The Importance of Attention in Prayer
Our minds are like wild beasts. We must learn to control their tendency to wander. In prayer absolute attention on the prayer and God is essential. You may notice how even during your normal activities during the day you are easily distracted. You probably find this even more noticeable when you are trying to pray. Harnessing the mind for effective prayer requires hard work.
Attention Requires Hard Work
Saint Theophan tell us,
"Lasting pacification of the thoughts is a gift from God, but this gift is not given without intensifying one's personal labors."
Just because we have made time for our morning and evening prayer and are praying, God will not quiet our minds for us. We must act to bring our mind to attention and then He will assist us.
Saint Macarius the Great says,
"Let him push himself to prayer even when he does not possess the prayer of the Spirit. And so. God, seeing him striving so and pushing himself by determination, even if the heart is unwilling, gives him the authentic prayer of the Spirit gives him true charity, true meekness, "the bowels of mercies" (Col 3:12), true kindness, and, simply put, fills him with the fruits of the Spirit." ...read Homily 19.3
A person ought to labor to concentrate on his thoughts. He must cut away all underlying matter that leads to evil thoughts, urging himself toward God. He should not allow his thoughts o control his will, but he needs to collect them whenever they wander off in all directions, discerning natural thoughts from those that are evil.
It is through our striving and forcing ourselves that God will see that we are giving our best effort to restrain ourselves and to do good. Seeing this He will grant us true prayer and our striving will become effortless. Therefore, if we allow our mind to wander and taste of its own delights and we do not make any effort to contain it, God will see that we are not prepared for His full grace. How can He have confidence that we will be capable to do good with it if it were given?
At the beginning of a conscious prayer life there is much effort required to control our minds. This is why it is usually recommended to include, prostrations, making the sing of the cross, bowing, and standing. It is also recommended to begin saying prayers aloud. All this is to help bring greater attention to the process of prayer so that the mind can be contained and its wandering cannot destroy our efforts at prayer.
Control the Wandering Mind
Saint Theophan advices us as follows,
"You must not allow the thoughts to wander voluntarily, but when they stray involuntarily, you must immediately turn them back, reproaching yourself, regretting and grieving over your weakness."
Similarly Saint Macarius says,
"Nor should they in prayer be satisfied.. while all the while their mind wanders far from him. They must guard against every neglect of thoughts and unseemly attitude and turn the whole soul with the body back to prayer." ...more St. Macarius on unceasing prayer and Basil Be Attentive or Isaac the Syrian and St. Theophan and Jesus Prayer -Attention
Focus on the Words of the Prayer
John Climacus advises to enclose your mind within the words of the prayer,
"Make the effort... 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... 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." ...more of St. John's thoughts on prayer
What they say is only common sense. If our mind is prone to wander then how can God help us. It is through the focusing of our mind that we direct our body to do the good things He commands us. If we cannot control our mind in prayer, how can we possible control it otherwise? God relies on us to develop the discipline that we are capable of. A large part of our effort in prayer is learning how to control our wandering mind.
Say the Words of the Prayer Slowly and aloud.
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov advises us to repeat the words of our prayer slowly and to say them aloud.
"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." ...more on attention in prayer by Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
Memorize your Daily Prayers
Saint Theophan suggests that we can increase concentration in the beginning by memorizing the prayers in our prayer rule.
"When memorizing prayers, do not forget to grasp each word and feel it; then at actual prayer time these words will engross your attention."
Memorization brings the words of the prayer inside our being. It adds a new dimension to saying prayers when they come from within and the words have sincere meaning.
Prepare for Prayer
He also reminds us that proper preparation is important. See this link for more about preparing for prayer. You want to collect your thoughts before you begin to pray, setting aside the cares of this world and concentrating our mind on God.
"Rouse yourself within yourself the need for prayer at this particular time..." Renew your awareness of your spiritual needs and how it is through prayer that you develop a intimate relationship with God. He says, "When there is the consciousness and the feeling for such needs in the heart, the heart itself will not allow your thoughts to wander off to something else, but will compel you to implore the Lord concerning them.
Above all , you will feel more keenly your complete helplessness: without God, you are completely lost. If misfortune threatens someone, and if he is standing before a person who can save him from it with a single nod of his head, is he going to stand there looking around? No, he is gong to fall on his knees before him and implore him. That is ho you should be at prayer, when you go to it with feeling of total misfortune and consciousness that there is no one who can deliver you from it except the One God."
Be Persistent and Try Different Ways
Being attentive in prayer is fundamental. We can pray in differing ways as long as we are attentive to what we are saying and God. Saint Macarius says, we ought " to have an attentive mind, waiting expectantly on God until he comes and visits the soul by means of all of its openings and its paths and senses... The soul should be totally concentrated on asking and on a loving movement toward the lord, not wandering and dispersed by its thoughts ..." Try different ways to achieve this attentiveness. Saint Macarius says, "Let us develop in our souls versatility and expertise in order to obtain the genuine and great gain, namely, God, who teaches us how truly to pray." With attentiveness God will begin to pray within us and we no longer will have to make the effort that is so essential in the beginning.
With God's Help All Is Possible
Saint Macarius says,
The Lord finds rest in the well-intended soul, making it a throne of glory, and he sits on it and takes his rest. ...read homily 33.
Desert Fathers - Unknown
A brother asked one of the Fathers, What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it. He said to him, Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel; but it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts.
The brother answered the old man, What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?? He said to him, Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, Son of God, have mercy on me.
Then the brother said to him, Look, Abba, I meditate, and there is no compunction in my heart because I do not understand the meaning of the words. The other said to him, Be content to meditate. Indeed, I have learned that Abba Poemen and many other Fathers uttered the following saying, The magician does not understand the meaning of the words which he pronounces, but the wild animal who hears it understands, submits, and bows to it. So it is with us also; even if we do not understand the meaning of the words we are saying, when the demons hear them, they take fright and go away.
From Blog Desert Fathers
Work on controlling the mind and reigning in its tendency to wander when you want to pray. As you develop the capability to harness this wild beast, your prayer life will blossom and you will find benefits in all other aspects of your life. You will ability to know God's will and to act on it will be greatly enhanced.
Also see Jesus Prayer - Attention
...for more read Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov) Attention at Prayer, Saint Theophan the Recluse - Homily 1 - Beginning to Pray, Saint Macarius's Homilies 19 & 33 and Unceasing Prayer, Saint Basil Be Attentive