How to Pray: an essay

‘Little by little the sympathy of the heart with the mind begins to change into a union of the mind and heart; and then the mechanical technique suggested by the Fathers will appear by itself. All the mechanical methods of a material character are suggested by the Fathers solely as aids for a quicker and easier attainment of attention during prayer, and not as something essential’ (Bishop Ignatii, cited in The Art of Prayer, p. 104, Faber & Faber, 1966: London).

‘An extremely complex game of seriousness-nonseriousness was being played when one day at tea in Tavistock Square, Virginia Woolf needled Eliot about his religion. Did he go to church? Yes. Did he hand round the plate for the collection? Yes. Oh, really! Then what did he experience when he prayed? Eliot leaned forward, bowing his head in that attitude which was itself one of prayer (‘Why should the aged eagle stretch his wings?’), and described the attempt to concentrate, to forget self, to attain union with God’ (Stephen Spender, ‘Remembering Eliot’, in TS Eliot, ed. Allen Tate, p. 62-3; Penguin, 1971: London).

Here is an argument with myself which looks like dialogue with some one else. Let it be understood as such, despite appearances.

How Christ prayed

There are moments of existence as a spatio-temporal and anxiety-ridden, guilty entity (i.e., a man) where it is beneficial for him to seek the nearness of God. Christ, throughout the Gospels, although himself fully human and fully God (and without sin), yet left the crowd behind, and left his disciples, to be in private with his Father.

‘But so much the more went there a fame abroad of him: and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by him of their infirmities. And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed’ (Luke, 5: 15-6).

When he spoke to his disciples, just before his arrest, he spoke and prayed directly to God before them:

‘O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me’ (John, 17: 25).

Speaking to the Father in this prayer, Christ makes the one who has been sent to the world (himself), and the one who stands outside it (the Father) together, so that they hear one another.

Christ prays in many forms and for different reasons: in Mark, he is described as praying in the garden:

‘And saith unto them, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch.” And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass for him.’

These and such like are examples of the place of prayer in Christ’s own human behaviour. He spoke to God like this, and it was known as prayer, on the basis of the Hebraic tradition, where one addresses oneself directly to God in words.

At the same time, the Greek tradition of the eternal world outside time and space is implicit in Christ’s gesture. When one prays, one addresses oneself to what is beyond the world. And the disciples would have understood this because they belonged to the Hellenistic society in which these events took place.

It has been pointed out by atheistic Biblical critics, so that it has become second nature amongst such people, that the ‘actual’ and Jewish Christ, and the disciples would not have thought in this way, because they cannot have known Plato’s view of existence, and that Christ’s expression of himself as having entered into time, and speaking to God as one outside of the world, particularly in St John, sound like borrowings from the Greek tradition of philosophy. As if, that is, what was true in Plato and Greek thinking cannot also be true for Christ; as if Christ could not perfect Greek thinking, and in his humanity bring to fulfilment things dimly prefigured in the ideas of the Greeks.

Similar complaints have been made in modern times about the way in which there are aspects of Hinduism which must not be applied to Christ’s relationship to God. It is possible to recognise in some kinds of prayer practiced today a ‘Christian Yoga’, and eminent Orthodox clerics have thought such a thing wrong. So, just as atheists insist that no Greek philosophically derived truths can also be true in Jerusalem, so too, Indian conceptions and practices must be foreign to Christians; but note that this latter objection, equally incorrect as it is, has been espoused in recent times by Orthodox thinkers. But, to what degree is Hinduism a fumbling and incomplete prefiguration of Christianity, and what important elements of it are perfected in Christianity with an absolute necessity?

Christ speaks of prayer as an activity, and directly instructs his followers in how to do it. They ask him, for instance, whether he can show them how to do it, in the same way that the Baptist showed his disciples how to pray. He answers by telling them what they should ask God for, and what God will give them if and when they do pray; we should assume that the Baptist carried out prayer in the way of making a petition, or request. And that God would certainly answer the following definite set of requests (which constitute the Lord’s Prayer).

‘And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. They kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth”’ (Luke, 11: 2).

Prayer is then, a communication with God, where petitions are made, but where only most essential things, such as forgiveness, and community with God, can be properly asked for. When Christ asks to be released from his duty or his mission, he regrets this, and asks that God’s will be done; that is, he petitions God for something, and then retracts this petition, because requests like this are not fitting in a prayer.

Another characteristic of prayer, as described in the Gospels, is that it takes place in private: if not in the wilderness, then in secret.

‘But thou, when thou prayest, enter into the closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.’

He adds: ‘But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him’ (Matthew, 6: 6-8).

Prayer should not consist of rationally expressed demands like this, of ‘vain repetitions’, for the Father already knows what you need. Samples from The Art of Prayer show that Theophan the Recluse, echoing tradition, considered the Jesus Prayer alone sufficient for all and any vocal expression directed toward God. Effectively, prayer should be a silent activity, without word or conceptual thought of the mundane kind.

Skill at Arms Training

I have never found a better method of learning and teaching than that carried out on recruits and other ranks training in the British Army. Such training and learning is handled there as follows: explain how something is done; demonstrate how it is done; let the learner then imitate this until the learner can do the thing for himself; then, let him practice freely, but under supervised conditions. One does not find this kind of training anywhere else outside the Army, but I myself still demand the same kind of directness when learning something, and I appreciate it when I find it.

Books and teachers advocating Eastern Buddhist and Hindu forms of prayer have a definite advantage over Western religious and philosophical teachers of the same thing. It is possible to read any number of books on oriental meditation, which attach great importance to exactly how to pray and to learn exactly how to appeal to the eternal. And this is entirely correct: that we should be grateful for being shown how to pray. Because there are two chief dimensions of the Christian life qua Christian: that one should attend Church, and that one should pray. So, where any religious work has shown us how to pray, then we should pay strict attention.

It seems to me that something needs to be corrected in the West’s lack of training in the basics of prayer. Not only because new Christians may not know how to do it, this act which is something like half of their obligation to God and to their self. But also because there is cross-over, here, with pagan activities which is not only right, but inevitable. And, it is the responsibility of the Church, in its writings and education, to be very precise as to exact details about these things, and above all honest about what actually works for human beings when communing with God, despite the same thing being true for pagans. For example, if prayer supposes a condition of selflessness, of emptying the mind, and concentration on a single thing, then how this state of mind and body are to be achieved should be described; and those descriptions of it as a vague arduous, painful search, involving feverish heart palpitations and burning faith, which are actually contrary to the correct disposition of the one praying, should be censured, because they seem to derive from an inauthentic experience of communion with God. The correct method and disposition should be made clear, even where and especially where they cross over with activities which the heathen also practice.

Let us get to the point: what I have in mind is the emphasis on control of the body. Such a thing is essential in Christian prayer, and is part of it. This needs to be discussed for two reasons: namely, that without this specific control of one’s body there can be no prayer; and, secondly, because the denial of this within the Church’s teaching, or making it controversial, is harmful to the Christian life, and to the Church. What seems to me to be most controversial for some authors within Orthodoxy is the control of breathing, while, or before, praying. To speak of the importance of breathing and how to do it while praying, may not seem like much. But I think that a great deal hangs on this, and I wish that the matter were cleared up.

To be clear: you must pray to God, in order to be close to Him. And, to do so we must retreat into a place apart from other people. There, in secret, we also focus on God only. We attempt to walk before God, to be aware of Him, and to let the mind enter into a silent thinking, inside the heart. Obviously, this means being still in body. We should stand; or sit. Orthodox tradition has it, it seems to me, that standing is perhaps better. The mind, meanwhile, should be still. A short prayer can be recited: for example, the Jesus Prayer, to assist the mind, to make it focus, and to bring it back from its own inevitable and irremediable attempts to wander.

When we pray, we have set out to put aside all distractions of sight, sound, and the like. We aim to let the mind and our thinking sink down within, into the heart, where God will meet us face to face. The mind should focus on God as the final object of this activity.

But, a peculiarity of the mind, when it attempts to think of nothing personal, but only of the one needful thing, is that it always fails in this attempt. The body, to a lesser extent, also revolts, and the world and body work together to make this silent communication impossible.

The body, while being still, continues to do various things which, if it were possible, we would put an end to. Particularly, we can never stop our heart from beating, or the breath from passing through the nose into the body. But although we cannot stop the heart, or the breath, we can control them. And, just as we have put an end to the activity of the senses in order to go out of the world, and in order to get to God, so, it is necessary to put breathing and the heart under control (it goes without saying that we will ignore the inevitable itches, niggling pains in the feet, fingers, etc., which the human body develops when we are doing nothing with it). A certain bodily warmth is also known to accompany the person who is in a state of prayer, but this also can be disregarded. Similarly, once the breath is under control, and a regular rhythm is set up, the activity of the lungs and diaphragm and of the heart will certainly be found to decrease to an unaccustomed low level; effectively we have brought the heart and the intake of oxygen and carbon dioxide under control.

While the body is under control in this way, the mind is free to attend to God, and the heart can present itself to God.

What is also understood, and is a rule amongst those who have discussed prayer honestly, is that when controlling the breathing action of our body, we can use the mental activity involved in monitoring our breath as a means calming the mind down, too. If the mind were to focus on the simple activity of air going in and out of the body, then we have a means of relieving our brain and our character from their dominion over us. We are, that is, paying attention to our self-control instead of being distracted and pained with our common-place thinking and fantasies, those things which generally fill the head of the average individual. Instead of the mind wandering, it can now focus on one of two things: our short repeated prayer, or, just as much, our condition of stillness of the body, by watching the air going in and out while controlling it.

How we pray

So much is incontestable, I believe. To pray is essential, and how to pray is as described here, as a process of sitting or standing, then gradually removing ourselves from the world by closing down the body and the common mind. Practice makes it easier and it is likely that the person who enters into prayer will do so with greater depth when he does it more often. It is obvious, and again beyond controversy, that prayer is done in order to commune with God, and to move beyond the world, and beyond our personal existence, into the presence of God and the Spirit.

What I have found which causes some embarrassment to me is not only that there is a very unmilitary lack of clarity in Christian texts about how to achieve this state (which, effectively is the private equivalent to the public making of Christian Churches unavailable for worship; i.e., if we do not tell people how to pray, then they will not be able to do it); but also, that when positive indications about how, technically speaking, to pray are made open to general reading (in for example The Art of Prayer), the work is prefaced by warnings and hesitations about whether some advice about prayer should be accepted or not. The introduction to The Art Prayer warns against controlling the body and breathing – indicating that doing this can lead to insanity and suicide in some cases.

This confusion and denial of prayer opens up the Hesychast controversy once again, something which does not need to be revived, because Orthodoxy and true prayer have already triumphed, and these matters have already been decided. I am embarrassed by recent authors and clerics who have not accepted orthodoxy on this matter of the actual means by which true communion with God in prayer is to be achieved. But the reason why they have objected to orthodoxy on this matter is that a new controversy has become necessary in our times, owing to the condition of the modern world, specifically the interaction of Western people with Eastern religions. That is, Orthodox scholars and members of the Church do not want their prayer to share or seem to rely on or to mingle with Hindu and Buddhist practices. And so, it seems to have become popular to try to deny what was established in favour of Hesychasm; and thus to undermine one of the three pillars of Orthodoxy, from within the Church itself. They do this because they wish not to share the site on which prayer takes place with any other religious group.

In his introduction to ‘The Art of Prayer’, Timothy Ware has referred disdainfully or with regret to those who come to Orthodoxy with the idea that they will be allowed to carry out a ‘Christian Yoga’. Fr Seraphim Rose, an energetic priest in the US, who founded his own monastic order, and did all that he might to be an apostle in America, goes so far as to say that meditation and this kind of prayer must be demonic and communicate with the devil, rather than with God. But it seems to be common among Orthodox Christian writers and scholars to mention the practice of prayer alongside a warning that we should not do it too much, or pay too much attention to the body and breath, although, as I have pointed out, the control of breathing is as essential to prayer as the withdrawal in to the private room is, or the withdrawal into the wilderness.

I cannot speak in general terms about the ability or otherwise of devout Christians to pray in our time. It is right for me to have a short look at why it was thought necessary to guard against physical control of the body during prayer on the part of Timothy Ware, and the almost complete horror of it of Fr Seraphim.

Both Timothy Ware and Fr Seraphim did a great deal for the Church in the West. It is not for me to speak of them in biographical terms, and I will not do so, out of humility. But in those remarks on the technique of prayer and the body, they have made obvious mistakes, or underestimated the importance of this part of the Christian’s existence.

We have already spoken of Timothy Ware’s dismissal of this practical element of prayer as ‘Christian yoga’. I myself wonder what is objectionable to Timothy Ware about yoga in itself, so much so that he did not explain why he dismisses it, as if he assumed that a yoga and Christianity are different in a completely self-evident way. But it is not at all self-evident. The Bhagavad Gita is a concise primer for spirituality echoing most of the primary ideas of the Church Fathers; what we have in addition, and which surpasses that text, is that in Christ we have found the one who was being looked for, rather in hope, by the authors of that text. Otherwise, there is a great deal to admire in the Bhagavad Gita.

Confusion about what is demonic

A brief background is necessary. I have no extensive knowledge of the Philokalia, and cannot but suspect myself of struggling against nothing here. If breathing exercises are advised in that collection, then I don’t know what they are. What I am interested in is that, where breathing control is advised, it should be welcomed generally. For the following reasons. I myself came to Christianity through my dabbling unsuccessfully in Buddhism and its methods of prayer; I came out and through that period because of the Church, and because I objected to the Buddhist denial of God. Otherwise, I retain the method of meditation – because it works as an entry into prayer. It can and has been objected just because it works, does not mean that it is Christian. I will get to this when discussing Fr Seraphim Rose. However, the main point is that as a starting point for both prayer and entry into the Church, it should be encouraged, because it has been approved by the Church, and, it simply does lend itself to bringing about the correct prayerful attitude. But, in fine, I am no complete expert about these matters, and to a very large extent, I also seek advice about these matters from the Church hierarchy.

Breathing and control of breathing is a sine qua non of any act of prayer in secret. And, while not wishing to campaign on behalf of the proper breathing amongst people in general, I agree with a recent author of this enormously neglected part of human life, who says that control of the breath through the nose, and breathing less, according to a control system, always leads to improvement of the heart, lungs, mind, and general experience of life (see Breath, The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor (Penguin, London: 2020)). It should probably be understood that controlled breathing should be advocated in all areas of life. This ‘lost art’ may be the heart of Buddhism, and Hesychasm, not because control of the breath is something which inevitably leads to God, but because it leads to good bodily and mental health in general, which in turn establishes the preconditions for a human being to finally turn to God in desire and repentance.

In the religious life, this control very closely resembles the accepted behaviour of the control of food and drink by fasting and feasting. By taking control of this aspect of the human life, the Christian regulates the mind and body for the moment when he will present himself to God. That this is not controversial begs the question about the regulation of something much closer to the heart of this matter, namely the control of our breath. The air inside us is more intimate than food or drink, so why is it not also regulated?

In an energetic work full of admonitions to avoid Eastern practices, Fr Seraphim Rose entitled his first chapter of ‘Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future’ as ‘Eastern Meditation Invades Christianity’. Here, we find a description of the Hindu meditation technique which has been turned by some into a ‘Christian Yoga’; after describing what the one praying does, and how to do it, and the results, Fr Seraphim judges that it is an instance of ‘prelest’ or delusion. The one who prays in this way has ‘gone spiritually astray’, he says.

He describes one Catholic exponent of breathing exercises, learnt to some degree from the orient, as a way into calmness and plenitude of spirit which can finally turn to face God, as follows:

‘Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Orthodox spiritual discipline will see that this pitiable ‘Christian yogi’ [a Benedictine monk] has fallen handily into a trap set by one of the lesser demons that lie in wait for the seeker of ‘spiritual experiences’: he has not even seen an ‘angel of light,’ but has only given way to his own ‘religious fancies,’ the product of a heart and mind totally unprepared for spiritual warfare and the deceptions of the demons. Such ‘meditation’ is being practiced today in a number of Roman Catholic convents and monasteries.’ (Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 5th edn., 2018).

Fr Seraphim then produces a paragraph in which he insists on the terrible hardship which one must endure, in order, after many decades, to put ‘the mind in the heart’ and to practice true prayer. Indeed, throughout the entire work, which intends to dismiss the New Age fumbling search after spirituality, Fr Seraphim never speaks of how spirituality ought in fact to be found, except that it is found only in Orthodoxy and even then only after unspecified and terrible suffering which must go on for years.

Such sentiments are an example of a warrior of Christ shooting himself in the foot. There are distressing indications that Fr Seraphim was anxious in his book to defend the Church, and to shut down all prayer, if that is what it took in order to defend it. For instance, while referring to the feeling of warmth which accompanies what he thought of as Eastern meditation, he used this sign as an indication that demonic forces were entering into the mind of the one so praying. However, as evidence of his error, I bring to the reader’s attention the following, from The Art of Prayer (p. 95):

‘From this it follows that when the warmth accompanying the Jesus Prayer does not include spiritual feelings, it should not be called spiritual, but simply warm-blooded. There is nothing in itself bad about this warm-blooded feeling, unless it is connected with sensual pleasure, however slight. If it is so connected, it is bad and must be suppressed.’


Christianity seems to me to be the highest point of human life, where it truly attempts and does in fact meet God. And at the same time, most of the Greek, Hindu, and scientific honourable and also true practices have guided us toward that summit; some can be left behind, and others are still necessary to the Christian. Whether it be correct breathing, the correct way to pray, the correct philosophical understanding of the transcendental world, correct eating, or whatever it may be.

Speaking of practices which are inevitably shared equally by Christians and Hindus (things such as dietary control, breath control, which have actually been recognised at Church councils as legitimate) as leading one toward Hell is something I cannot allow to go uncontested. Timothy Ware’s reservations about this matter derive from a different direction, but are equally against the spirit of Christianity; [note: his introduction to the book, containing his reservations, were made many years ago, and I have spoken about him in his condition as a layman at that time].

As it seems to me, the situation outlined in this essay is a kind of paranoia about the influx of foreign influence into the Church. But this paranoia is needless. Breathing control has already been recognised as part of Orthodox devotion, and, is actually indispensable to any prayer carried out by things with bodies. To return to Father Seraphim, he is rightly concerned that those people within Orthodoxy who practice this with an eye to ecumenism are betraying their faith. With this I agree. He seemed to have been bothered by something else, however, with which I have no sympathy. He shot himself in the foot, so to speak, because the object of eastern meditation seemed to him to inevitably be either a false god, or, merely the self. I don’t think that this is inevitable, and, moreover, I think that anyone who has once made an effort to leave the world behind for periods of time in order to meditate has made steps toward Christianity. While at first he may not recognise his desire for the other world as the desire for God’s presence, and, while he may not recognise his flight from ‘the world’ as a kind of act of repentance, that is what it is. It only needs an honest and sane theological exposition of this, to the incipient Christian, for him to see his situation for what it is.

As for the demonic element of prayer, I really hope that it is generally understood that it is the lack of interest in religious activity of any kind, across the whole of our country, which constitutes the triumph of the occult and the heathen in our time; and the demonic is not most dangerous in the misguided by half-hearted attempts to find God made by those in the West who tried to conjure up the ‘New Age’ – something which failed because it was harmless fantasy, deriving from a legitimate desire to find salvation.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.