St. Theophan the Recluse On Prayer
From the Letters of Bishop Theophan the Recluse
The Art and Science of Prayer (from Letter 15)
You write that you prayed fervently and at once you were
calmed, receiving an inner assurance that you would be released
from oppression; and then, indeed, it was so....
Recall how you prayed and always strive to pray this way, so
that prayer comes from the heart and is not just thought by the
mind and chattered by the tongue.
I won't conceal the fact that, though once you prayed from the
heart, it is hardly possible to pray that way constantly. Such
prayer is given by God or is inspired by your Guardian Angel. It
comes and goes. It does not follow, though, that we should give
up the labor of prayer. Prayer of the heart comes when one makes
an effort; to those who do not strive, it will not come. We see
that the Holy Fathers made extraordinary efforts in prayer, and
by their struggles they kindled the warm spirit of prayer. How
they came to this prayerful state is illustrated in the writings
they have left us. Everything they say about striving in prayer
makes up the science of prayer, which is the science of sciences.
The time will come when we will study this art [see the classic
work The Art of Prayer (Faber &
Faber)webmaster]. But now, since it came up in our
correspondence, I touch on it only in passing. Let me add: There
is nothing more important than prayer; therefore, our greatest
attention and most diligent attention must attend it. Grant
us, O Lord, zeal for such an effort!
Wandering Thoughts during Prayer (from Letter 31)
Thoughts wander when one is reading spiritual works and during
prayer. What should one do? No one is free from this. There is no
sin in it, only vexation. Having wandering thoughts becomes a sin
when one willingly allows flightiness of mind. But if thoughts
scatter involuntarily, what fault can there be? There is fault,
though, when one notices thoughts wandering and, taking no
action, one wanders along with them. When we catch our thoughts
wandering off, we must bring them back to their proper place at
To be free from the tendency to have wandering thoughts during
prayer, one must concentrate and pray with warmth. Before prayer,
one should prepare for such an effort by making prostrations and
by a moment of reflection.
Accustom yourself to pray your own prayers. For instance: it
is the essence of evening prayer to thank God for the day and
everything that happened, both pleasant and unpleasant; to ask
forgiveness for all wrongs committed, promising to improve during
the next day; and to pray that God preserve you during sleep.
Express all this to God from your mind and from your whole heart.
The essence of morning prayer is to thank God for sleep, rest
and regained strength and to pray that He will help us do
everything to His glory. Express this to Him with your mind and
with your whole heart. Along with such prayers in the morning and
evening, present your greatest needs to the Lord, especially
spiritual needs. Besides spiritual needs, present your worldly
cares, saying to Him as would a child: "See, O Lord, my
sickness and weakness! Help and heal!" All this and the like
can be spoken before God in your own words, without the use of a
prayer book. Try this and, if it works, you may leave the prayer
book altogether; but if not, you must pray with the prayer book,
otherwise you might end up with no prayer at all.
Spiritual Coldness (from Letter 40)
You have correctly determined that the enemy of our
fundamental striving for prayer, and, therefore, our chief enemy,
is a [spiritual] cooling. Oh, what a bitter and wretched state it
is! But realize that not all decrease in the heat of fervor is
pernicious chill. Some comes from weakness, other from disease of
the body. Neither is bad; both will pass.
Disastrous cooling down is caused by falling away from God's
will, through our own willful passion for anything ungodly.
Willful passion runs counter to our conscience, which tries to
enlighten and to keep us from ungodly desires. Willful passion
kills the spirit and cuts off spiritual life. This you must fear
most of allas fire, as death itself. Willful passion is
caused by a loss of the fear of God and by inattention to
oneself. These, then, you must watch for in order to avoid such a
terrible evil. As for those times when a cooling down comes
involuntarily, due to sickness or weakness of body, one law
applies: Endure, without changing your appointed rule, even if it
is completely without savor. For those who endure patiently, cold
feelings pass, and the usual warm and heartfelt fervor quickly
Please, hold it in your mind and make it a rule, never to let
cooling arbitrarily steal away your fervor. In case of
unavoidable cooling, make it another rule to drag and to keep
dragging through your established prayer rule, with the assurance
that this dry performance of deeds will soon bring back life and
warmth to your prayer.
Brief Prayers (from Letter 42)
Zealous Christians have a certain technique that they apply to
secure the continual remembrance of God more firmly. It is the
constant repetition of a short prayer, ordinarily either,
"Lord, have mercy," or "Lord Jesus Christ, have
mercy on me, a sinner." If you haven't heard this, then
listen now. If you have never done this, begin now.
Time Will Bring a Constant Remembrance of God (from Letter 43)
Be encouraged! Take up prayer more readily and continue
without interruptionsand you will soon achieve your desired
goal. Soon a reverent attention to the One God will be
established, and with it, inner peace. I say soon, not now, or in
a day or two. Months may be required, sometimes, even years. Ask
the Lord and He will help.
Prayer Rule (from Letter 47)
You ask about the prayer rule. Yes, because of our weakness,
it is proper to have a prayer rule. For one thing, it controls
excessive zeal. The great men of prayer had a prayer rule and
kept to it. Every time, they began prayer with the established
prayers, and then, if self-initiated prayer came, they turned to
it from reciting prayers. If they needed a prayer rule,
then we need one even more! Without formal prayers, we would not
know how to pray correctly at all. Without them, we would be
completely without prayer.
Nevertheless, we should not collect too many prayers. A few
prayers, correctly read, are better than many prayers raced
through. And, of course, it is hard to keep from rushing when, in
our eagerness to pray, we have gathered more prayers than we can
For you, it is quite adequate to complete the morning and
evening prayers as they are found in the prayer book. Always
strive to complete them with as much attention and feeling as
possible. To do this successfully, make an effort in your spare
time to read them with extra care, attention and feeling, so that
when you are at prayer, you will be familiar with the holy
thoughts and feelings contained in them. Praying does not mean
repeating a certain number of words of prayer; praying is
reproducing the contents of the prayers within ourselves, so that
they flow as if from our own mind and heart.
Having contemplated their meaning and reacted deeply, make an
effort to learn the prayers by heart, so when it is time for
prayer, you will not have to fumble with books and lighting. If
you learn prayers by heart, you will not be distracted by what
your eyes see, and you will be able to hold your mind's attention
more steadily upon God.
You will see for yourself how beneficial this is. Learning
prayers by heart ensures that at all times and in every
circumstance the prayers are with you, and this means a great
Having so prepared yourself to stand at prayer, strive to keep
your mind from drifting away and strive to keep your feelings
from turning cold and indifferent. Always strain to pay attention
and to nurture warmth. After reading each prayer, do as many
prostrations as you feel necessary, or say the usual short prayer
(that is, the Jesus Prayer). Your prayers, no doubt, will take
longer this way, but they will grow in strength.
Particularly at the end of your prayer rule, spend additional
time saying your own prayers. Ask for forgiveness for involuntary
inattention during prayer and surrender yourself to God's care
for the whole day.
We must continue to hold our attention on God during the day.
To support our attention, I have said more than once: Remember
God through a briefly worded prayer.
At times, it is very fruitful to substitute a few psalms for
the short prayer psalms you have reflected upon thoroughly and
memorized. You can do this during free moments and throughout the
day's activities. Repeating memorized psalms is an ancient
Christian custom that was developed and brought into the monastic
rule in the fourth century by Saints Pachomius and Anthony [the
After spending the entire day in such a prayerful attitude,
take even more time in the evening to concentrate at prayer and
increase your prostrations. Intensify your supplications to God
and, having again dedicated to God's care, bed down with a brief
prayer on your lips and fall asleep with it, or with the
repetition of a psalm.
Which psalms to learn? Memorize those that drop into your
heart when you read them. Different people are moved by different
psalms. Begin with Psalm 50, then Psalms 102 and 145, the
antiphons for the Liturgy; also, the psalms from the Preparation
for Communion (Psalms 22, 2:3, 115); as well as Psalm 69, Psalm 4
(the first psalm of [Great] Compline [during the first week of
Great Lent]), the psalms for the Hours, and the like. Read the
Psalter and choose.
Having memorized all this, you will be totally armed for
prayer. When a disturbing thought comes to mind, rush to the Lord
with a brief prayer or some psalm, especially, "O God, be
attentive unto helping me" (Psalm 69), and the disturbing
cloud will immediately vanish.
That summarizes prayer rules.
But I repeat: Remember, all of this is a guide. The heart of
the matter is: Stand with reverence before God, with the mind
in the heart, and strive toward Him with longing.
A Prayer Rule of Brief Prayers (same Letter)
It occurs to me to add this: You may substitute prostrations,
the brief prayer and your own words of prayer for your whole
Stand and begin to do prostrations by saying, "Lord, have
mercy," or some other prayer expressing your needs, or by
glorifying God or thanking Him. To avoid laziness, you must
repeat a definite number of prayers, or set a specific length of
time for prayer, or both.
Such a prayer rule is imperative because we have a certain,
strange quirk about us. When we are busy in the world, hours pass
as minutes. But when we stand at prayer, a minute does not go by,
and it seems as though we have prayed for hours. Time distortion
brings no harm when we complete a full, established prayer rule
from our prayer book. But when we pray with only prostrations and
the brief prayer, such distortion can be a great temptation and
can cause us to stop prayer, having only begun, leaving us with
the delusion that our prayer was completed as prescribed. To
avoid falling into this kind of deception, the good men of prayer
invented the prayer rope. The prayer rope is used by those who
plan to pray independently of the prayer book. It is used by
saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner, ' and
pulling one knot through your fingers.
Say it again and move another knot, and so on with each
prayer. You may make a prostration, from the waist or to the
ground as you desire, at each prayer. Or for small knots, you may
do a bow from the waist; large knots, prostrations. The whole
rule consists of a fixed number of prayers and prostrations,
interspersed with prayers in your own words.
Speeding up the repetition of prayers and prostrations is
another danger. After you determine a set number of prayers, it
is a good idea to guard yourself from haste by setting a definite
length of time in which to complete the prayer rule. If you find
you have rushed the prayers, fill the time with more prayers and
The number of prayers to substitute for a fixed service of
liturgical prayer is listed at the end of the Horologion in two
tables, one for the zealous, and another one for the slothful or
those who are busy. The Startsi [Elders] who still live
among us in hermitages and special cells, at Valaam and Solovki
for instance, do all their services on the prayer rope. This is
how you go about it: See how long it takes you to read through
your morning and evening prayers; then count out on the prayer
rope how many prayers you can do in that length of time, and as
many times as you can complete the prayer rope, that should be
your rule, following this method. Work out your prayer rope rule
outside of your regular prayer time, but with the same attention
you would give to regular prayer. You should then proceed with
your actual prayer rule at its appointed time, standing and with
Reading this, don't think that I am pushing you toward
monasticism. I myself first learned of prayer with the prayer
rope, not from a monk, but from a layman, for many lay people
pray this way. And you too will profit by this. When prayers from
the prayer book become tedious and uninspiring, you may use the
prayer rope for a day or two, then return to your memorized
Again I repeat: The essence of prayer lies in lifting the mind
and heart to God. Prayer rules are only aids to this end. We weak
ones cannot do without them.
Hard Work is Essential (from Letter 48)
You write that you are having trouble controlling your
thoughts; they scatter easily, and praying does not proceed as
you wish; and that, in the midst of the day, in the midst of toil
and association with others, there is little remembrance of God.
Instantaneous prayer life is impossible. You must make a
strong effort to control your thoughts, at least to some degree.
Prayer does not come about as you expectby just wishing for
it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.
Forcing Oneself to Pray (same Letter)
You have the book of discourses by St. Macarius of Egypt.
Kindly read the 19th discourse, concerning a Christian's duty to
force himself to do good. There it is written, "One must
force oneself to pray, even if one has no spiritual prayer."
And, "In such a case, God, seeing that a man earnestly is
striving, pushing himself against the will of his heart (that is,
his thoughts), He grants him true prayer." By true prayer,
St. Macarius means the undistracted, collected, deep prayer that
occurs when the mind stands unswervingly before God. As the mind
begins to stand firmly before God, it discovers such sweetness,
that it wishes to remain in true prayer forever, desiring nothing
I have stated more than once exactly what efforts must be
made: Do not allow your thoughts to wander at will. When they do
involuntarily escape, immediately turn them back, rebuking
yourself, lamenting and grieving over this disorder. As St. John
of the Ladder says, "We must lock our mind into the words of
prayer by force. "
When you have learned the prayers by heart, as I suggested in
my earlier letter, perhaps then you will progress more smoothly.
The most helpful idea is to attend church frequently. There,
prayers come more readily because all is directed to that end,
but this is not very practicable for you. So, labor at home to
accustom yourself to pray attentively and try to remain in God's
presence the rest of the time, as much as possible.
When memorizing the prayers, do not forget to dig into the
meaning and to experience the feeling in each word. Then when you
say the prayer, the words themselves will hold your attention and
warm you into a prayerful attitude.
Preparation for Prayer (from Letter 48)
Do this also. Prepare yourself to stand properly before
Goddon't just jump into prayer after gossiping and gadding
about or doing house chores. Schedule the time and rouse the urge
to pray precisely at that hour. Another opportunity may not come.
Don't forget to re-establish your sense of spiritual need.
Bring your need for God to the front of your mind, then begin to
draw your mind into your heart by organizing your thoughts into
prayer and calling forth your desire to find their fulfillment in
When the heart is conscious and feels the need for prayer,
then the attentive heart itself will not let your thoughts slide
to other matters. It will force you to cry out to the Lord in
your prayers. Most of all, be aware of your own helplessness:
were it not for God, you would be lost. If someone who is doomed
to disaster were to stand before the one person who, with a
glance, could save him, would he look here and there for his
salvation? No, he would fall down before him and beg mercy. So it
will be when you approach Him in prayer with an awareness of
all-encompassing peril and the knowledge that no one can save you
All of us have this little sin hanging about us. Though we
make painstaking preparations for every other task (no matter how
trivial), we do not prepare for prayer. We take up prayer with
flighty thoughts, willy-nilly, and rush to get it over with, as
if it were an incidental, though unavoidable, botherand not
the center of our life, as it should be.
Without preparation, how can there be a gathering of thought
and feeling in prayer? Without preparation, prayer proceeds
shakily instead of firmly.
No, you must determine to deny yourself this little sin and
under no circumstance allow yourself to come to prayer with your
heart and mind unprepared, your thoughts and feelings scattered
in a dozen directions. Such a careless attitude toward prayer is
a crime, a serious onea capital one. Consider prayer
the central labor of your life and hold it in the center of your
heart. Address it in its rightful role, not as a secondary
Toil! God will be your helper. Take care to fulfill
your prayer rule. If you begin to fulfill it, soon, very soon,
you will see the fruits of your labor. Strive to experience the
sweetness of pure prayer. Once experienced, pure prayer will draw
you on and enliven your spiritual life, beckoning you to more
attentive, more difficult, and ever-deepening prayer.
Worldly Cares (from Letter 49)
There is a widely-accepted misconception among us that when
one becomes involved in work at home or in business, immediately
one steps out of the godly realm and away from God-pleasing
activities. From this idea, it follows that once the desire to
strive toward God germinates, and talk turns toward the spiritual
life, then the idea inevitably surfaces: one must run from
society, from the hometo the wilderness, to the forest.
Both premises are erroneous!
Homes and communities depend on concerns of daily life and
society. These concerns are God-appointed obligations; fulfilling
them is not a step toward the ungodly, but is a walking in the
way of the Lord.
All who cleave to these erroneous premises fall into the bad
habit of thinking that once they accept worldly obligations, they
no longer need strive towards God.
I see that these misconceptions have trapped you also. Cast
them aside and grasp the concept that everything you do, in and
outside your home, concerning social life, as a daughter, as a
sister, as a Muscoviteis godly and God-pleasing. There is
an appointed commandment for everything in our lives. How can the
fulfillment of commandments be displeasing to God? Your
misconceptions truly make them ungodly, because you
fulfill your daily tasks with an attitude contrary to the one God
intended you to have.
You complete godly deeds in an ungodly manner. They are
needlessly lost and tear your mind from God. Correct this and,
from now on, approach daily matters with the knowledge that to
fulfill them is a commandment. Administer them as administering
Once you adjust yourself to this outlook, no worldly duty will
distract you from God. Instead, it will bring you close to Him.
We are all servants of our God. God has assigned to each his
place and responsibilities, and He watches to see how each
approaches his assignment. He is everywhere. And He watches over
you. Keep this in mind and do each deed as if it were assigned to
you directly by God, no matter what it is.
Do your housework in this manner: When someone comes to visit,
keep in mind that God has sent you this visitor, and is watching.
When you have to leave your house, keep in mind that God has sent
you out on an errand, and is watching. Will you complete it as He
By orienting yourself to God at all times, your chores at home
and responsibilities outside the house will not distract your
attention from God, but, on the contrary, will keep you intent on
completing all tasks in a God-pleasing manner. All will be
performed with the fear of God, and this fear will keep your
attention on God unswervingly.
To determine which duties inside and outside the family are
God-pleasing, take the books in which these matters are discussed
as your guides. Be careful to distinguish between concerns
prompted by frivolity, passions, flattery and worldliness, from
those that are correct, appropriate and honorable.
Of course, having expressed the firm determination to live in
a God-pleasing manner, you will need no prompting to discriminate
between godly tasks and ungodly ones.
Nurturing the Desire for God (from Letter 51)
Do you wish to enter Paradise more quickly? This is what you
must do: When you pray, do not complete your prayer before
arousing in your heart some feeling toward Godreverence,
loyalty, thanksgiving, exaltation, humility, contrition, or
assurance and hope in God...
Carelessness and Presumption in Prayer (from Letter 71)
Well, where has your prayer vanished? It seems to have started
off quite well, and you had already experienced its grace-filled
actions in your heart. I will tell you where it has gone. Having
prayed once or twice with warmth and in earnest, and having
experienced such immediate help through prayer at the shrine of
St. Sergius, you thought your prayer was forever established, and
that there was no need to maintain it. You thought it would flow
by itself. Expecting prayer to continue on its own, you began to
rush and carelessly left your thoughts to wander unchecked. From
this, your attention scattered, thought went in all directions,
and your prayer was no longer true. Once, twice in such a
careless manner, and prayer disappeared. Begin anew to establish
prayer and plead with the Lord to help you.
Haste in Prayer (from the same Letter)
I presume that you negligently rushed to complete your prayer
rule, just to get by. Make it a rule, from now on, never to pray
negligently. Nothing is more offensive to God than this. It is
better to leave out part of your prayer rule and to complete the
remainder reverently and with fear of God, than to do the whole
prayer rule, and do it negligently. It is even better to read but
one prayer, or fall on your knees and pray in your own words,
than to pray negligently. If you pray carelessly, there will be
Give yourself a thorough reprimand for such carelessness. Let
this be clear to you: No one who prays earnestly and with
attention ends prayer without feeling the effect of prayer. Oh,
of what a blessing we deprive ourselves by allowing negligence in
A Fixed Time for Prayer (from the same Letter)
Why does haste in prayer occur? It is incomprehensible. We
spend hours involved in other things, and they seem like minutes;
but just begin to pray, and it seems we have stood for a long
time. And then we feel we must hurry to finish as soon as
possible. No benefit is reaped by praying in this way. What
should one do?
To avoid such self-deception, some do this: Set a definite
length of time for prayera quarter of an hour, a half, or a
whole hour (whatever is convenient), and regulate your vigil so
that the clock striking on the half hour or the hour signals the
end of prayers. Then when you begin prayers, do not concern
yourself with the number of prayers read, but only lift your
heart and mind to the Lord in prayer, and continue in a worthy
manner for the time set aside. Others determine how many prayers
can be done on the prayer rope in a given time and proceed in a
calm and unhurried way to count them on the prayer rope. They
stand with their minds before the Lord, or converse with Him in
their own words, or recite some prayer, and this is how they
reverently venerate His unending glory.
Such people so accustom themselves to praying, that the
minutes at prayer are filled with sweetness. And it is rare that
they remain just for the appointed time; they double and even
triple it. Choose one of these methods for yourself and hold to
it earnestly. You and I cannot go without definite rules. For
those who can pray fervently, no rules are necessary.
I have already written to you about memorizing prayers, and
reciting them from memory at prayer time without taking the
prayer book in hand. How wonderful this is! Having begun to pray,
recite a memorized prayer or psalm and ponder every word, not
only in your mind, but in your heart. If your own prayer begins
to grow from a word in the psalm or prayer, don't cut it off, let
it flow. Do not worry about reading this many or that many
prayers, but stand at prayer for an appointed length of time,
regulated either by the prayer rope or the clock. Haste in
prayers is useless. Perhaps you may read only a single prayer or
one psalm during the entire time. There was one person who was
able to recite only the Lord's Prayer during his regular prayer
time; each word transformed itself into a whole prayer. Another
person, having been told about this acceptable manner of praying,
revealed that he had stood all through Matins reciting Psalm 50,
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great
mercy"and ran out of time before he could finish.
Prayer: the Root of All Things (from the same Letter)
Accustom yourself to pray this way and, God grant, soon you
will nurture true prayer in yourself. Then there will be no need
for rules. Labor, or nothing will come of you. If there is no
success in prayer, then there will be no success in anything. It
is the root of everything.
The Need for Prayer (Letter 79)
All is from God. To Him we must flee. And you write that you
Smart-aleck! Have you joined the ranks of the infidels, or
what? How is it possible that you don't pray? Don't just read the
appointed prayers; speak in your own words and tell Him what is
in your heart; ask for help! "See, Lord, what troubles
me?...this and this... I can't straighten myself out. Help,
All-Merciful One!" Mention every little thing and plead for
everything's appropriate cure. This will be true prayer. You may
always pray your own prayers, as long as there is no backsliding
From Various Letters
One should not always toil at spiritual things. You should
have some simple handiwork to do. But take it up only when the
soul is tired, and cannot read or think or even pray to God
You should pray in your own wordsbefore you have recited
formal prayers, after you have read them, and throughout your
prayer rule (Letter 33).
Be persistent in addressing God, the Theotokos, your Guardian
Angel (Letter 33).
Detours can be to the right and to the left. The first is zeal
without knowledge; the second, sloth (Letter 39).
How fitting is the frequent prayer, "By whatever means,
save me!" (Letter 39).
Success does not come instantly; one must be patient; one must
labor without rest... All will come in due time... That this is
so is supported by the experience of all those people who are
seeking and working out their salvation (Letter 43).
From Orthodox Life, vol. 32, no. 4
(July-August, 1982), pp. 21-30. Translated from the Russian by
Fr. Stefan Pavlenko.