It is not unusual for me during my prayer rule to say a handful of prayers and suddenly realize my mind has been completely absent from prayer – thinking about certain events or people. I’ve had times at the Divine Liturgy where several minutes go by, even a large portion of the service, and I realize I have hardly paid any attention to what is happening.
St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain writes,
And so it happens; the most assiduous recital of prayer can never be practiced without the thought darting away and wandering outside. Since this disturbs the prayer and makes it impure, there is no man who practices prayer, who is not chagrined by it and does not wish to be delivered from this incapacity.
Fortunately, the godly St Nicodemus does not leave us hopeless, but presents a “cure” for the wandering mind: saying several short prayers throughout the day.
The purpose of short prayers is to keep our mind on the perpetual presence of God with us and God within us. If we are completing a task that does not require our full concentration, then it is good to speak these prayers quietly (or with the lips or internally if we are around others) all throughout the day.
The most popular short prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” otherwise known as the Jesus Prayer because its purpose is to draw our attention to our Lord and remind us of our need for him.
THE TWOFOLD GOAL
In addition to holding our attention on Christ throughout the day, these short “prayerful sighings” also help our restless, wandering minds to calm down. Then, when we are standing for our prayer rule or attending a divine service, it is not such a monumental task to calm our mind and senses, for our hearts and minds are beginning to be in the habit of attuning to God’s presence. Otherwise, attempting to calm a mind that is not normally reigned in throughout the day can be frustrating and is nigh impossible during prayer and services.
While striving toward constant remembrance of our Lord, we must brush aside every other thought that comes to mind – and believe me, these thoughts will come by the truckload. Focus on not only saying the prayer with your lips, but keeping your mind attuned to the words and putting your heart and feeling into the words as well. Prayer is most beneficial when it is verbal, mental, and heartfelt. We should also remember during prayer that God delights in his children and desires to be present with us.
One of the fathers of Mt Athos said that it took two years of constantly practicing this form of prayer before he felt his heart reach a warm state of intimacy with Christ. All we can do is put forth effort toward prayer, God’s grace must take it the rest of the way.
Often, God will allow us to struggle and only provide occasional moments of bliss, joy, or warmth in order for us to learn to press forward. Creating such a habitual prayerful state takes time, which is perfectly normal. He desires to be close to us, but he will allow us to work a bit so we can grow and learn spiritual discipline.
As a final note, do not feel that you are limited to the Jesus Prayer. Many of the holy fathers used several short prayers each day. Sometimes they are a verse taken from a Psalm, other times it is an original prayer one has created that expresses their need at that time. The 24 short prayers by St John Chrysostom are another popular source. One should not have too many prayers though, or else the mind can attempt to rush from one to another. Choose one and repeat it with concentration several times, even a hundred times, before moving to the next prayer.
THE 24 SHORT PRAYERS OF ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
O Lord, deprive me not of Thy heavenly good things.
O Lord, deliver me from the eternal torments.
O Lord, if I have sinned in mind or thought, in word or deed, forgive me.
O Lord, deliver me from all ignorance, forgetfulness, faintheartedness, and stony insensibility.
O Lord, deliver me from every temptation.
O Lord, enlighten my heart which evil desire hath darkened.
O Lord, as a man I have sinned, but do Thou, as the compassionate God, have mercy on me, seeing the infirmity of my soul.
O Lord, send Thy grace to my help, that I may glorify Thy holy name.
O Lord Jesus Christ, write me Thy servant in the Book of Life, and grant me a good end.
O Lord my God, even though I have done nothing good in Thy sight, yet grant me by Thy grace to make a good beginning.
O Lord, sprinkle into my heart the dew of Thy grace.
O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me Thy sinful servant, shameful and unclean, in Thy Kingdom. Amen
O Lord, accept me in penitence.
O Lord, forsake me not.
O Lord, lead me not into temptation.
O Lord, grant me good thoughts.
O Lord, grant me tears, remembrance of death, and compunction.
O Lord, grant me the thought of confessing my sins.
O Lord, grant me humility, chastity, and obedience.
O Lord, grant me patience, courage, and meekness.
O Lord, implant in me the root of good, Thy fear in my heart.
O Lord, vouchsafe me to love Thee with all my soul and thoughts, and in all things to do Thy will.
O Lord, protect me from evil men, demons, passions, and from every other unseemly thing.
O Lord, Thou knowest that Thou doest as Thou wilt: Thy will be done also in me a sinner; for blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.
St. Chrysostom’s 24 prayers were copied from the Jordanville Prayer Book.
Most of the lesson above comes from chapters 46-51 of Unseen Warfare, which is a highly recommended book with the most practical advice on how to live the Christian life.