The Three Methods of Prayer
St. Symeon the New Theologian
There are three methods of prayer and attentiveness, by means of which the soul is either uplifted or cast down. Whoever employs these methods at the right time is uplifted, but whoever employs them foolishly and at the wrong time is cast down. Vigilance and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul, for the one cannot stand without the other. Vigilance first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts with which vigilance has already been battling, for attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them. This, then, is the gate of life and death. If by means of vigilance we keep prayer pure, we make progress; but if we leave prayer unguarded and permit it to be defiled, our efforts are null and void.
Since, then, as we said, there are three methods of attentiveness and prayer, we should explain the distinctive features of each, so that he who aspires to attain life and wishes to set to work may with firm assurance select what suits him best; otherwise through ignorance he may choose what is worse and forfeit what is better.
The First Method of Prayer
The distinctive features of the first method of prayer are these. When a person stands at prayer, he raises hands, eyes and intellect heavenwards, and fills his intellect with divine thoughts, with images of celestial beauty, of the angelic hosts, of the abodes of the righteous. In brief, at the time of prayer he assembles in his intellect all that he has heard from Holy Scripture and so rouses his soul to divine longing as he gazes towards heaven, and sometimes he sheds tears. But when someone prays in this way, without him realizing it his heart grows proud and exalted, and he regards what is happening to him as the effect of divine grace and entreats God to allow him always to be engaged in this activity. Such assumptions, however, are signs of delusion, because the good is not good when it is not done in the right way.
If, then, such a person is pursuing a life of stillness and seclusion, he will almost inevitably become deranged. And even if this does not happen to him, it will be impossible for him to attain a state of holiness or dispassion. Those who adopt this method of prayer have also been deluded into thinking that they see lights with their bodily eyes, smell sweet scents, hear voices, and so on. Some have become completely possessed by demons and wander from place to place in their madness. Others fail to recognize the devil when he transforms himself into an angel of light (cf. 2 Cor. 11:14); and, putting their trust in him, they continue in an incorrigible state of delusion until their death, refusing to accept the counsel of anyone else. Still others, incited by the devil, have committed suicide, throwing themselves over a precipice or hanging themselves.
Indeed, who can describe all the various forms of deception employed by the devil? Yet from what we have said any sane person can understand the kind of harm that may result from this first method of attentiveness. Even if someone who has adopted this method may perhaps avoid the evils we have mentioned because he lives in a community - for it is solitaries who are especially subject to them - none the less he will pass his entire life without making any progress.
The Second Method of Prayer
The second form of prayer is this. A person withdraws his intellect from sensory things and concentrates it in himself, guards his senses, and collects all his thoughts; and he advances oblivious of the vanities of this world. Sometimes he examines his thoughts, sometimes pays attention to the words of the prayer he is addressing to God, and sometimes drags back his thoughts when they have been taken captive; and when he is overcome by passion he forcefuUy strives to recover himself.
One who struggles in this way, however, can never be at peace or win the crown of victory. He is like a person fighting at night: he hears the voices of his enemies and is wounded by them, but he cannot see clearly who they are, where they come from, and how and for what purpose they assail him. Such is the damage done to him because of the darkness in his intellect. Fighting in this manner, he cannot ever escape his noetic enemies, but is worn out by them. For all his efforts he gains nothing. Falsely imagining that he is concentrated and attentive, he falls victim unawares to self-esteem. Dominated and mocked by it, he despises and criticizes others for their lack of attentiveness. Imagining that he is capable of becoming the shepherd of sheep, he is like the blind man who undertakes to lead the blind (cf Matt. 15:14).
Such are the characteristics of the second method of prayer, and every one striving after salvation can see what harm it does. Yet this second method is better than the first, just as a moonlit night is better than a night that is pitch-dark and starless.
The Third Method of Prayer
Let us now begin to speak about the third method of prayer, which is truly astonishing and hard to explain. For those ignorant of it, it is not only difficult to understand but virtually incredible, and there are very few to be found who practice it. It seems to me that it has deserted us along with the virtue of obedience. For it is the love of obedience that delivers us from entanglement with this evil world, rendering us free from anxiety and impassioned craving. It makes us wholehearted and unflagging in pursuit of our aim - provided, of course, that we find an unerring guide. For if through obedience you make yourself dead to every worldly and bodily attachment, how can anything transient enslave your intellect? If you entrust all the care of your soul and body to God and to your spiritual father, no longer living for yourself or desiring the good opinion of others, what anxiety can distract ‘you?
This third method, then, destroys the invisible wiles of the demons, with which as with ropes they seek to drag down the intellect into all manner of devious droughts. Set at liberty, the intellect wages war with its full strength, scrutinizing the thoughts insinuated by the enemy and with masterful dexterity expelling them, while the heart in its purity offers prayers to God. This is the beginning of a life of true seclusion, and those who fail to make such a beginning exhaust themselves in vain.
The starting-point of this third method of prayer is not to gaze upwards, to raise one’s hands aloft, to concentrate one’s thoughts and to call down help from heaven. These, as we said, are the marks of the first form of delusion. Nor does it begin, as the second method does, by keeping guard over the senses with the intellect, while failing to observe the enemies who attack from within. In such a case, a person is struck by the demons instead of striking them; when wounded he is unaware of it; taken captive, he cannot retaliate against his captors. His enemies constantly attack him, from behind and even face to face, and fill him with self-esteem and arrogance.
If you desire to embark on this light-giving and joyful task, begin as follows. You must first practice exact obedience, as described above, and so act always with a pure conscience; for without obedience it is impossible for your conscience to be pure. And you must keep your conscience pure in three respects: first, with respect to God; second, with respect to your spiritual father; and third, with respect to other people and to material things. With respect to God you must keep your conscience pure by refraining from doing anything that conflicts with the worship due to Him. With respect to your spiritual father do everything he tells you to do, neither more nor less, and be guided by his purpose and will. With respect to other people, you must keep your conscience pure by not doing to them anything that you hate (cf. Tobit 4:15) and that you do not want them to do to you. With respect to material things, you must take care not to misuse them, whether food, drink or clothing. In brief, do everything as if you were in the presence of God, so that your conscience does not rebuke you in any way.
Having cleared the ground and indicated in a preliminary way the true character of attentiveness, let us now speak clearly and concisely about its characteristics. True and unerring attentiveness and prayer mean that the intellect keeps watch over the heart while it prays; it should always be on patrol within the heart, and from within - from the depths of the heart - it should offer up its prayers to God. Once it has tasted within the heart that the Lord is bountiful (cf. Ps. 34:8. LXX), then the intellect will have no desire to leave the heart, and it will repeat the words of the Apostle Peter, ‘It is good for us to be here’ (Matt. 17:4). It will keep watch always within the heart, repulsing and expelling all thoughts sown there by the enemy. To those who have no knowledge of this practice it appears extremely harsh and arduous; and indeed it is oppressive and laborious, not only to the uninitiated, but also to those who, although genuinely experienced, have not yet felt the delight to be found in the depths of the heart. But those who have savored this delight proclaim with St Paul, ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Rom. 8:35).
Our holy fathers hearkened to the Lord’s words, ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies; these are the things that defile a man’ (Matt. 15:19-20); and they also hearkened to Him when He enjoins us to cleanse the inside of the cup so that the outside may also be clean (cf. Matt. 23:26). Hence they abandoned all other forms of spiritual labor and concentrated wholly on this one task of guarding the heart, convinced that through this practice they would also possess every other virtue, whereas without it no virtue could be firmly established. Some of the fathers have called this practice stillness of the heart, others attentiveness, others the guarding of the heart, others watchfulness and rebuttal, and others again the investigation of thoughts and the guarding of the intellect. But all of them alike worked the earth of their own heart, and in this way they were fed on the divine manna (cf. Exod. 16:15).
Ecclesiastes,12 is referring to this when he says, ‘Rejoice, 0 young man, in your youth; and walk in the ways of your heart’ (Eccles. 11:9), blameless, expelling anger from your heart; and ‘if the spirit of the ruler rises up against you, do not desert your place’ (Eccles. 10:4), by ‘place’ meaning the heart. Similarly our Lord also says, ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts’ (Matt. 15:19), and ‘Do not be distracted’ (Luke 12:29). And again, ‘Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life’ (Matt. 7:14). Elsewhere He also says, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3); that is to say, blessed are those who are destitute of every worldly thought. St Peter says likewise, ‘Be watchful, be vigilant, because your adversary, the devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8). And St Paul writes very plainly to the Ephesians about the guarding of the heart, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood’ (Eph. 6:12), and so on. And our holy fathers have also spoken in their writings about guarding the heart, as those who wish can see for themselves by reading what St Mark the Ascetic, St John Khmakos, St Hesychios the Priest, St Philotheos of Sinai, St Isaiah the Solitary and St Varsanuphios, and the entire book known as The Paradise of the Fathers, have to say about the subject.
In short, if you do not guard your intellect you cannot attain purity of heart, so as to be counted worthy to see God (cf. Matt. 5:18). Without such watchfulness you cannot become poor in spirit, or grieve, or hunger and thirst after righteousness, or be truly merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemaker, or be persecuted for the sake of justice (cf. Matt. 5:3-10). To speak generally, it is impossible to acquire all the other virtues except through watchfulness. For this reason you must pursue it more diligently than anything else, so as to learn from experience these things, unknown to others, that I am speaking to you about. Now if you would like to learn also about the method of prayer, with God’s help I will tell you about this too, in so far as I can.
Above all else you should strive to acquire three things, and so begin to attain what you seek. The first is freedom from anxiety with respect to everything, whether reasonable or senseless - in other words, you should be dead to everything. Secondly, you should strive to preserve a pure conscience, so that it has nothing to reproach you with. Thirdly, you should be completely detached, so that your thoughts incline towards nothing worldly, not even your own body.
Then sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself, and do what I tell you. Close the door, and withdraw your intellect from everything worthless and transient. Rest your beard on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the centre of your belly or your navel. Restrain the drawing-m of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ. From this point onwards the intellect begins to be full of rancor against the demons and, rousing its natural anger against its noetic enemies, it pursues them and strikes them down. The rest you will learn for yourself, with God’s help, by keeping guard over your intellect and by retaining Jesus in your heart. As the saying goes, ‘Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.’
Question: Why cannot the monk attain perfection by means of the first and second form of keeping guard?
Answer: Because he does not embark on them in the proper order. St John Klimakos likens these methods to a ladder, saying, ‘Some curtail their passions; others practice psalmody, persevering most of the time in this; others devote themselves to prayer; and others turn their gaze to the depths of contemplation. When examining this question let us use the analogy of a ladder. Now those who want to ascend a ladder do not start at the top and climb down, but start at the bottom and climb up. They ascend the first step, then the second, and so the rest in turn. In this way we can ascend from earth to heaven. If, then, we wish to attain the perfect stature of the fullness of Christ, like children who are growing up we must start to climb the ladder set before us, until progressing step by step we reach the level of a full-grown man and then of an old man.
The first stage in the monastic state is to curtail the passions. This is the stage of beginners.
The second rung or stage whereby a person grows up spiritually from adolescence to youth is assiduously to practice psalmody. For when the passions have been curtailed and laid to rest, psalmody brings delight to the tongue and is welcomed by God, since it is not possible to sing to the Lord in a strange land (cf. Ps. 137:4), that is to say, from an impassioned heart. This is the mark of those who are beginning to make progress.
The third rung or stage in life, marking the spiritual transition from youth to manhood, is to persevere in prayer. This is the stage of those who are already well advanced. Prayer differs from psalmody just as the full-grown man differs from the youth and the adolescent, according to the scheme that we are following.
In addition there is a fourth rung or stage in spiritual life, that of the old man with grey hairs. This signifies undeviating absorption in contemplation, and this is the state of the perfect. So the journey is complete and the top of the ladder has been reached.
Since this is the way in which matters have been appointed and arranged by the Spirit, it is not possible for a child to grow up to manhood and to attain old age except by mounting the first rung of the ladder and so climbing up to perfection by the four steps in succession.
For someone who desires spiritual rebirth, the first step towards the light is to curtail the passions, that is to say, to guard the heart; for it is impossible otherwise to curtail the passions. The next stage is to devote oneself to psalmody; for when the passions have been curtailed and laid to rest through the heart’s resistance against them, longing for intimate union with God inflames the intellect. Strengthened by this longing the intellect repulses all distractive thoughts that encircle the heart, attempting to get in, and it rebuffs them through attentiveness. So it applies itself assiduously to the second stage, that of attentiveness and prayer. This then stirs up the evil spirits, and the blasts of passion violently agitate the depths of the heart. But through the invocation of the Lord Jesus Christ they are utterly routed and all the tumult melts like wax in the fire. But though they have been driven out of the heart the demons continue to disturb the intellect externally through the senses. However, because they can only trouble it superficially, the intellect soon regains its serenity; none the less, it can never be completely free from the attacks of the demons. Such freedom is to be found only among those who have attained full manhood - who are totally detached from everything visible and who devote themselves unceasingly to giving attention to the heart. After that, those who have achieved attentiveness are raised little by little to the wisdom of old age, that is to say, they ascend to contemplation; and this is the stage of the perfect.
Thus if you practice all this in due sequence, completing each phase at the right time, your heart will first be cleansed of the passions, and you will then be able to concentrate wholly on psalmody; you will be able to wage war against the thoughts that are roused by the senses and disturb the surface of the intellect and you will gaze heavenwards, if need be, alike with your physical and your spiritual eyes, and will pray in true purity. Yet you should gaze upwards only occasionally because of the enemies that lie in ambush in the air.
God asks only this of us, that our heart be purified through watchfulness. As St Paul says, if the root is holy, so also will the branches and the fruit be holy (cf Rom 11: 16). But if without following the sequence of which we have spoken you raise eyes and intellect to heaven in the hope of envisaging noetic realities you will see fantasies rather than the truth. Because our heart is still unpurified as we have said many times, the first and the second methods of attentiveness do not promote our progress. When we build a house we do not put on the roof before laying the foundations - this is impossible. We first lay the foundations, then build the house, and finally put on the roof. We must do the same in relation to spiritual matters. First we must lay the spiritual foundations of the house, that is to say, we must watch over the heart and curtail the passions arising from it. Then we must build the walls of the spiritual house, that is to say, through the second form of attentiveness we must repulse the turbulence of the evil spirits that fight us by means of the external senses, and must free ourselves as quickly as possible from their attacks. Then we must put on the roof, that is to say, detach ourselves entirely from all things and give ourselves wholly to God. In this way we complete our spiritual house in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory throughout all the ages.