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.

Text First Published April 2018

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

View Selections & Learn More >