Thought-life and Prayer

The relationship between our thought-life and our prayers is indissoluble. The problem is that what we’re thinking about before we pray predictably seeps into our prayers. The church fathers are unanimous in perceiving that our thoughts and our prayers are inseparable, especially because our memory continues to kick in as we pray.

“For whatever our soul was thinking about before the time of prayer inevitably occurs to us when we pray as a result of the operation of the memory,” Abba Isaac comments. Therefore, Isaac teaches, “we must prepare ourselves before the time of prayer to be the prayerful persons that we wish to be. For the mind in prayer is shaped by the state that it was previously in, and, when we sink into prayer, the image of the same deeds, words, and thoughts plays itself out before our eyes.”

Isaac’s insights strike a resonant chord with all who have desired to enter more deeply into prayer. The moment we sit to pray, a thousand thoughts fill our heads like a swarm of mosquitoes, humming loudly for our attention. 

An interesting exercise would be to take an inventory of the thinking we’ve engaged in over the past day, week, and month. What are the articles and books that we’ve read? The conversations we have had with others or internally in our own mind? The television programs we’ve watched? The films we’ve viewed? What events have pulled us into their orbit? How has this constellation of words, images, actions and events affected both how we think and the thoughts that habitually occupy our mind? The fathers understood clearly that our patterns of thought quickly became habituated, addictive, obsessive, disturbed. And, because of the memory stick called the human brain, our thoughts remain with us—whether we want them to our not. How, we ask ourselves, can we empty the trash, once it has collected?

Sensitivity to Outside Influences

Isaac invites us to consciously cultivate a quiet, focused “heart” before we ever pray, to nurture an inner calm and concentration that can aid us in stilling the voices that so quickly distract us during prayer. “Before we pray we should make an effort to cast out from the innermost parts of our heart whatever we do not wish to steal upon us when we pray.” For instance, if I want my heart to be pure when I want to enter into prayer, I need to be attentive to temptations to impurity outside of prayer. 

Isaac calls our attention to the human soul’s sensitivity to outside influences that easily divert it from “natural goods” such as the cultivation of virtue and the contemplation of God:

For the character of the soul is not inappropriately compared to a very light feather or plume. If it has not been harmed or spoiled by some liquid from outside, thanks to its inherent lightness it is naturally borne to the heavenly heights by the slightest breath. But if it has been weighed down by a sprinkling or an outpouring of some liquid, not only will it not be borne off by its natural lightness and snatched up into the air, but it will even be pressed down to the lowest places on the earth by the weight of the liquid that it has taken on.

The soul, Isaac teaches, is easily weighed down by “worldly vices and concerns” that “assail” it, hindering the soul’s natural buoyancy and preventing it from lifting “to the heights by the subtlest breath of spiritual meditation.” 

Clear Thinking and Wise Living

Isaac’s remedy? A focused, disciplined effort to draw the mind away from the distractions and passions that so easily weigh it down. In a nutshell, learning to pray entails clear thinking and wise living.

I remember one of my first Bible teacher’s definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is knowing how to live,” a knowledge grounded and flowing from our relationship with Christ. After all, it is Christ who created the world. Jesus knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to human life and human flourishing. He understands our hard-wiring, our spiritual, emotional, and physical DNA. If we attempt to live against the grain of the universe, we only end up scraped, bruised, frustrated, and disillusioned. Yes, as Patrick Henry Reardon puts it, “true life involves living in a particular way.”

Abba Isaac urges us to say “no” to those influences and appetites that we—in our most honest moments—know are choking our desire to love God and our neighbor. I can remember Jim Houston saying in a class at Regent College: “You can’t read Playboy and expect to have a fruitful prayer life.” Isaac would agree. He encourages us to say “yes” to concrete practices God has ordained for spiritual healing and growth: prayer, silence, solitude, meditation, worship, simplicity and service.

Habits are so quickly formed. Because of the nature of the central nervous system—what researchers call its plasticity—it takes only two or three choices to create a deeply habituated thought or action; if these choices are bad ones we create dead zones in the soul. Where once we were sensitive—light like a feather to the winds of God’s Spirit—we become resistant, hard, brittle, spiritually dull, heavy as a stone.

Happily, we can also make good choices through the power of the Spirit, and our soul’s dead zones can begin to reverberate with life. However, rare is the time when the Spirit automatically and instantly reverses the destructive tendencies we have created over time. The more normal means the Spirit uses to ignite spiritual healing and growth involve careful, honest analysis and the creation of a game plan for transformation—undertaken through the power of the Spirit and utilizing the means the Spirit has ordained for spiritual change and development (the classical spiritual disciplines). Isaac employs the issues of food, drink, and overindulgence to illustrate the problems bad habits can pose for our prayer life, topics we’ll explore in another article.

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