On Prayer and Attention

Saint Symeon the New Theologian is emphatic that we start our prayer life by developing attentiveness as the first step. To do this involves identifying our weaknesses and then though attentiveness, “do everything as if you had God in front of you.” Underlying this is the idea of having a clear conscience, one that is not bothered by many things. It though our attentiveness to our thoughts that we can act as if God were right there in front of us. Being attentive we can block evil thoughts and our normal responses to them.

He writes,
"You should keep your conscience clear towards these things: God, spiritual father, other people and earthly things.

Towards God, it is an obligation to keep your conscience clear by avoiding the things you are aware that He neither likes nor give Him any joy.
Towards your spiritual father you should do the things he orders you to do, doing nothing more and nothing less, living according to his plan and wish.
As for the other people, you should keep your conscience clear by not doing to them any of the things you hate and do not wish them to do to you.
Towards the earthly it is your obligation to restrain yourself from abuses, using them all appropriately, food as well as drinking and clothes.

In short, you should do everything as if you had God in front of you, making sure that your conscience does not restrain nor condemn you for not doing something right."

Prayer is a step by step activity. We must do first things first. It will do us no good to simply spend time reciting prayers or chanting psalms if we have not dealt with our weaknesses and purified our conscience. We must first eliminate our weaknesses, purify our heart and have a clear conscience, and then we can make good use of reciting prayers and chanting psalms. Saint Symeon says, “It is once one has diminished his weaknesses that prayer brings pleasure and sweetness to the tongue, and he may be considered near to and appreciated by God.” The starting point he says, “is nothing else but the diminution and cessation of the weaknesses, which are not diminished in the soul in any other way but through attention and guarding of the heart.”

This is purity of the heart. We need to grasp the cause of those actions that are not what we would consciously do while standing in front of God. We have in our inner being, in our mental makeup, predisposed responses that need to be rooted out. Once we are able to gain control over evil thoughts that arise within us and our responses to them, then we will find that our “mind comes to yearn and seek the way to reconcile with God.” Jesus told us that what “proceeds out of the mouth comes from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts... These are the things that defile a man…( Matt 1518-20) So it is the “heart‘ this inner part of our nature that we need to focus on first.

Symeon says that “once weaknesses are totally diminished by the resistance of the heart, then the mind comes to yearn and seek the way to reconcile with God.” There will be a struggle even after we gain control over our weaknesses, but we will be able to find strength and peace in out inner being to resist. It is by the use of the name “Jesus Christ they are dissolved and melt like wax in the fire.” This comes easily with the regular use of the Jesus prayer in our prayer rule.

We can never free ourselves from the attacks by the demons as Saint Symeon says this “is impossible.” This is why we must always be attentive. The only way to maintain control is our dedication to the Jesus prayer. “The only thing that God asks us to do: to have our heart cleansed through prayer.” He points out that it is like the Apostle Paul tells us, “if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Rom 11:16). First we must lay a solid foundation and this is “to guard the heart and cast out weaknesses; then build the spiritual house, which is to cast our the evil spirits fighting us through our senses…

This is how he instructs us to pray once we have overcome our weaknesses and able to guard our heart.
First the “mind should guard the heart in the time of prayer and always stay inside it.” This is an act of concentration and putting full attention on our prayer. Then he says, “from the depths of the heart, it should then lift up the prayers to God.” He is describing what other fathers describe as a step beyond mental prayer, where the prayer is no longer said in the mind but is lifted to God through the heart. In prayer as he describes it, our mind is focused in the heart. It is not paying attention to its function of connecting to the world through the senses. In prayer it is focused on the soul only. He relates the result to the response of the Peter at the time of the Transfiguration of Christ where he said, “Lord it is good for us to be here” (Matt 17:4, Mk 9:5, Lk 9:33). When we are immersed in the heart we will not want to leave. We will want to remain there always eliminating all the mental concepts planted in us by the Devil. Saint Symeon says, “But those who have tasted its sweetness and enjoyed the pleasure inside the depths of their hearts, they all cry together with Paul: ‘What could ever come between us and the love of God?’" (Rm 8:38-39)

Saint Symeon writes,
“In short, he who is not attentive to guard his mind cannot be cleansed in his heart and be therefore worthy to see God. He who is not attentive can never be poor in spirit nor can he ever mourn and cry, or become gentle and peaceful, or hunger and thirst for justice, or become merciful, peacemaker, or persecuted in the cause of right. [Mt 5:3-10] It is quite impossible to acquire any virtue by any means other than attention. It is attention that you should mostly take care of, to be able then to understand the things I am saying.”

Having your mind detached from everything earthly, Symeon tells us to:
“Press your chin on to your chest so that you can have your attention in yourself, with both eyes and mind. Hold your breath slightly to concentrate your mind and then, having all your mind there, try to find the place of your heart. In the beginning, what you will discover is darkness, much callousness and evil. But then, after having practiced this method of attention a lot, night and day, you will find--great wonder!--an incessant happiness! The mind, through struggle, will have finally reached the place of the heart, where you will see the things you have never seen or known. There you will see the heaven which is within you, inside the heart, and you will find yourself enlightened, full of all grace and virtue.

From there on, if any kind of evil thought ever appears from any direction, before even being considered or take shape, you will immediately push it aside and dissolve it by the name of Jesus with his prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me." Hence forth the mind will begin to bear grudge and animosity against the demons, being in an incessant war. It will raise its justified wrath and hunt them, attack them, dissolve them. As for the things following beyond that, those you may find out yourself, with God's help, through your effort and the attention of your mind, keeping Jesus in your heart with His prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me."

Note: The Jesus Prayer is a method that will assist in developing this attentiveness that is needed in our prayer. This is one of the reasons it is important to include it in your daily prayer rule.

Download full article, "The Three Ways of Attention and Prayer"