March 30, 2023

Homily on Being Absent-Minded During Prayer (St. Luke of Simferopol)

 
On Being Absent-Minded During Prayer
 
By St. Luke, Archbishop of Simferopol and All Crimea

(Delivered on April 10, 1948 - Saturday of the 4th week of Great Lent)

Many times before and until now I have been asked and continue to be asked how to learn to pray, how to get rid of absent-mindedness during prayer. They say that during prayer, everything distracts and disperses the mind, even a ray of light falling on the icon distracts from prayer and the splendor of the hierarchal worship. They say, "We can't concentrate, we can't pray properly." And they ask you to teach them.

Is it simple? Oh no, it's not at all easy. What are they asking me to teach? The greatest, most astounding, most difficult of all human affairs. For what is prayer, real prayer? This is a direct communication of the human spirit with God.

Well, if you understand prayer in this way, I will give you the main and most important answer to the question of how to get rid of absent-mindedness. I will tell you that if prayer is communion with God, then one must be worthy of this communion, one must be capable of it. But is it possible for a person who is always in the bustle of the world, who hardly, rarely remembers God, a person mired in passions, lusts and sins - how can such a person easily and simply enter into communion with God?

Communication with God requires a very great feat, requires that all your thoughts, all your intentions and aspirations be concentrated on the highest, on the holy, be turned to God. Only those learn to pray, deep, sincere prayer, who constantly direct their thoughts, their aspirations to God, who try with all their might to get rid of the vanity of the world, away from everyday worries; one who devotes a lot of time to reading the Holy Scriptures, reading the works of the Holy Fathers, who often and fervently prays, and most importantly, who diligently fulfills the commandments of Christ - for only the one who does His commandments becomes close to Christ, such the Lord calls His friend. This is the main answer: we must strive for holiness, we must strive to turn all our thoughts, as far as it is in our power, to turn our spirit to God.

Deep philosophers, deep scientists, whose thoughts are always focused on the most important questions of being, on difficult scientific questions, are always focused. Their thoughts are riveted to these questions, and they do not dissipate, their thoughts do not wander anywhere and everywhere - their thoughts are kept on the important thing to which they dedicate their lives. They are always concentrated, and we need to imitate them: just as they focus all their thoughts, all their aspirations on very high questions of philosophy and science, so we, if we want to be in communion with God, must be living in God, our thoughts must be always turned to the highest. To do this, people who were strong in spirit and full of love for God went to wild forests, deserts, who wanted to learn and learned how to pray, because they replaced earthly thoughts with thoughts about God, directed their lives towards achieving spiritual perfection.

And people who do not follow this path at all, living in the constant bustle of the world, complain: “No matter how hard I try, prayer does not come out, no matter how hard I try, I am constantly scattered.” Mentally they come to the conclusion that nothing comes of it, which means that it’s not worth even trying, which means that such is my nature that I cannot be free from absent-mindedness, from wandering thoughts.

Many refer to the imperfection of our nature. It is the same as if a person who does not know how to swim rushed into the water and, unable to stay on the water, would say to himself: “My body is heavier than water, I can’t hold on. What to do, such is the nature of my body that it is impossible for me to swim, so there is nothing for me to try." Isn't that ridiculous? Aren't there many people who can swim and stay on the water perfectly? The thing is, they don't want to learn to swim. Therefore, there is no point in blaming nature when they are distracted by prayer. It is not nature that is to blame, but the unwillingness to concentrate the spirit on prayer.

The holy prophet David said: “Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on ascent” (Ps. 83:6). Blessed is the man who has strength in God. Why has strength? Because he set ascension in his heart: because he set the goal of his heart to ascend higher and higher to God. It is good for such a person: he will receive strength from God, he will also receive the power of prayer. Woe to that person who does not ascend with his heart, who is not afraid that his heart sinks lower and lower, filled with more base and evil passions. Such will not have strength in God, such will not be able to pray.

The holy prophet Jeremiah says: “How long will wicked thoughts nest in you?” (Jer. 4:14). This is the most important thing that is needed: we need to banish all our evil thoughts from our hearts. How many invasive thoughts we have, and we so slowly drive these thoughts out of our hearts. And if our heart is full of invasive thoughts, how shall we be able to pray?

You see: absent-mindedness in prayer is the result of the fact that the heart does not always ascend, from morning to evening, to God, that people do not set the goal of their life to ascend to God and do not notice that they do not ascend to God, but descend lower and lower.

This is where prayer comes in.

There is a great prayer, which is considered the most important and basic prayer for monks, which they do with bows to the earth or from the waist: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." This prayer has tremendous power, and whoever gets used to it, who constantly repeats it, invariably receives grace from God and learns to pray. But when I advise you to start with this prayer, people try, and then they soon give up and say: “We mechanically repeat the prayer, but we don’t see any benefit from it.” They want it right away, they want to get benefits quickly, they don’t understand that it is possible to get a great ability to pray only through long spiritual and physical labor, but this is not given to anyone right away.

Some even complain that the hierarchal service disperses their thought: "What is it with the constant changing of the vestments of the bishop? What kind of dressing up is that?" They don't understand what they are talking about. Of course, there is no changing of vestments, but you merely see that they repeatedly remove the omophorion, and then put the omophorion on him again. What does this mean and why is this done?

If you know this, you will not talk about any changing of vestments, you will not be confused, you will not be hindered by the removal and application of the omophorion. This is the most important of the vestments of the bishop. All sacred garments have a special meaning, and the omophorion symbolizes the lost sheep that the Lord Jesus found in the wilderness and took on His shoulders. The omophorion denotes this duty of the bishop, the shepherd of Christ, to find and carry lost sheep on his shoulders. The bishop depicts the Lord Jesus Himself, but during the liturgy there are moments when it is as if Christ Himself appears before us.

Thus, during the reading of the Gospel, you seem to hear the Lord Jesus Himself. He seems to appear before us, so the bishop must remove the highest sign of his sacred dignity - the omophorion. By this he shows his humility before Christ.

Also, when the Great Entrance is made, then the paten with blessed bread and the cup of wine signify the Lord going to suffer, and the bishop, meeting Christ at the Royal Doors, accepting the cup and paten from the priest and deacon, must remove the omophorion.

And then, when the most important moment of the Mystery of the Eucharist comes, when the bishop pronounces the great words of Christ: “Take, eat, this is My Body, which is broken for you for the remission of sins” and “Drink of it all of you: this is My Blood of the New Covenantt, which is poured out for you and for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:26–28), when the bishop blesses the bread and wine, invoking the Holy Spirit, by whose power bread and wine are changed into the true Body and Blood of Christ, then he, doing a great mystery must be in the fullness of his sacred vestments. When the mystery is accomplished, the omophorion must be removed, because Christ Himself is here, which means that the bishop must remove the omophorion.

This is not dressing up, but sacred actions that have a deep symbolic meaning. Therefore, do not be confused by the grandeur and splendor of the hierarchal service, it does not prevent you from praying; on the contrary, those who understand the great meaning of the liturgy, it leads to deep prayer.

The constant wandering of thoughts interferes with you, only because you are in constant worldly vanity, rarely and little do you focus your spirit on the most important, the greatest and the most holy. So understand how difficult it is to learn to pray; understand that prayer, free from distraction, free from wandering thoughts, is attained only by the saints. Be imbued with the humble consciousness that your prayer is weak because you are far from holiness.

Sincerely, like little children, pray as best you can. Christ hears your prayer, for no matter how weak it is, it rises high, high to God, and the Lord accepts all prayers. Do not lose heart, do not fold your hands, do not expect prayer to be quickly and easily freed from all distraction.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.
 
 

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