are strong enough read akathists, canons, the Psalter and the
intercession.  We must remember that the essence of the work
of prayer consists not in the quantity of the prayers read but in
reading such prayers as are read with attention and with the
sympathy of the heart, so that a deep and strong impression may
be left on the soul. 
The quantity of prayers needed for the rule is ascertained in
the same way as the quantity of bows. Read with due attention and
deliberation some prayers which you consider specially nourishing
for your soul. Having noted the time the reading took and having
figured out how much time you can give to prayer or
psalm-reading, make a suitable cell rule of prayer. The reading
of the akathists to sweetest Jesus and the Mother of God acts
very beneficially on beginners, while for those who have made
some progress and have already experienced some illumination of
the mind, the reading of the Psalter is to be recommended. For
the attentive reading of one Kathisma about twenty minutes is
required. The holy Fathers performed the prayerful reading of the
psalms and other set-prayers with such unhurriednesswhich
is indispensable for attention and for enclosing the mind in the
words of the prayerthat they called this reading psalmody
or psalm-singing. Psalmody is not singing tunes or music at all,
but extremely unhurried reading which by its slowness resembles
In those communities where the evening rule is performed in
church without bows, after completing the rule with bows one
should engage not in psalmody but in prayer and on no account
allow oneself to be distracted by vain and soul-harming thoughts
and fancies. Those monks who for some reason are often forced to
stay in their cell without going out, perform the rule with bows
on rising from sleep before the morning prayers on account of the
beneficial effect of bows on both body and soul as we have
1. St. Matthew 22:37-40.
2. Ladder, 28:45.
3. Ibid. 28:34.
4. Ps. 40:12-13.
5. I Cor. 6:17.
6. There are only two words in the original and both are
ambiguous. The first may mean regularity or correctness,
the second means progress, success, or proficiency.
We have given a double translation to the second word only.
1. Ecclus. 18:23.
2. Ladder 28:3.
3. St. Mark 11: 25.
4. Ps. 50:17.
5. Ps. 124:2.
6. Ps. 50:4.
7. Ps. 142:2.
8. Ladder 28:1.
9. Col. 4:2. cp. Phil. 4:6.
10. Thess. 5:17.
11. Col. 2:6-7.
12. Phil. 4:4-6.
1. Gen. 3:17; Heb. 6:8. Thorns and thistles of
conceit and hypocrisy, self-delusion and formality (2 Tim. 3:5).Ladder
2. Ephes. 6:17.
3. Ladder 28:1, quoted freely with omissions.
4. Alphabetical Patrology and Memorable Sayings of Abba Agatho,
5. Cp. 'Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh, the
fallen self-life, with its passions and desires.' (Gal. 5:24.)
1. ascetics here means anyone who wishes to live the spiritual life.
1. Lit. 'ground-bows and belt-bows.'
2. Ps. 24: 18.
1. Mat. 13:25.
2. This intercession is usually called 'Commemoration of the
Living and the Departed' in Russian Prayer Books; and generally
comes immediately after the 'Prayers on Rising from Sleep'.
3. St. Symeon the New Theologian, 'On the Three Ways of Prayer'.
Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, by
Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov), translated from the Russian by
Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity
Monastery, 1991), pp. 66-78. This is one of the most
important books for our times on the spiritual life. Do not
let the title fool you. Though written primarily as an
"offering to contemporary [late 19th century]
monasticism," it contains much wisdom for laypeople as
well. The Arena represents a portion of the works
written late in his life, reflecting his extensive
experience, balance, and patristic wisdom. This book
cannot be too highly recommended for all serious Orthodox