When Your Mind Wanders During Prayer

by St. Theophan the Recluse

Our father among the saints, Theophan the Recluse, (d. 1894) was the bishop of Tambov in Russia.

He was a prolific author, especially on the subjects of the Christian life and the training of youth in the faith.

In order to facilitate the development of true prayer, take these steps:

1) keep a prayer rule according to the blessing of your spiritual father – not more than you can read unhurriedly on a normal day;

2) before you pray, in your free time become familiar with the prayer in your rule, fully take in each word and feel it, so that you would know in advance what should be in your soul as you read.

It will be even better if you learn the prayers by heart. When you do this, then all of your prayers will be easy for you to remember and feel. There is only one final difficulty: your thoughts will always stray to other subjects, therefore:

3) you must struggle to keep your attention focused on the words of your prayer, knowing in advance that your mind will wander.

When your mind does wander during prayer, bring it back. When it wanders again, bring it back again.

Each and every time that you read a prayer while your thoughts are wandering (and consequently you read it without attention and feeling) then do not fail to read it again.

Even if your mind wanders several times in the same place, read it again and again until you read it all the way through with understanding and feeling.

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In this way, you will overcome this difficulty so that the next time, perhaps, it will not come up again, or if it does return, it will be weaker. This is how one must act when the mind wanders.

On the other hand it may happen that a particular word or phrase might act so strongly on the soul, that the soul no longer wants to continue with the prayer, and even though the lips continue praying, the mind keeps wandering back to that place which first acted on it.

In this case:

4) stop, do not read further, but stand with attention and feeling in that place, and use the prayer in that place and the feelings engendered by it to feed your soul.

Do not hurry to get yourself out of this state. If time cannot wait, it is better to leave your rule unfinished than to disturb this prayerful state.

Maybe this feeling will stay with you all day like your guardian Angel! This sort of grace-filled action on the soul during prayer means that the spirit of prayer is becoming internalized, and consequently, maintaining this state is the most hopeful means of raising up and strengthening a spirit of prayer in your heart.

Source: Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894; Russian Orthodox); On Prayer, Homily1

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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