The Three Ways of Attention and Prayer


by St. Symeon the New Theologian

There are three ways of attention and prayer, by which the soul can be lifted and become spiritually exhalted, or crumble and perish. If these three ways are used appropriately and at the right time, the soul will be lifted, whilst if they are used unreasonably and at the wrong time, the soul will perish. Attention therefore should be tied and inseparable to prayer, in the way that the body is tied and inseparable to the soul. Attention should have the lead and mind for enemies as a guard, and fight sin, and resist evil thoughts of the soul. It should be then succeeded by prayer, which will destroy all those evil thoughts which attention fought against earlier, since attention alone is not able to do this.

It is this war of attention and prayer on which both life and death of the soul depend. By attention that we keep our prayer safe and therefore we progress: if we do not have attention to keep it clear and we leave it unguarded, then it is inflected by evil thoughts and we become wicked and hopeless. Hence, the ways of attention and prayer are three, we ought to explain the features of each one and leave the choice to whoever may wish to find salvation.

The first way of attention and prayer

The features of the first way are these: one stands to pray by raising his hands towards the sky together with his eyes and mind. He imagines divine concepts, the good things of Heaven, the armies of the holy angels, the residences of the saints and, in short, he gathers in his mind all that he has heard from the Holy Scriptures. He recalls them in the time of his prayer looking at the sky, and he exhorts his soul to what seems to be love and eros of God. Sometimes he even has tears and cries. In this way his soul gradually becomes proud without realising it, thinking that what he does is by the grace of God’s compassion for him. Hence he pleads God to always grant him worthy of such deeds which are, however, signs of error.

A good thing ceases to be good, when it is carried out in the wrong way or at the wrong time. To such an extent this is the case here that, if this person finds perfect solitude, it will be impossible for him not to lose his mind. Should this not happen, it will still be impossible for him to acquire any virtues or detachment from the earthly. By this method are misled all those who see the Light with their bodily eyes, sense perfumes with their sense of smell, hear voices with their ears and so on. Some of them have been possessed, moving senselessly from one place to the other. Others have been misled by accepting the Devil who was transformed and appeared to them as an angel of light, and they have remained uncorrected until the very end, without wanting to hear any advice from their brothers. Some of them were even incited by the Devil and committed suicide, whilst others were crumbled and others became insane. Who can describe the various illusions of the Devil by which he misleads them!

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Every reasonable person can understand the kind of damage that comes from this first way of attention and prayer. If it happens that someone by being accompanied by brothers (since these evils usually happen to those who are on their own) does not suffer any of the things we described, he nevertheless spends all his life with no spiritual improvement.

The second way of attention and prayer

The second way is this: when someone concentrates his mind in himself, detaching it from all that is earthly, guarding his senses, and gathering his thoughts so that they are not scattered to the vain things of the world. Sometimes he examines his thoughts and sometimes he pays attention to the words of the prayer he recites. Sometimes he returns to his thoughts that were trapped by the Devil and were drawn to that which is evil and vain, and sometimes with much effort and struggle he comes back to himself, after being defeated and possessed by some weakness.

Having this battle and war with himself, he cannot find peace nortime to do the virtuous good deeds and receive the crown of righteousness. For this man is like the one who fights a war against his enemies in darkness and night; who hears the voices of the enemy and suffers being stabbed, yet he cannot see clearly who they are, where they came from and how, and why they are attacking him. For this damage is caused by the darkness in his mind and the confusion in his thoughts and therefore he can never escape from his enemies, the demons, so that they will stop defeating him. The piteous suffers in vain, for he loses his reward being possessed by vanity without realising it, by thinking he is attentive. Many times he condemns the others and accuses them, praising himself and thinking that he is worthy to become shepherd of rational sheep, guiding others. He is like the blind person who promises to guide other blind people!

This is the second way; anyone who wishes to find salvation needs start by learning the damage that it causes to the soul, and be cautious. This second way is, nevertheless, better than the first, for the sky with Moon is better than the dark night without it.

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The third way of attention and prayer

The third way is indeed strange and difficult to explain, whilst,to those who are not aware of it, it is often incomprehendable, appearing unreal and impossible that any such thing can happen. This is because in these days the third way is not found in many, but rather in very few. As I understand, this virtue abandoned us together with obedience, since it is the obedience one shows to his spiritual father which makes one trully free, leaving all the cares to him and staying away from the struggles of this world, whilst being a diligent artisan of this third way. (That is, if one finds a real spiritual father who has no error!) Thus he who dedicates himself and all the care to God and the spiritual father, by real obedience is no longer living his own life where he does his own wishes, but is free from any struggle of the world or his body. By what ephemeral thing then, can this person ever be spirtually defeated or enslaved, or what care or concern could he ever have? It is therefore by this way, together with obedience, that the devices and machinations of the demons to distract the mind towards many and various thoughts, are all defeated and dissolved. One’s mind then stays free, and has plenty of space and chance to examine the thoughts brought by the demons, having a greater dexterity to expel them and offer his prayers to God with a clean heart. This is the beginning of the true way of life and those who do not make such a start are struggling in vain, even without knowing it.

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The beginning of the third way is not by looking up to the sky, raising the hands, having your mind in heaven and asking for help from there. As we have said, these are of the first way and they are false. Nor is it to guard the senses with the mind and concentrate exclusively on this, whilst neither being attentive nor seeing the inner wars of the soul conducted by the enemies. These are all of the second way. He who uses them is trapped by the demons and is unable to revenge those who trapped him, whilst the enemies are always fighting him both secretly and openly, making him proud and vain.

But you, my friend, if you seek your salvation you should start in this way: after the perfect obedience which we said you should have to your spiritual father, you should then conduct all your deeds with a clear conscience, as if you had God in front of you, for conscience can never be clear without obedience. You should keep your conscience clear towards these things: God, spiritual father, other people and earthly things. Towards God, it is an obligation to keep your conscience clear by avoiding the things you are aware that He neither likes nor give Him any joy. Towards your spiritual father you should do the things he orders you to do, doing nothing more and nothing less, living according to his plan and wish. As for the other people, you should keep your conscience clear by not doing to them any of the things you hate and do not wish them to do to you. Towards the earthly it is your obligation to restrain yourself from abuses, using them all appropriately, food as well as drinking and clothes. In short, you should do everything as if you had God in front of you, making sure that your conscience does not restrain nor condemn you for not doing something right. This is the beginning of the true and firm route of the third way of attention and prayer.



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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