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As prayer is an intimate discourse with God Almighty, it is imperative that we collect the mind and thought that they may meditate on their Lord and address themselves to Him without a mediator. For if Moses the great was prevented from approaching the bush until after he had taken off his sandals from his feet, how is it that you intend to address Him Who is Most High and above any sense and thought, without casting off every recklessness and improper thought?
Concentrating the mind and keeping it away from distraction is not easy. It can be achieved only after long and hard work and persistence in spiritual worship. No one can attain pure prayer without persistence in worshipping God with a bona fide heart, just as one cannot learn a trade until after certain length of time.
Therefore, if we do not posses something of these let us not think of leaving prayer until after our minds have been cleansed, otherwise we would be like those who seek perfection without laboring. But let us pray, anyway, and pour our hearts and thoughts before The Merciful One. He, The Most High, will guide us in His mercy to the haven of life and direct us as He wills. This requires that our intention be well-meaning and our desire intense in concentrating our thought as best as possible.
Also, we should avoid everything that could cause us to be reckless, be it external or internal. Let us act according to Father Makarius’s advice: “If your prayer is not spiritual, strive to attain verbal prayer. The spiritual prayer then will grow.”
Experienced people have known that even though it is difficult, initially, to achieve concentration of mind, it becomes easier, however, after good training, especially when it tastes the sweetness of prayer. When it reaches this stage, it withdraws from all that exist on earth and in heaven and becomes absorbed by the love of its Lord and overwhelmed by His Majesty. This is the situation with those who attain perfection.
Mor Isaac the Elder says: “Prayer is not a matter of knowledge and eloquent phraseology. It is rather a Matter of clearing one’s mind from extraneous thoughts, rendering it serene in a state of concentration attained by silence of movements and serenity of senses”. He further says: “pure prayer calls for concentration of mind, serenity of conscience, tranquility of thoughts, reflection on the new world, hidden comfort, and discourse with God”
Father Oghris incites collecting the mind away from recklessness saying: “strive to make your mind silent when at prayer never letting it talk. Only then you will be able to pray.” Mor Yacoub says: “When you hear the sound of the bell, O wise one, hasten to church for prayer. Let your thoughts be collected, not meandering amongst trivialities. It is disgraceful to be in church yourself and let the mind tarry in the market- half of you in one place and the second half in another! Let your whole self be in the church and pray to God humbly and with a sincere intention. Ask Him for mercy and compassion, for He is compassionate, and He answers him who calls upon Him with a submissive heart.”
Saint Ephraim says: “When you pray, have your mind well in control and restrain your thoughts directing them towards your heart. Let not your body be standing there and your mind off on some other occupation. Rather, make of your body a church, and of your mind a splendid temple. Make of your mouth a censer, of your lips incense, and of your tongue a deacon that you may please God.”
Inciting prayer, he further says: “Will you not, O lover of profits, stand upright for prayer wholeheartedly for you will derive benefit from it in both worlds. Do not consider the time of prayer worthless. For every time you pray you store up in the Highest a treasure for yourself. Steal away an hour of your day and pray to your Lord. Your prayer will not be snatched away from you nor will you be robbed of your petition” The chosen Apostle Paul sums this all up when he says, “I will pray with the spirit; and I will pray with the mind also” (I Corinthians. 14:15).
– Patriarch Mor Ignatius Ephrem Barsoum
Starting my new job a week or so after I finished my PhD is not a wise move, but it does have the benefit of extending my intense, concentrated stance of concentration into the new role. In any creative work – and theology is most certainly a creative art – concentration is the game. Jurassic 5 said it best:
But that kind of focus, that has me reading documents and reports and books and compressing them into A4 pages and then editing those pieces of paper to strip them down so that people who are very rushed and not very interested can follow them is not the kind of concentration involved in prayer.
But where Jurassic 5 are silent, the greatest writer working in Ireland, Aidan Mathews, has spoken. He has prepared six truly luminous Lenten reflections and the second one, which I read this morning, demands distribution.
I simply cannot concentrate. But perhaps complex inattention is more fruitful (although I should not be thinking in productive terms) than a rudimentary focus. It is hard to consider infinity when we experience the good Creation only in the act of detail. In any event, private prayer is impossible at church services, mostly Masses, because I am so interested in the biodiversity of the congregation around me, and my weekday attempts at expectant vacancy, the honours course in prayer when you’ve exhausted rote petitionary phrases, philander very promptly. God dammit, it is my nature.
An example: I am contemplating a Crucifixion. At any rate, I am looking at a picture of it; and the picture I have in mind is by Salvador Dali, who also, as it happens, had portrayed the Blessed Virgin Mary spanking Jesus in another, earlier and more picaresque canvas. (That kind of mischief, like the Catalan cagon in the crib, is very Spanish, and escapes Northerners, even Catholic ones.) His John of the Cross crucifixion, on the other hand, is superbly sombre and longitudinal, seen from above and overhead, effaced entirely, from the hovering perspective of a very absent Holy Spirit; and I want to pray about it, not in a predatory but in a porous manner, in the hope of what I felt for twenty seconds thirty-five years ago when I followed a tour guide’s umbrella to Mantegna’s Lamentation, which exhibits the same cadaver feet-first, angled obliquely, on a damp mortuary slab, wholly defunct.
But I cannot help remembering that Dali’s model for the dead Christ was a famous Hollywood stuntman called Russell Saunders (but not the Russell-Saunders of the coupling scheme in quantum electrons, he was different); and that the stuntman Saunders, he of Shane and Singing in the Rain, was married at some stage, perhaps permanently, to no less a person than Paula Boelsoms, a studio trainer who had actually taught two African elephants to water-ski for the purposes of a big-budget period rom-com, although, admittedly, the skis were outsize. And then I think of Cicero, writing in a letter to Atticus, was it, a generation before Jesus, about the slaughter of the elephants at the Roman games, and how their death-cries were so human and high-frequency that the amphitheatre’s terraces shushed and the crowd stopped cheering for a while.
I simply cannot concentrate. I haven’t a prayer.
Take and read, for the things he writes will be better for you than any quinoa salad.
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