As we, Orthodox Christians, come to the end of the first week of Great Lent, I thought I’d share something I recently read on battling extraneous thoughts during prayer.
It doesn’t matter what faith you follow, as Christians we are called to “pray without ceasing”. We are called to follow the example of Christ and pray. But who doesn’t battle thoughts that fly into your mind as if it were an airport. They can be constant. The evil one does not want us to draw near to Christ. These thoughts are his, not yours, and we must battle them if we are to draw near to Christ. During Great Lent we are called to increase our prayerful endeavors and so I thought this little chapter might be useful to many. It sure was to me.
I’ve mentioned before that I have been reading the book “Prayer” by Metropolitan Hilarion. This book is such a treasure and such an easy read. Each chapter is but a few paragraphs. Here is the 18th chapter titled “The Battle with Extraneous Thoughts”.
One of the main obstacles to attentive prayer is the appearance of extraneous thoughts. St. John of Kronstadt, the great ascetic of the end of the nineteenth & beginning of the twentieth centuries, describes in his diaries how, during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, at the most crucial & sacred moments, before his mind’s eye would appear an apple pie or some other reward that he might be given. And with bitter regret he suggests how such extraneous images & thoughts can destroy a prayerful state. If such things happened with the saints, then there is nothing surprising if it happens to us, too. To protect ourselves from extraneous thoughts & images, we have to learn, as did the ancient Fathers of the Church, “to guard our minds”.
In the ascetic writers of the Ancient Church there was a detailed development of how outside thoughts gradually penetrate a person. The first stage of this process is called an “article”, that is, the sudden appearance of a thought. This thought is still completely alien, but appears somewhere on the horizon; its penetration inside us begins when we begin to pay attention to it, enter into conversation with it, examine & analyze it. Then begins what the Church Fathers call “combination”, when man’s mind as it were merges with the thought. Finally, the thought turns into a passion & embraces the whole person, & then both prayer & the spiritual life are forgotten.
For this not to happen, it is very important to cut off extraneous thoughts at their first appearance, not allowing them to penetrate deeply into the soul, heart, & mind. Learning to do this requires a lot of work. You cannot but be distracted at prayer, if you do not learn to fight with extraneous thoughts.
One of the diseases of modern man is that he is unable to control the work of his own brain. His brain is autonomous, & thoughts come & go spontaneously. Modern man as a rule does not follow what is going on in his mind. But to learn true prayer, you need to follow your thoughts & to expel ruthlessly those that do not correspond to a prayerful disposition. Short prayers help in overcoming distractions & extraneous thoughts: “Lord, have mercy”, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”, & others, which do not require a special focus on the words, but incline one to the birth of feelings & the movement of the heart. With the help of such prayers, you can learn to pray attentively & to focus on prayer.Chapter 18 of Prayer by Metropolitan Hilarion
I love the story about St. John. It makes me feel better about my constant distractions of thoughts. I found a beautiful prayer from the same diaries of St. John of Kronstadt. It’s titled “A Prayer for the Granting of Prayer”. I have no doubt it was in the same section of his diaries that Metropolitan Hilarion was speaking about. I created this downloadable prayer card for you to print and use as you battle your thoughts. May you be blessed by it as you struggle through your lenten disciplines.
Click the image above to download the pdf to print. It is a fairly large (7×7) printable. If you would prefer a much smaller version the website I found this on has a printable pdf with little prayer cards (4 per sheet). Check them out here.
I pray your journey through Great Lent is one of growth & beauty.
2 thoughts on “The Battle With Thoughts”
Thank you, Susan, this is the kind of blog post I feel good about reading this week!
All glory to God!! Blessed lent, Gretchen!
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