I was reading Theophan the Recluse the other day when I ran across the following quote:
When we pray, we must stand in our mind before God, and think of Him alone. Yet, various thoughts keep jostling in the mind, drawing it away from God.
In order to teach the mind to rest on one thing, the Holy Fathers used short prayers and acquired the habit of reciting them unceasingly. This unceasing repetition of a short prayer kept the mind on the thought of God and dispersed all irrelevant thoughts.
They adopted various short prayers, but it is the Jesus Prayer which has become particularly established amongst us and is most generally employed: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’
So this is what the Jesus Prayer is. It is one among various short prayers, oral like all others. It’s purpose is to keep the mind on the single thought of God.
The part that grabbed me right away was the bit about how “thoughts keep jostling in the mind, drawing it away from God.”
In essence, we’re trying to pray, but our mind keeps wandering. We’re trying to focus on God, but we keep thinking about other things: that email we need to reply to, that meeting we’ve got tomorrow, that call we need to return. The moment we bow our head, a thousand little thoughts jump to mind, distracting us from God.
Who hasn’t had that problem? Really, it’s kind of comforting that even the church fathers (and mothers) had the same difficulty. They wrestled with wandering thoughts while they were trying to pray, too.
So, what do you do? How do you keep the mind from wandering? How do we focus our thoughts in prayer?
Well, according to Theophan, you get a short little prayer like the Jesus Prayer and you pray it over and over, focusing on the words each time. Pretty soon, the focus will shift from the words themselves to God. And, since the prayer is short, it will keep other thoughts from creeping in.
Personally, I find this a fairly helpful bit of instruction. Instead of a long, winding spontaneous prayer, I can use a short set prayer, easily memorized and oft recited, that coaxes the mind into meditative prayer.
It’s not so much vain repetition as it is the widow’s persistence. But, the familiarity of the words relaxes the mind and works its way into the soul.
And, really, as Theophan suggests, any short prayer will do. Take a short passage of Scripture and turn it into a meditative prayer.
Like Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Or Luke 23:42, “Not my will, but your will be done.” Or any number of other Scriptural prayers.
Or even, as so many church fathers like John Chrysostom have suggested, that modified prayer of the publican from Luke 18:13, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Which prayer we choose is less important than that we find that prayer that helps us clear out all the distractions and focus our hearts and minds on God.