by St. John Climacus
Prayer is by its very nature a dialogue and a union with God. Its effect is to hold the world together and to achieve a reconciliation with God. Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears. It is expiation of sin, a bridge over temptation, a barrier against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of Angels and the nourishment of all bodiless beings. Prayer is the future gladness, an endless work, a wellspring of virtues, a source of grace, hidden progress, food for the soul, an illumination of the mind, an axe against despair, a proof of hope, sorrow done away with, the wealth of monks, the treasure of hesychasts, the reduction of anger, the mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one’s condition, the future revealed, and a sign of glory. For him who truly prays, prayer is the court, the judgment hall and the tribunal of the Lord before the judgment to come.
Let us rise and listen to what the holy queen of the virtues cries with a loud voice and says to us: Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and you shall find rest for your souls and healing for your wounds. For my yoke is easy and is sovereign remedy for great sins.
Those of us about to stand before our King and God in order to speak with Him should not move into this without preparation, lest, seeing us from afar without weapons and clothing suitable for those who stand before the King, He should order his servants and slaves to bind us, to drive us out of His sight and to tear up our petitions and throw them in our face.
When you are going to stand before the Lord. let the garment of your soul be woven throughout with the thread of wrongs suffered but forgotten. Otherwise, prayer will be of no benefit to you.
Pray in all simplicity. For both the tax collector and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.
The work of prayer is one and the same for all, but there are various and many different kinds of prayer. Some converse with God as with a friend and master, interceding with praise and petition, not for themselves but for others. Some strive for greater [spiritual] treasures and glory and for confidence in prayer. Others ask for complete deliverance from their adversary. Some beg to receive some kind of rank; others for complete forgiveness of debts. Some ask to be released from prison; others for remission from offenses.
Before all else, let us list sincere thanksgiving first on the scroll of our prayer. On the second line, we should put confession and heartfelt contrition of soul. Then let us present our petition to the King of all. This is the best way of prayer, as it was shown to one of the monks by an angel of the Lord…
Do not be over-complicated in the words you use when praying, because the simple and unadorned lisping of the children has often won the heart of their Heavenly Father.
Try not to talk excessively when you pray, lest your mind be distracted in searching for words. One word of the tax collector appeased God, and one cry of faith saved the thief. Talkative prayer often distracts the mind and leads to phantasy, whereas brevity makes for concentration.
If during your prayer some word evokes delight or compunction within you, linger over it; for at that moment our guardian Angel is praying with us. However pure you may be, do not be forward in your dealings with God. Approach Him rather in all humility, and you will be given still more boldness. And even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins. Heed Paul’s cry regarding sinners ‘of whom I am first’ (1 Tim 1:15)…
Until we have acquired genuine prayer, we are like people teaching children to begin to walk.
Try to lift up, or rather, to enclose your thought within the words of your prayer, and if in its infant state it wearies and falls, lift it up again. Instability is natural to the mind, but God is powerful to establish all things… The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start with a brief prayer; the middle stage is concentration on what is being said or thought; and its conclusion is rapture in the Lord… Faith gives wings to prayer, and without it no one can fly upward to heaven…
After as long spell of prayer, do not say that nothing has been gained, for you have already achieved something. After all, what higher good is there than to cling to the Lord and to persevere in unceasing union with Him?… Prepare yourself for your set times of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul, and you will soon make progress… Your prayer shows where you stand. Indeed, theologians say that prayer is one’s mirror…
Do not refuse a request to pray for the soul of another, even when you yourself lack the gift of prayer. For often the faith of the person making the request will evoke the saving contrition of the one who is offering the prayer. Do not become conceited when you have prayed for others and have been heard, for it is their faith which has been active and efficacious… Every virtuous act that we do, and this is particularly true of prayer, should be done with great sensitivity… Whatever is obtained as a result of long and persistent prayer will remain. When one has found the Lord, one no longer has to use words in prayer, for the Spirit will intercede for that person with ‘sighs too deep for words’ (Rom. 8:26). Do not form sensory images during prayer, for distraction will certainly follow. The confident expectation of gaining that for which one is begging will show up during prayer. Confidence is the absence of doubt. Confidence is sure proof of the uncertain. If prayer is your concern, then show yourself to be merciful…
When fire comes to dwell in the heart it resurrects prayer; and after prayer has been revived and taken up into heaven, a descent of fire occurs in the upper chamber of the soul… Do not stop praying as long as, by God’s grace, the fervor and the tears have not been exhausted, for it may happen that never again in your whole life will you have such a chance for forgiveness of your sins… Ask with tears, seek with obedience, knock with patience. For ‘everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened’ (Matt. 7:8)… The hour of prayer is no time for thinking over necessities, nor even spiritual things, because you may lose the better part (c.f. Luke 10:42).
Hold on to the staff of prayer and you will not fall. And even a fall will not be fatal, since prayer is a devout coercion of God (c.f. Matt. 11:12)… ‘I cried out with all my heart’, says the Psalmist (Ps 118:145). He is referring to body, soul, and spirit; and where the last two are gathered, God is there in the midst of them (c.f. Matt. 18:20). We are not all the same, either in body or in soul. Some profit from singing the psalms quickly, others from doing so slowly… Always be brave, and God will teach you your prayer.
You cannot learn to see just because someone tell you to do so. You require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teachings of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own teacher in God, Who ‘teaches us knowledge’ (Ps 93:10) and grants prayer to those who pray and blesses the years of the just.
from The Ladder of Divine Ascent; Step 28