From The Spiritual Instructions of Saint Seraphim of Sarov
There are three methods of attention and prayer, by which the soul is uplifted and moves forward, or is cast down and destroyed. Whoever employs these methods at the right time and in the right way, moves forward; but whoever employs them unwisely and at the wrong time is cast down.
Attention should be linked to prayer as inseparably as body is linked to soul. Attention should go on ahead, spying out the enemy, like a scout. It should be the first to engage sin in combat, and to oppose evil thoughts entering the soul. Prayer should follow in its wake, instantly exterminating and destroying all the evil thoughts with which attention has been battling beforehand; for attention alone cannot destroy them.
On this warfare against thoughts by attention and prayer hangs the life and death of the soul. If by means of attention we keep prayer pure, we make progress; if we have no attention to keep it pure but leave it unprotected, it becomes soiled with bad thoughts and we remain futile failures.
Thus, since there are three methods of attention and prayer, we must explain the distinctive features of each, so that he who loves salvation should choose the best.
1. On the first method of attention and prayer
The distinctive features of the first method are as follows: if a man stands at prayer and, raising his hands, his eyes and his mind to Heaven, keeps in mind divine thoughts, imagines celestial blessings, hierarchies of angels and dwellings of the saints, assembles briefly in his mind all that he has learnt from the Holy Scriptures and ponders over all this while at prayer, gazing up to Heaven, and thus inciting his soul to longing and love of God, at times even shedding tears and weeping, this will be the first method of attention and prayer.
But if a man chooses only this method of prayer it happens that, little by little he begins to pride himself in his heart, without realizing it; it seems to him that what he is doing comes from God’s grace, sent as a solace to him, and he prays God to grant him always to remain in this doing. But this (that is, to think in this way of this method of prayer) is a sign of prelest (fascination, beguilement, spiritual delusion); for the good is no longer good if it be not rightly done.
If then such a man gives himself up to utter silence (that is, becomes a hesychast, an anchorite) he can scarcely avoid going out of his mind (he will be in extreme danger of suffering this). If by any chance he is not driven out of his mind, it will in any case be impossible for him to acquire virtue or passionlessness. This method contains another danger of going astray; namely, when a man sees light with his bodily eyes, smells sweet scents, hears voices and many other like phenomena. Some have become totally possessed, and in their madness wander from place to place; others have been led astray, mistaking the devil for an angel of light, in the guise of which he appeared to them without their recognizing him. Thus they remained incorrigible to the end, refusing to listen to any brother’s advice. Some of them, instigated by the devil, have committed suicide: have thrown themselves over a precipice, or have hanged themselves. Who could enumerate the various forms of prelest by which the devil seeks to seduce, since they are innumerable?
From what we have said, it is not difficult for a man of sense to understand what harm comes from this first method of attention and prayer (if it is taken as the final perfection in prayer). If, however, someone avoids incurring these evils while practicing the first method, because he lives in a community (for it is the solitary who is especially subject to them), he will still remain all his life without success (in spiritual life).
2. On the second method of attention and prayer
The second method is this: a man tears his mind away from all sensed objects and leads it within himself, guarding his senses and collecting his thoughts, so that they cease to wander amid the vanities of this world; now he examines his thoughts, now ponders over the words of the prayer his lips utter, now pulls back his thoughts if, ravished by the devil, they fly towards something bad and vain, now with great labor and self-exertion strives to come back into himself, after being caught and vanquished by some passion. The distinctive feature of this method is that it takes place in the head, thought fighting against thought.
In this struggle against himself, a man can never be at peace in himself, nor find time to practice virtues in order to gain the crown of truth. Such a man is like one fighting his enemies at night, in the dark; he hears their voices and suffers their blows, but cannot see clearly who they are, whence they come and how and for what purpose they attack him; because he himself remains in the head, whereas evil thoughts are generated in the heart. He does not even see them, for his attention is not in his heart. The darkness enveloping his mind and the storm raging in his thoughts are the cause of this defect (for they prevent him from seeing this), and it is impossible for him to slip away from the demons, his enemies, and to avoid their blows. But if, together with all this, a man is overcome by vainglory and imagines he has attention on himself as he should, the unhappy man works in vain and will even lose his reward forever. In his pride, he despises and criticizes others and praises himself, deeming himself worthy to be a shepherd of human sheep and to guide others – and so he is like a blind man who undertakes to lead the blind.
Such is the second method of attention and prayer. Every man striving after salvation should know the harm it does to the soul and should carefully watch himself. Still, this method is better than the first, just as moonlight is better than a dark night without moon.
3. On the third method of attention and prayer
Truly the third method is marvelous and difficult to explain; and not only hard to understand but even incredible for those who have not tried it in practice. They even refuse to believe that such a thing can actually be. And, indeed, in our times, this method of attention and prayer is very rarely met with; and it seems to me that this blessing has deserted us in company with obedience. If someone observes perfect obedience towards his spiritual father, he becomes free of all cares, because once and for all he has laid all his cares on the shoulders of his spiritual father. Therefore, being far from all worldly attachments, he becomes capable of zealous and diligent practice of the third method of prayer, provided he has found a true spiritual father, who is not subject to prelest. For if a man has given himself up entirely to God and has shed all his cares on to God and his spiritual father, so that, in his obedience, he no longer lives his own life or follows his own will, but is dead to all worldly attachments and to his own body – what accidental thing could ever vanquish and enslave such a man? Or what worry or care can he have? Therefore all the wiles and stratagems used by the demons to entice a man towards many and varied thoughts are destroyed and dispersed by this third method of attention and prayer, conjoined with obedience. For then the mind of such a man, being free from all things, has the necessary leisure to examine, unhindered, thoughts introduced by the demons, and can readily repel them and pray to God with a pure heart. Such is the beginning of true (spiritual) life! And those who do not begin in this way, labor in vain without realizing it.
The beginning of this third method is not gazing upwards to Heaven, raising one’s hands or keeping one’s mind on heavenly things; these, as we have said, are the attributes of the first method and are not far removed from prelest. Neither does it consist in guarding the senses with the mind and directing all one’s attention upon this, not watching for the onslaughts of the demons on the soul from within. (They look and struggle, but all this is in the head, so they are unguarded.) This is the attribute of the second method and those who practice it become enslaved by the demons, and cannot take revenge, for the enemies both constantly attack them, openly and secretly, and render them proud and vain.
But you, beloved, if you want to be saved, begin to work thus: having established perfect obedience in your heart, which, as we have said, you must have towards your spiritual father, act in everything else with a pure conscience, as though in the presence of God; for it is impossible to have a clear conscience without obedience. You must keep your conscience clear in three respects: in relation to God, in relation to your spiritual father, and in relation to other men, as well as to things and objects of the world (of life).