Distractions During Prayer and the Place of the Heart

By Hieromonk Fr. Alexis (Trader)

Many sincere Christians have experienced distracting thoughts or even bad thoughts during prayer and are naturally distressed when this happens. After all, their intention is to communicate with God, not to talk to themselves about things mundane or even worse!  Some have become so discouraged by such thoughts that they give up on prayer altogether.  And yet, seeking to find the Lord Jesus even when He seems lost in an unruly crowd of our distractions and bad thoughts is very much a part of our struggle as Christians. The presence of these unwanted, yet to be honest, not totally rejected, thoughts, provides us with a wealth of self-knowledge that can also become a source of genuine humility. They show us that our best efforts are not enough without God’s mercy and love coming to us to save us.  They also show us that we are living and searching for God in and with our minds, instead of using that unique instrument with which we can come into contact with God, namely, our heart.

Archimandrite Zacharias has noted, “The great tragedy of our times lies in the fact that we live, speak, think, and even pray to God, outside our heart, outside our Father’s house. And truly our Father’s house is our heart, the place where ‘the spirit of glory and of God’ would find repose, that Christ may ‘be formed in us’.  Indeed, only then can we be made whole, and become hypostases in the image of the true and perfect Hypostasis, the Son and Word of God, Who created and redeemed us by the precious Blood of His ineffable sacrifice.  Yet as long as we are held captive by our passions, which distract our mind from our heart and lure it into the ever-changing and vain world of natural and created things, thus depriving us of all spiritual strength, we will not know the new birth from on High that makes us children of God and gods by grace.”

Distressing distraction in prayer, which sometimes develops into extensive conversations with ourselves, means that we are praying with our minds, but not with our hearts. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I make reference to how we should pray in spite of the distractions and bad thoughts.  “The watchful fathers knew by experience that when the believer’s mind is gathered in the heart and repeats the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ demonic thoughts, fantasies and illusions are exposed as false and thus can be more easily rejected.  The correct application of this approach known as monologistic prayer entails ‘cognitively’ paying attention to the words of prayer and ‘emotionally’ feeling compunction in the presence of the Lord Jesus.  Attentive and compunctious prayer in turn augments the believer’s yearning for Christ and watchfulness over the thoughts, thereby bringing him clarity of mind.  Although it requires much toil, humility, and even ‘assistance from heaven’, the holy fathers consider this ‘cognitive method’ to be as effective in bridling unruly thoughts as the behavioral technique of not voicing one’s reaction to an insult is successful at stifling anger.”

It is worth noting that demonic thoughts, fantasies and illusions can appear even if someone is praying correctly and in a God-pleasing way. The difference lies in the ease and the speed with which distractions are rejected. The mind is always making associations, churning out thoughts, saying, “Look over here, look over there.” And the mind has an exquisite knowledge of our buttons (which are often our passions) and knows full well which ones to push to get our attention.  When we pray in the heart, though, we can tell from afar the difference between the real  gold of Christ and the fool’s gold of the devil. And so when praying from the heart, we ignore extraneous thoughts with the blink of an eye, and keep looking to the radiant countenance of our compassionate Lord.

The problem is not really distraction in prayer. Distraction is a symptom of our spiritual state. When we find ourselves especially distracted, when conversations in the mind with ourselves are more vociferous than our cry of repentance, we need to humble ourselves and strive again to turn to the Lord with compunction, praying to Him with all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength. Perhaps it might be helpful to recognize that one who engages in prayer, especially during the period of purification from the passions is not going to experience it as all “sweetness and light.”  If that were so, the passions would remain forever hidden and one could hardly make any progress against enemies that remain lurking in the heart.  Rather, it might be beneficial to consider the time of prayer as one’s entrance into the spiritual arena in which the wild beasts of our passions are let loose, in which the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour, and in which the Angels, the Saints, and Christ Himself watch on ready to help us if we call out for help with our entire soul. Prayer introduces the faithful to the battleground for the heart. Let us not grow discouraged by distractions, but take note, and turn to the Lord with increasing fervor. Seeking, always seeking, what the Lord seeks most of all, our heart. The Lord reminds us that trials and temptations will come our way and that includes trials and temptations in Church and at the time of prayer. But He also told His disciples, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” and with it every possible distraction and evil thought arising in our own inner world during the hallowed time of prayer.

Source: Ancient Christian Wisdom

The Problem of Procrastination

By Fr. Alexis (Trader)

In our fast-paced society that prizes productivity and efficiency, procrastination is clearly a problem that can sabotage career and advancement. In a world preoccupied with high stress and low self-esteem, procrastination can be a serious issue contributing to more frequent physical illness as well mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. And even in Christian circles, procrastination can be a spiritual snare, for procrastination in repentance and the keeping of God’s commandments can destroy our very souls. Even though failing to follow through and complete an intended task until the last minute can keep us from our goals at every level, leaving us anxious, depressed and even seemingly far from God, we still procrastinate.

Psychologists often view the problem of procrastination as a problem of disconnect between intention and behavior. For instance, in his thesis entitled “Ruminating About Procrastination,” Brett W. Guidry notes that procrastination is a “delay of some sort, needless, and counterproductive…The idea of delaying an intended behavior seems to be crucial in defining procrastination. Without this intention-behavior gap, it is difficult to claim that procrastination has occurred.” Much like in the Lord’s parable about a certain man with two sons, the procrastinator says to himself, “I go, sir: and went not.” (Matthew  28-30).  In procrastination, the discrepancy between intention and behavior is also experienced as transgression of an inner law that the self has set. Procrastination can be viewed as a personal moral failure often expressed by so-called “should” statements such as, “I should have started this by now” or “I should have already completed this.”  Such realizations not only can lower self-esteem, but also can lead to anxiety, stress, and ensuing health problems.

Guidry goes on to point out that procrastination represents a breakdown in self-regulation or self-discipline, in part due to the fact that procrastinators are also more impulsive by nature with an inability to stick to a given task. Joseph R. Ferrari examined the relationship between impulsivity and procrastination and found that procrastinators “spend less preparation time on tasks that were likely to succeed and more time on projects likely to fail (Lay, 1990); they also tend to underestimate the time required to complete tasks.”  Ferrari concludes “ frequent procrastination (e.g., indecisiveness and pronounced tendencies to avoid threatening situations) is related to dysfunctional impulsiveness (high speed-high error)… To the extent that these procrastinators possess deficits in cognitive processing abilities, tendencies to speed up and work faster to complete a task by deadline will likely result in poor performance because of the subsequent lack of sufficient time and ability to perform efficiently.”

In other words, procrastination, the guilty feelings about failing to do what we intended to do, arise from poor judgment, poor self-control, and a failure to face squarely our own problems. In spiritual terms, we could say there is a lack of discernment, asceticism, and courage. Procrastinators are like the man who failed to sit down and count the cost like the parable of the man in intending to build a tower (Luke 14:28). They resemble Eve who saw the fruit was pleasant to the eyes, took it and ate it (Genesis 3:6). They view their project or problem, much like the fearful disciples afraid to face a storm or even a young girl warming herself by fire (Mark 14:69). In patristic terms, procrastination involves a kind weakness in the three parts of the soul, the reasoning, the desiring, and the aggressive faculties. In particular, there is a lack of planning in the reasoning faculty, shifting fancies in the desiring faculty, and apprehension in the aggressive faculty. Fortunately, the fathers have time-tested methods for dealing with spiritual sickness in each of these areas.

And the basic method in all cases is prayer. The three-fold ill of procrastination can be healed by actively turning to God on a daily basis, seeking His wisdom, His strength, and His assistance in the tasks of the day. It means asking God’s help to strengthen our good intentions, by faith proceeding to implement those intentions, and by calling on His Name disregarding the distractions and temptations that get in our way. We need to heed our Lord’s words: “And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch,” watching our plans, our desires, and our courage all in the light of His victory over every foe. If we do this in the spiritual life, we can also learn to do it in other areas. Encouraging watchfulness in his monks, Elder Ephraim would urge, “Compel yourselves; say the Prayer; stop idle talk; close your mouths to criticism; place doors and locks against unnecessary words; time passes and does not come back; and woe to us if time goes by without spiritual profit.” Putting first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, let’s first try to be watchful in our spiritual life by turning to God who can then help us overcome this obstacle in all the areas of our life to His glory. Amen

Source: Ancient Christian Wisdom blog

Undue Concern over Others’ Problems

by Archpriest George Morelli Antiochian Archdiocese Ministry of Counseling.

There is a deep chasm between genuine and sincere concern for the
problems that beset others versus undue personal disturbance. One of
the major disaffirmative consequences of an undue concern for others’
problems is that we are not able to focus on fostering our own healthy
physical, psychological or spiritual functioning and wellbeing. This is
often accompanied by our own emotional distress. Furthermore, this then leads to being ineffective in giving others the help they may deservedly need and that we might want to give to them. Irish author, poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), put it this way: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”1

Continue reading

“Can There Be Enough of Love?”

The Ministry at Special Department for Children in Mental Health Hospital @ St. Elisabeth Convent, Minsk, Belarus.


It is great, when you see your goal and know you are moving towards it gradually. It is rather difficult to talk
about work that has no tangible results or some obvious fruits.
However, against this background, you realize how important the faith in charitable nature of your work is, as well as love for every person and
hope that the Lord will help anytime. Few know that in the complex of a
Mental Health Hospital, which is located right behind the Convent’s
walls, there is a special department for children, where there are kids
with disabilities, different from those living in the residential institutions nursed by the Convent.

Continue reading

The Healing Mission of the Church

By +Athanasios, Metropolitan of Limassol (EP).

[edited by Stavroforemonk Symeon of Syracuse (USA).]

The main mission of the Church is to heal a person. In other words, when a person becomes part of the Church [that person] is healed if he follows the therapeutic regime which aims to assist him to return to the natural state which God gave him when He had created him.

After the fall of our forefathers, our nature was corrupted. When man severed his relationship with the Lord, after disobeying His command, all his mental and physical capacities were immediately corrupted and perverted; his mind turned away from its unbreakable communication with the Lord, which was his natural state, towards the creation and matter, passions and sin. From that moment sickness and perversion entered man’s nature.

This is the reality of the fall, the sin of the forefathers, namely the hereditary sickness which passes on from one generation to another because we are natural descendents of our forefathers. Thus, each man has inherited this condition of spiritual sickness; the perversion of his nature. [Known as the “Ancestral Curse”]

Jesus Christ is called the ‘New Adam’, because He enters history at a certain point in time and accomplishes a mission. Christ’s mission was not so much to hand over the Gospel, namely His teachings, neither to give us a book called ‘Gospel’, but to give us Himself. In other words, just as we have inherited the sickness of our nature through the first Adam, Jesus offers us Himself, so that through the baptism we unite with Him, become one with Him, and then through the Holy Eucharist we acquire the capacity to unite with Him organically and ontologically (actually). This means that the actual unity with the Body and Blood of Jesus flows into our being, into our soul and our body. This is the reason why we become children of God and why the Church exists. The Church would have no reason to exist if it did not administer the holy mysteries, particularly the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

Continue reading

How Not to Despair

To a certain brother who had committed a sin, the devil appeared to him and said: “You’re not Christian”. The man replied “Regardless of who I am, at least I am better than you”. Satan then said: “I’m telling you, you will be going to hell”. To which, the brother replied: “You are neither my judge, nor my God”. Thus, Satan went away empty handed, while the brother showed sincere repentance before God and became worthy.

A brother who was overcome by grief asked a Geron (Elder): “What should I do? My thoughts are telling me that I wrongly rejected the world and that I won’t be saved.” The Elder replied: “Even if we never manage to enter the Promised Land, it is to our advantage to leave our bones in the desert, rather than to return to Egypt”.

_____________________

Another brother asked the same Elder: “Father, what does the prophet mean when he says ‘There is no salvation for him, by his God’? and the Elder said: “He is referring to the thoughts of desperation that are sown by demons in the mind of the man who has sinned, telling him: ‘There is no longer any salvation for you from God’, in their attempt to tumble him into a state of desperation. One must contradict these thoughts, by saying. “The Lord is my refuge, and He shall free my feet from the trap’”.

_____________________

One of the fathers narrated that outside Salonica there was a hermitage for nuns. One of the nuns, having being prompted by the common enemy, departed from the monastery and fell into prostitution, and remained in this vice for quite some time. Eventually, however, with the help of merciful God, she repented and returned to the monastery. And, upon reaching its gateway, she fell down, dead.
Her death was revealed to a saint, who saw the holy angels that came to take her soul, and the demons that followed behind them. In the dialogue that took place between them, the holy angels said that she had come back repented. The demons however argued that: “She had been subjugated by us for a long time, therefore she is rightfully ours. Besides, she didn’t even manage to enter the monastery, so how can you say that she had repented?” And the angels said: “From the moment God saw that her intention was bent towards this goal, He accepted her repentance; Repentance itself was of course within her power, because of the goal that she was set on, however, her life was within the power of the Lord of the universe.” With these words, the demons were put to shame and they departed. And the one who saw this revelation, is the one who is narrating it to those present.

_____________________

Abba Alonios said that, if a man wants, he can reach divine standards by the end of one day.

_____________________

A brother asked Abba Moses: “If someone beats his slave because of a mistake that he made, what will the slave say?”. The elder replied. “If he is a good slave, he will say ‘Spare me, for I was wrong’”. “Nothing else?” asked the brother. “Nothing else”, replied the elder, “because from the moment he acknowledges his error and admits he is wrong, his master will immediately show mercy”.

_____________________

A brother said to Abba Poemen: “If I commit a lamentable mistake, my thoughts devour me and accuse me of my fall”. The elder said: “If, at the time the person makes the mistake, he says “I have sinned”, the thought immediately ceases”.

_____________________

There was a young girl with the name Taesia, whose parents had died and she had remained an orphan. From that moment, she turned her house into a hostel for the Fathers of the Scete and for a long time she received them and offered them her hospitality. But when she had spent everything that she had, she began to feel the hardship. Then, certain perverted people approached her and lured her away from the straight path. And she began to live in sin, to the point that she ended up in prostitution.

When the fathers learnt of this, they were saddened very much, so they called Abba John Kolovos and said to him: “We have heard about our sister that she lives in sin. She, whenever she could, had shown love to us. Now it’s time for us to help her. So, you should take the trouble and go to her, and with the wisdom that God gave you, tend to correcting her.”
So the father went to her, and said to the old woman guarding the door: “Tell your mistress that I have come”. She drove him away, saying: “A long time ago, you devoured all of her fortune, and now she is poor.” The elder insisted: “Tell her, and she will see much good from me”. So the old woman went inside the house and reported to the young lady about the elder. On hearing this, she thought to herself: “These monks always travel around the Red Sea and they find pearls”. So she preened herself, sat on the bed and instructed the old woman: “Bring him here”.

When Abba John entered, he sat near her, and looking into her face, said to her: “What made you reject Jesus, so that you would end up in such a condition?” On hearing his words, she froze; and the elder bowed down his head and started to cry, full of bitterness. “Abba, why are you crying?” she asked him. He lifted up his head, but again turned it away, saying: “I can see Satan dancing in your countenance; how can I not cry?” “Is there repentance, Abba?” the girl asked. “Yes”, the elder replied. And she added: “Take me, wherever you think is best”. “Let’s go”, said the elder, and instantly she rose up and followed him. The elder noticed that she didn’t leave any instructions about her house and he wondered at this.

When approaching the desert, night fell. And the elder prepared for her a small pillow; he blessed it and told her to sleep there. Then he made one for himself a little further off, and after finishing his prayers, he also lay down to sleep.

At midnight he woke up and saw something like a path of light, which led off from the girl and ended in the sky, and he saw angels of God carrying up her soul. He rose up, approached her and nudged her with his leg. When he realized that she had passed away, he kneeled, with his face to the ground, and prayed to God. And he heard a voice saying to him that her one hour of repentance was more welcome than the repentance of many other people, whose repentance may last longer, but is lacking in fervor.


What is Prayer of the Intellect and of the Heart?

Remembrance of God demonstrates communion with Him and is therefore like prayer. Striving to invoke the holy Name of Christ continuously, through the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me’, is a constant renewal within us of the remembrance of God and communion with Him. This is why Saint Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that they should ‘Pray without ceasing’.

Through the remembrance of God and prayer, we reveal the true nobility of our nature, which stands at the threshold between the visible and invisible worlds and is that of a ‘deified animal’ [Saint Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38.11 (PG 36: 324)]. This nature transcends physical necessity, expands our existence as far as God and has a sense of freedom from those things which hold us prisoner on earth.

Continue reading on Pemptousia.com