St. Barnabas Orthodox Church (AOC) in Costa Mesa, California, presents a new once-monthly continuing education and catechism based on the practical, spiritual, and theological principles of the Orthodox Church. The classes began on June 7, 2014, and will continue through December 6, 2014. Speakers include Fr. Michael Reagan, Dr. Jeannie Constantinou, Abbess Mother Victoria, Fr. Josiah Trenham, Fr. Wayne Wilson, Scot Larsen, and Kevin Allen.
The title of today’s talk, as you know, is, “How to Pray in the Heart without Distractions” or “How to Avoid the Distractions of the World”. Now, when you saw that title posted, you probably thought, “Well, that’s pretty straightforward, that should be a simple talk, it’s going to be about prayer, and it’s going to be about how to deal with distractions.” So, right? No, things are not so simple. A huge amount of what the Holy Fathers have written over the centuries has to do with this topic, of attention, with prayer. My job in preparing this talk has been to limit it to fit some essential things into one hour. And I think the best way to do this is actually different from the way we went about things last time, when I gave the talk in Whittier. I think I would like to just plunge in to the subject of how to pray, and then from there I think our questions will open up.
I would like to say, for starters, that the very fact that you’ve come out this morning, to hear this talk on prayer, and how to pray better, demonstrates that the Holy Spirit has already brought you the first step of the way to what the Holy Fathers call “the vision of God” or theoria—that’s their technical term for the vision of God. Because the beginning of prayer is of course the desire to come closer to God, to be closer united with Him.
So, I would like to just plunge in to a description of how to pray that comes to us from the Holy Fathers. I want this to be a practical talk. If you want to read more about what we are going to look at now, I suggest you pick up a St. Seraphim of Sarov’s conversation with Motovilov. It’s called “A Revelation to the World” because St. Seraphim presents this teaching in that booklet, that conversation. And let me add that what I have in mind here is not prayer in church, liturgical prayer, or prayer together with others. What I’m talking about mostly here is personal or individual prayer, prayer in the closet, so to speak, what you would do alone, by yourself. And the very first thing I want to say, and I want to emphasize it, is, use the prayer book. This is not to say that you can’t pray with your own words—you can, of course. But do not neglect the prayer book. The prayer book is a treasure handed down to us by the Church. It can be trusted, it’s tried and true, it contains the best, the most valued composed prayers which have been selected by the Church over the centuries. That’s a very important point, that the selection was made by the Church. There are a lot of different editions of the prayer book, in English, some are more complete than others, but they’re all good, they’re all fine.
Most of the contents of the prayer book comes from the Horologion. You may be familiar with the Horologion, especially if you’re a reader, because it’s the book that has not just the morning and evening prayers, but it has the services appointed for throughout the day, the canons and akathists, the canons before Communion, after Communion, the rule of prayer that goes before Communion and after Communion: but the prayer book fits in your hand. That’s what it’s for. It’s meant to be handy. You can put it in your purse or your pocket, and take it with you. It’s compiled with personal use in mind.
Now the Fathers urge us to use the prayer book, because it’s a school of prayer. If you use the texts from the prayer book, you learn how to pray. You could say that over time, our souls are imprinted with their identity as children of God. We learn the right words to use, we learn how to express our thoughts, we learn what those thoughts should be, we learn the order in which to express them in our prayers, and even the attitude we should have, the disposition in coming before God in prayer. And once you have learned those prayers you may even find that you are reciting them from memory, because they become a part of us over time.
This is not to say you can’t use any other prayers. On the contrary. But these are the prayers that our ancestors in the faith have used over the centuries. As I said, they are tried and true. So, taking up the prayer book, go before your icons—or not, if you happen to be in a place where there are no icons—and standing before them, before the icons, or sitting, or if need be even lying down, first, do your best to quiet your mind and collect your thoughts. You cannot do this perfectly, but to the degree that it’s possible, try to do that. The prayer book itself at the beginning often suggests that you make the sign of the Cross, perhaps three times, it suggests saying the Jesus Prayer a few times, it suggests making a few prostrations. The point of that is to focus one’s thoughts, by remembering that one is in the presence of God. This is a first step towards attentiveness. You don’t just pick up the prayer book and start reading the prayers quickly. The Fathers make a big point of this, they consider it exceedingly important.
Maybe already you’re thinking, “Well, I know I can’t do that. I know that I cannot quiet my thoughts. I cannot collect my mind. The minute I try to do that my thoughts are running away with me, down some rabbit trail or other.” Of course, exactly. And most everybody has the same experience, to a greater or lesser degree. But perhaps you’ve heard that wonderful advice that comes to us from the newly-glorified saint, Porphyrios. He says, speaking to a visitor on Mount Athos, “See that airplane that’s flying over the sky? Think of it as an idea that’s sailing through your head. Now here on the mountain we don’t pay any attention to that plane. We don’t have an airport here. We know that it’s on its way somewhere else, perhaps to Athens, to land in a big international airport there. But it has nothing to do with us, and we don’t pay attention to it. In the same way, when thoughts flood your mind, try to let them sail through, just try to ignore them, not to pay attention to them. Let them come in to your mind, and leave your mind with hardly any consciousness at all while you’re at prayer.” It’s a good metaphor. It’s a good way of looking at things.
Someone is going to say to me, “Are you telling me that experienced monks on Mount Athos are dealing with difficulties like this? Are you telling me that in the solitude of a holy mountain they can’t keep their minds free of thoughts?” And the answer is yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you. It is the human condition. And this is a kind of first response to the attack of many thoughts.
Well, doing our best to ignore thoughts, then, the Fathers recommend that we read the prayers of the prayer book first of all slowly. There are whole paragraphs dealing with the resistance to hurry through the prayers. Say them slowly, paying attention to every word. The Fathers have a special phrase for this: they call it “enclosing the prayer” or “enclosing the words of the prayer with your mind.” All it means is paying attention. It’s just a special way of saying ‘be attentive’.
And the next thing they suggest is that we say these vocally. This is not to say you can’t say your prayers quietly without voicing them, but as a matter of attention, you’ll find that saying the prayers vocally can be a great help, and again there are paragraphs about this in the books on prayer.
Now here is the most important part that the Fathers have to teach us. It’s very likely that as you read a prayer, some word or some phrase will jump out at you and strike you. Maybe some word is particularly meaningful. Now—this is critical—when this happens, note this, pay attention, focus on it for a moment longer if you can, linger over it. And then, as your attention fades—and it will—slowly, peacefully, attentively, continue with your reading. Again it might happen to you: something strikes you, something speaks to you. Perhaps some word or some phrase actually warms your heart. Again, stop there. Linger over the words. Try to hold on to that warmth of heart as long as you can. And when it fades, pick up your prayer book again and continue reading.
As you read your prayers, this may happen repeatedly, or maybe it will just happen once. Or, you may get to the end of your rule, and it hasn’t happened at all. Whatever God gives, accept that. That’s fine. But when that does happen, try to keep your attention, your warmth of heart, perhaps a sense of repentance, a sense of compunction, as long as you can, because at that moment you have reached the goal of your prayer. At that moment you are in the presence of God. God has granted you His grace, and that is your aim in praying.
Now someone’s going to say to me, “This is not going to work for me, because I say my prayers in the morning, and I only have half an hour, and then I have to run and catch the bus or I’ll be late for work.” Well, the Holy Fathers say the aim of your prayer is not to get to the end. The aim of your prayer is to come into the presence of God. And if you have come into the presence of God with the first Our Father and stayed there for the full half hour, glory to God! That’s fine! It’s not a sin. You don’t have to confess that you haven’t finished your prayers. It’s not a sin—on the contrary, you have come into the presence of God. You have achieved the goal of your prayer.
I told you that a lot of what I’m telling you is laid out in the writings of St. Seraphim. He of course takes it from the Holy Fathers; it’s not original with St. Seraphim. But he does have a very original word picture of what’s going on here. He says, “Your prayer is as if you were saying to the Lord, ‘Come in.’ You’re inviting the Lord to come in to your heart. And you go to the door, and your guest enters, and you bring that person into your living room, and you sit down to converse, and you say to your guest, ‘Come in’. And as he sits there opposite you, and expects to have a conversation with you, all you can say is, ‘Come in’. It’s ridiculous, you know. He would think you were a madman.” But, says St. Seraphim, that’s exactly what we’re doing when we set aside the presence of the Lord in order to continue reading more prayers. Can you see that? It makes no sense whatever. So, using the time you have, accept what the Lord sends you, and pursue prayer in this manner, seeking for the grace of God to come to you.
Now I specified that this is the kind of prayer that one uses when one is alone, when you’re saying your morning prayers, your evening prayers, your rule before Communion perhaps, and so on. But you can, to some degree, use this in church, if you’re one of the congregation. You can be listening to the hymns, the psalms that are sung, and so forth, and trying to pay attention, perhaps singing along: something may warm your heart. Stay with that. Keep that, as long as you can. And in a few moments of course it will fade, and then rejoin the congregation and continue. Now the priest can’t do this. He has to continue with the appointed service. The acolytes can’t do this. They should be paying attention to the priests and the needs of the service. But if you’re a member of the congregation and have no particular responsibilities, you can give your mind and heart to following the service in this way. It is extremely fruitful.
I learned this way of prayer from my elder. Maybe you’ve heard of Fr. Dimitry of Santa Rosa. He is long gone now. He passed away in 1992. But I remember him reading Scripture this way. Every morning he would sit in his armchair with the Scriptures open in front of him on his desk, and he would read a little bit, and then you’d see him lean back in his arm chair, and sometimes he would close his eyes, and he was obviously meditating on what he had just read, and praying. Perhaps he would mutter a little bit, or lift up his hands. And then he would peacefully go back to his reading, and read a few more verses. And then again you would see him lean back in his chair and continue reflecting and savoring the grace that God had granted him. I think he did everything this way. I think he read the newspaper this way. It was quite remarkable.
What I’m going to say now I think will surprise you, unless you read last month’s newsletter from the monastery, because I happened to mention it there. But, what I’m going to say is that all of the things we’ve just mentioned, liturgical services, morning prayers, akathists, canons, the other kinds of praying that we do together with each other, none of these things, if you read the Holy Fathers, are referred to as prayer. They don’t call them prayer. Isn’t that amazing? If you pick up especially an ancient text like a text on prayer from the Philokalia, or St. Isaac the Syrian, first determine how your author is using the word “prayer”, or you will become very confused, because when these fathers—they’re called the neptic fathers, the Fathers who write about watchfulness—when they write about prayer, they are referring to what is beyond words. They are not referring to vocal prayer. And the word they use for vocal prayer is “psalmody”. Now of course reading the Psalms is psalmody. Singing the Psalms is psalmody. But in their vocabulary it’s not just the Psalms of David or the Book of Psalms that is called “psalmody”, it is all vocal prayer. They call the liturgy “psalmody”. They call the prayer services of intercession “psalmody”. They call vespers “psalmody”. But the prayer that I described earlier takes us from psalmody to pure prayer. It is a path, an easy path that all of us can use, whether we are lay people or whether we are monks or nuns, or whatever our place in life, we can use this method that I just described, that St. Seraphim described so well, to proceed from psalmody—what the Fathers called praxis, practical prayer—to theoria, to the vision of God, to the experience of the grace of God. It’s the way to get from here to there.
Now, our Holy Fathers turned this into the art of arts and the science of sciences. I would say that half of their writings are about how to deal with the distractions that come when we attempt this kind of prayer, and move towards theoria, or pure prayer. You have at least heard about these things. You have probably run across them in your reading. I’m thinking of practices like matching your prayer to your breathing. I’m thinking of the recommendation that you leave off psalmody for the Jesus Prayer, or another similar short phrase, usually taken from the psalms. A favorite one of the monks of old was, “O Lord make speed to help me,” “O Lord make speed to save me,” “O Lord make haste to help me.” But certainly the Jesus Prayer is the one most widely used now: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The Holy Fathers quickly add a note of caution when they bring up the topic, and say, ‘Don’t take this very far without guidance. Don’t take this very far without the assistance of someone who is experienced in helping you, because you can get into a lot of trouble.’ I noticed that there was an article on your church web site, about this very thing. Kevin, where are you, I thought you’re the one who had it posted… That’s it. And it suggests that in certain traditions that use things like uniting breathing—that’s one of those other practices—to prayer, you can get into serious deep waters, and cause yourself a lot of harm. And the particular article on your web site is talking about other traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism and so forth, but indeed, what are called by all of us psycho-physical techniques should not be particularly persued without someone to monitor your experience. You can do the most simple things without any worry. I mean you can breathe, you can inhale when you say “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and exhale when you say “have mercy on me, a sinner.” You can find yourself doing that quite naturally, without even trying. But what the Fathers say is that while you are a beginner, while you are on your own, focus on the prayer, not on your breathing. Focus on the words of the prayer, don’t even think about your breathing. There are other things of this nature, like focusing on the heart. I will just say one thing about that, because my own elder thought it was so important, he stressed that one should focus just above the heart. One should put one’s focus a little above and to the left, and that if you are looking to pinpoint the place of the heart, it’s that place that you sense, that you feel, when you say ‘my heart is broken’. Believe me you can read paragraphs in the Holy Fathers about the location of the heart, and you’ll get very confused and frustrated. It’s very hard to understand. But thanks be to God we have contemporary elders who put it in very easy terms.
Another author I would recommend that you read—he is so simple and so on track—is Elder Thaddeus of Serbia. Have you seen that book? It’s called, what is it called, “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives”. He says, ‘Don’t worry about all those instructions about finding the place of the heart; just try to make your prayer heartfelt.’ Try to make your prayer heartfelt. And that’s it! Again, let me just repeat, that these are not things that we need to focus on and pursue. If we keep to that simple description of prayer that I made at the beginning, we will be on track.
The Fathers do mention that the thoughts that come during prayer, that try to distract us, are often the place where the demons attack. They are not afraid—the Fathers are not afraid—to talk about demonic activity. Of course the psychologists who look at prayer, and who might have looked at the phenomena that were discussed in this article that’s posted on your website, they would have gone to all sorts of extremes to explain what is going on otherwise. But the Fathers don’t hesitate to say: this is the realm of demonic activity: flee from it.
I wanted just to read one definition, one paragraph, to help you understand and to help you realize that what I’m telling you is truly taken from the Fathers. This book is the Philokalia, it’s one of the volumes of the Philokalia in English, and at the back of every volume is a glossary. It’s excellent. I recommend you just to spend time reading the glossary. So good. But, they have an entry here for the word “fantasy”. Now we’re told to stay away from fantasy, stay away from daydreaming. The thoughts that rise up from our subconscious during prayer should be avoided, they should be repelled. But here is what the Philokalia says about fantasy.
It says: “The word fantasy denotes the image-producing faculty of the psyche. This is one of the most important words in hesychast vocabulary (hesychast being someone who practices stillness or quietude and pursues prayer in stillness and quietude). As one begins to advance along the spiritual path, one begins to perceive images of things, which have no direct point of reference in the external world, and which emerge inexplicably from within oneself. This experience is a sign that one’s consciousness is beginning to deepen. Outer sensations and ordinary thoughts have to some extent been quietened, and the impulses, fears, hopes, passions, hidden in the subconscious region are beginning to break through to the surface. One of the goals of the spiritual life is indeed the attainment of a spiritual knowledge which transcends both the ordinary level of consciousness and the subconscious. And it is true that images, especially when the recipient is in an advanced spiritual state may well be projections on the plane of the imagination of celestial archetypes, and that in this case they can be used creatively to form the images of sacred art and iconography. But more often than not they will simply derive from a middle or a lower sphere and will have nothing spiritual or creative about them. Hence they correspond to the world of fantasy and not to the world of imagination in the proper sense. (There’s another entry here for “imagination” which I won’t take the time to read.) It is on this account that the masters of prayer on the whole take a negative attitude towards them. They emphasize the grave dangers involved in this kind of experience, especially as the very production of these images may be the consequence of demonic or diabolical activity. And they admonish those still in the early stages and not yet possessing spiritual discrimination not to be enticed and led captive by these illusory appearances, whose tumult may well overwhelm the mind. Their advice is to pay no attention to them, but to continue with prayer and invocation, dispelling them with the name of Jesus Christ.”
I’m trying to see if we’re over time. Are we? I can’t read this… Let me just take a minute here, and say that in light of all this, you may be questioning whether this kind of prayer is even possible for you. Is this kind of prayer something that can be pursued, while living in the world? Or do you have to flee to the desert, and live in a cave? By way of encouragement I just would like to share with you a story from St. Symeon the New Theologian; it’s also contained in the Philokalia, but unfortunately it’s not in any of the volumes that have been translated into English. It’s in the fifth volume, which has not yet been translated and published. St. Symeon writes a little story about a young man named George. He entitles it “A profitable tale”.
As the story goes, young George leaves his home in a small town, and goes to Constantinople to seek his fortune. He has an uncle who lives there, a nobleman; this uncle has a position in the court of the emperor. So the uncle finds George a job as steward in the large household of another nobleman. And George begins to work there. I suppose he would be in charge of procuring supplies and hiring workmen and supervising servants, in short, running the household. And it was probably a very responsible position, and one full of unexpected demands and [prizes?]. Well George, being a serious Christian, when he first comes to the big city of Constantinople, he seeks out a spiritual father at one of the monasteries there. And this monk gives him a little book to read, and says it is by St. Mark the Ascetic. Now that book you can find in the published English Philokalia. St. Mark the Ascetic is in the first volume. But anyway, he’s given this little book, and a small rule of prayer. And George begins to read the book, and fulfill the rule. So each evening when he’s finished with his work at the nobleman’s house, he goes to his own place and reads the book a little, and fulfills the prayer rule. Otherwise he does nothing special: this is stressed again and again in the story—he does nothing special. Well the little book urges that we listen to our conscience, and do what it tells us. And what George’s conscience urged was that he pray a little longer, make a few more prostrations, add a few more psalms. He would never go to bed without fulfilling what his conscience urged. As the days went on he found himself doing more and more until he found himself up until midnight.
Now no one at the nobleman’s house suspected how he was spending his time at home. At last, to quote the story, “There came a night when, as he performed his rule of prayer, a brilliant divine radiance descended on him from above and filled all the room. Thereupon the young man forgot that he was in a room or beneath a roof, for on all sides he saw nothing but light. He was not even aware of standing on the ground. All worldly cares left him, and there came to his mind no thoughts common to men clothed with flesh. He became wholly dissolved in this transubstantial light, and it seemed to him that he himself became light, so he forgot the whole world, and was filled with tears and unspeakable joy.” And the story goes on to describe the experience in more detail, and then to tell us a little bit more about the rest of George’s life.
Well, the scholars tell us that George is really St. Symeon himself, and that the story is autobiographical. Be this as it may, the point of the story, and what St. Symeon wants us to know and to accept, is that this is possible for us. This experience is not out of our realm of possibility. What is required? The Fathers say what is required is, on our part, a firm resolve to pursue prayer, and the Lord will grant us His gift. Maybe that’s the most important thing I’ve said yet: the Lord will grant us this gift. Pure prayer is a gift of God in the end. And all that we do is prepare ourselves to receive it. What I described at the beginning as a way of prayer does not compel God to do anything; it doesn’t guarantee the outcome. All we do is contribute our part. We say the prayer with as much attentiveness as we can muster. We perhaps use some techniques, if you like, to help us be attentive. And we persevere. And then, what God gives, He gives. So, glory be to God. I’ll stop there.
We had someone speak at the monastery a few days ago who said he really had about four hours’ of material to present, and if he had had more time to prepare it, his talk would have been shorter. I feel that way too. Do we want to… yes.
Question: Mother, when you say that we should pause during our prayer, is that something where we’re allowing ourselves to reflect with thoughts, or are we just…
Mother Victoria: Not particularly. We’re holding on, we’re holding on to the grace that has come to us.
Same questioner: So it’s kind of a silent…
Mother Victoria: Yes.
Question: Good morning. So, I like trying to do some creative pursuits, and my question has to do with how can one pursue creativity as safely as possible when we’re a bit of a novice in terms of prayer.
Mother Victoria: Are you talking about art? What do you mean when you say creativity?
Same questioner: I suppose it could deal with art. For me specifically it’s writing. But really, any creative pursuit, acting, etc.
Mother Victoria: What is it?
Same questioner: For me it’s usually writing. Sometimes I’ll get ideas and then I’ll try to put them down on paper or talk them through, and I’m just trying to get your take on how to safely do this without making myself more vulnerable.
Mother Victoria: Well, I’m not sure I have a good handle on what it is you’re doing. Are you writing stories?
Same questioner: Yes. Sometimes I’ll just be walking, and then an idea will come into my head, and then I’ll just talk it through, and then when I get home I will start writing it down.
Mother Victoria: What can I say. That seems to me a pretty straightforward and safe…
Same questioner: Okay. I was just trying to make sure I didn’t get myself vulnerable to any demons or stuff like that.
Mother Victoria: We’ll leave it at that.
Same questioner: Thank you.
Question: Along the lines that Sammy just asked, things like fantasy and imagination. We have a small daughter, she’s eight years old. As most kids do—they live in their imagination, live in the world of fantasy. And I’ve always wondered how you manage that with a child, in terms of what is good and right, versus what maybe is not so good and right in terms of fantasy and imagination.
Mother Victoria: I can’t see that there’s any harm in the case of a developing child. The Fathers are certainly not against using imagination and developing creativity. One of the main places where imagination might be used is in planning things. You know, you want to build a house. And of course, you use your imagination to think about how that house might look, how it might be laid out, what materials you might use. All of that is certainly in order, and represents the use of a God-given faculty. There is no problem with that sort of thing. It has to do with reason. Reason has as its object planning, and we human beings do that all the time. Does that help?
Same questioner: I think so. Maybe if you could expand on the question: within the world of fantasy literature, for instance, for children, like Harry Potter, or maybe even for older kids, Lord of the Rings, that sort of thing. Even unicorns, and those sorts of images. I’ve never really read anything for or against that…
Mother Victoria: It seems fairly harmless to me. It seems fairly harmless and appropriate to the development of a child. I’m no expert in that regard.
Same questioner: Thank you.
Question: I’ve got a question; forgive me if it’s real basic, but you mentioned the Horologion, I’m not quite clear what that is. You also mentioned psalms as sources for prayer. Could you expound on that a little bit?
Mother Victoria: Well, the Horologion is one of the books, one of the service books of the Church. It’s a very basic one. It’s the one that every reader will have in front of him in the kliros. It begins with morning prayers, and includes all the services of the day. It includes the common of the liturgy, it includes various akathists and canons, as well as the prayers before and after Communion. It’s the prayer book of the Church, if you like. But the Church has taken certain elements from the Horologion and published them in what they call the prayer book—the small hand-held prayer book. But the complete one, we can show it to you when you come to the monastery. It’s right there on every one of the stands where the sisters sing.
Same questioner: Is there a particular way to approach the psalms? I understand that that is used a lot in monasteries as well.
Mother Victoria: Well, psalms are truly everywhere. Every rule of prayer, every service of the Church, begins with a few psalms—like at the Hours, there are always three—because the psalter is the prayer book of the temple. That’s how it was composed: it was composed to be the prayer book of the second temple. It includes the Psalms of David, mostly, but it has some others there. As you know it’s a book of the Bible. All the patterns of prayer from the Old Testament, as well as Christian times, use the psalms.
Host: If I could just mention for Dr. Luke that there’s a book called “The Psalter for Prayer” that came out in 2010 by Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. It’s a beautiful book. It has the entire group of Psalms in kathismata, with prayers before and after, and a very structured way of praying the psalms at home. I highly recommend that we look at getting the book. It’s not an inexpensive book but it’s absolutely well worth it.
Question: Would you have any recommendations for husbands and wives saying their prayers in the evening together, particularly in view of the concept of pausing or taking time for the prayers, and how we do that.
Mother Victoria: I’m having trouble hearing the question.
Same questioner: Can you say a few words about a husband and a wife saying prayers before bedtime, and in consideration of your thoughts about pausing or taking time, saying them slowly, and how best for a husband and wife to do that.
Mother Victoria: It’s of course a wonderful practice, for not just husbands and wives, but for families, to say, for example, the evening prayers together. But it involves a sacrifice, and the sacrifice is that you cannot pray the way I described. Because if you’re praying with others, you cannot stop to savor such grace as God may grant. You cannot take time to meditate or reflect or anything like that. You have to continue the rule of prayer. It has other benefits. Praying together of course is recommended, so it’s wonderful: do it.
Question: Could you speak to the role that emotions play, because I don’t quite understand. I need discernment to know when emotions are something that is supporting prayer, or when it becomes a distraction.
Mother Victoria: The Fathers stress sobriety in prayer. They counsel us not to seek for emotions in prayer. But we are human beings, and emotions are part of our makeup. If we are repentent, it’s very likely that there’s emotion connected with that. But the essence of repentence is not emotion. The essence of repentence is change. We’re not seeking for feelings when we pray. We are seeking for the presence of God. Emotions may come, and that’s okay. But don’t let that be the focus of your prayer, don’t let that be what you are looking for. The presence of God is not found in emotions.
Question: I was wondering, when you’re doing your prayers, and maybe particularly at night, if you’re overwhelmed by the cares of your daily life, you’ve mentioned prostrations or saying the Jesus Prayer, is that something that you kind of just tough out, like, you keep doing your prayers, or do you continuously, as you’re flooded with other thoughts, are you continuously just hitting the ground and getting back up until they go away. Because sometimes it’s easier said than done, to even get through one day of prayers.
Mother Victoria: You do have to force yourself. I wish there were some trick, some gimmick, that would spare us. But indeed, all of one’s life, one has to continue to force oneself, even if we come to love prayer, we find ourselves still needing to forcefully repel extraneous thoughts, and even exterior interruptions that come our way. It’s always a struggle. The Fathers say that. A good author that I just happened to read in preparation for today was St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, “The Arena”. He deals with this very topic a lot, and straightforwardly says, even an experienced monk, who has pursued pure prayer for years and years and years still needs to force himself. He relates this to the words of the Lord, Who teaches that the kingdom of God suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. St. Ignatius [Brianchaninov] says this is about prayer. We have to be violent in our pursuit of prayer. That is how strong our resolve must be: to the point of violence.
Same questioner: So, I have actually another quick question. You mentioned group prayers having different goals than personal prayers. [Mother Victoria: Yes.] So, can you name a few of those goals and benefits of group prayer as opposed to personal prayer?
Mother Victoria: Well, I would say the promises of the Lord, that ‘where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst of them.’ Very often we want to be together for intercessory prayer; we certainly want to be together for liturgy and thanksgiving to God. All of this goes together. It’s not this or that. It’s not this way of prayer or that way of prayer. Individual prayer nourishes our prayer in common. Our prayer in common, especially the liturgy, nourishes our personal prayer. Both belong in a Christian life, in balance.
Question: I would like to hear your thoughts on how to cultivate, or at least how we should hope to cultivate, this kind of prayer for our children, because I understand the value of praying alone, and then praying together, and that’s something that we try to do, but then you have children who are distracted or who don’t want to pray, or are asking why they have to pray *again*. I’m wondering if you have anything to say about how to set that example, and how to guide our children toward that type of prayer.
Mother Victoria: Make it a part of the child’s daily routine. I think that’s the most important thing. I don’t have experience raising children, but I can remember my own childhood, and that is certainly how our parents raised us. In our home, there was no question, but the last thing we did before we went to bed was to say a few prayers. I’m having trouble remembering exactly what it was for us children, probably the Trisagion prayers, and probably “It is truly meet.” We would sing it—that’s a good thing—you might want to sing some of the prayers with your children. I can’t imagine us going to bed without doing that, and our parents blessing us last thing at night. One of our other sisters always remembers how, after they had gone to bed, her father would walk around the rooms and make the sign of the Cross at each one through the doorway; it’s like an indelible impression of her childhood. I do want to say that we cannot overestimate the influence on our children of seeing us at prayer. The former abbot of Simonos Petra, Father Emilianos, he was one who restored monastic life to Mount Athos when it seemed like it was dying out. A powerful figure in around the 1960s. He remembers, as a child, how he slept in the same room with his grandmother, and he would see her get up in the middle of the night, thinking that he was still sleeping, and she would go before the icons in the corner, and pour her heart out in prayer, pray for the whole family. He remembers her doing that, night after night. And he remembers with excitement how, when he was a little older, he was given the privilege of joining her, in the middle of the night, secretly, with her praying before the icons, and praying for the whole family. He says that that example of his grandmother had more to do with his formation as an Orthodox Christian than anything else. It’s powerful.
Question: Good morning Mother. What I’d like to ask about particularly, is working, during the day, at my job, and the distractions and the friction and all that comes to you from the world, and just, you know, [Mother Victoria: Life.] lots of life. I just want to know, I’m really employed just keeping my mouth shut a lot. That’s what I’ve done. But what can I do further? I’ve gone sometimes to the women’s rest room and I’ll try to find that eastern corner and pray. But I don’t do it very often, but what would you say. It would be nice to have a rule during the day, to keep your heart and your mind in check and peaceful.
Mother Victoria: Well, one suggestion is having a physical reminder of some sort. I don’t know, you probably can’t keep an icon on your desk. Something like that, a physical reminder, is a great help. If you want to go to greater lengths, something like fasting. Think about what it’s like when you’re preparing for a pre-sanctified liturgy, and you’re at work, and you’re fasting. Isn’t it true that you constantly have that coming liturgy in your mind, that you’re attentive to your heart, preparing for that liturgy that’s a few hours away? It changes your whole day doesn’t it? I don’t know if that fits with—what word am I looking for—the culture of your workspace. But if you can fast, that would really remind you, keep you mindful of God.
Host: Any other questions? Father, could you help us close with prayer please?
Mother Victoria: Well thank you, everyone. I’m really happy I could be with you today.
Host: Thank you Mother.
Mother Victoria: It’s a joy to see so many familiar faces.