Prayer | St. Nilus of Sinai


Saint Nilus of Sinai
(died c. 430)


Do Christians know what true prayer is, which are its characteristics and which are its fruits?

The saints of our Church, who were par excellence praying people, have handed to us their sacred experience in an expressive and categorical manner:

Prayer, they tell us, is the elevation of the mind to God and conversation with Him.

Prayer is man’s union with God. The world of the angels. The key of paradise. The illumination of the soul. Forgiveness of sins. The mother of virtues.

Prayer is an invincible weapon. A bridge which saves from temptations. A wall which protects from afflictions. Prayer is a mirror of man’s spiritual life and a work which never finishes.

So one easily perceives that prayer doesn’t comprise a simple “religious duty” or an “emotional relaxation”:

It is the atmosphere in which the soul lives. It is the complete turn and offering of man to God. An offering, which, when it is accompanied by the struggle for the keeping of the commandments of Christ, draws divine grace. And divine grace in its turn cleanse the heart, enlightens the mind, transfigures the whole person and Christifies him.

For this reason, a Christian who doesn’t pray, is not a true Christian.
And a person who does not know how to pray, is not a complete person.

Just as the body” says the sacred Chrysostom, “without the soul, is dead, thus also the soul, without prayer, is dead”.

The following pages a selection is offered rendering of a classic work of patristic literature, the “Homily concerning prayer”, which is attributed to the Sinaïte Saint Nilus the ascetic (5th c.).

The whole work is comprised of 153 small and simultaneously comprehensive “chapters”, which safely guide to the path of prayer whoever wishes not to read them hurriedly, but to study them carefully and to absorb them.

Because it is true, that for today’s man the word of Saint Nilus is solid food. It is a strong antidote to the spiritual starvation of our age, where the “mystery of iniquity” is enacted with very quick rhythms.

The upcoming trials only communion “in spirit and truth” with the true God will support us. His own eternal word is heard today also as arousing and saving:

See, keep vigil and pray…that you be granted to escape all that will happen in the future and to stand before the Son of man” (Mark 13:33 and Luke 21:36).


Prayer is the uplifting of the mind to God. It is a spiritual work, which suits the human mind more than whatsoever other occupation.

Prayer is born from meekness and wrathlessness. It brings the soul joy and pleasure It safeguards man from sadness and despondency.

Just as bread is food for the body and virtue food for the soul, thus the mind’s food is spiritual prayer.

Just as sight is higher than all the senses, thus also prayer is more divine and sacred than all the virtues.

He who loves God, always converses with Him, just as the son with his father, and he rejects every passionate thought.

Since prayer is the mind keeping company with God, I wonder in what condition must he be, to be able, without turning elsewhere, to approach his Lord and to converse with Him without the intervention of another?

If Moses, trying to approach the burning bush, was prevented, until he took off the sandals from his feet, you, who wish to see God and to converse with Him, must you not take off and throw off from you every sinful thought?

All the war between us and the impure demons are not done for anything else rather than for spiritual prayer. Because for them prayer is very enmitous and bothersome, whereas for us it is the cause of salvation, delightful and pleasant.

What do the demons want to act in us? Gluttony, fornication, avarice, wrath, revenge and the remaining passions, for the mind to be fattened by these and to not be able to pray correctly. Because when the irrational passions prevail, they don’t let it move logically.

Don’t think that you obtained virtue, if previously you did not struggle for this unto blood. Because, according of the Apostle Paul (Eph. 6:11), we must resist sin unto death, with a struggling and blameless manner.

The tied person can’t run. Neither the mind, which works like a slave to some passion, will be able to do true prayer. Because it is dragged and turns here and there from the passionate thought and can’t stand undisturbed.

You will not manage to pray purely, if you are mixed up with material things and you are disturbed with ceaseless cares. Because prayer means a deliverance from every concern.

If you want to pray, you have need of God, who grants true prayer to whoever persists tirelessly in the struggle of prayer. So call upon Him saying: “hallowed by Thy name, let thy kingdom come” (Math. 6:9). In other words, let the Holy Spirit and Your Only-begotten Son come. Because that which Christ taught us, telling us how we must worship and venerate God the Father “with the power of the Spirit, which reveals the truth” (Jn. 4:24).

First of all pray to obtain tears, to soften with mourning the wildness of your soul. Then you will easily confess sincerely, before the Lord, the sins you committed, and will receive from Him remission.

Use tears to obtain your every request. Because the Lord rejoices very much when you pray with tears.

If in your prayer you shed springs of tears, don’t be prideful that you are supposedly higher than most people. This is not y our own achievement, but help for your prayer from the Lord, so that you can thus eagerly confess your sins and expiate Him.

When you think you don’t have need of tears in your prayer for your sins, consider how much you have departed from God, whereas you ought to be constantly near Him. And then you will cry with greater fervour.

Truly, if you have realization of your condition, you will mourn with pleasure, bemoaning your own self and saying like the prophet Isaiah: “How, whereas I am impure and full of passions, do I dare appear before the almighty Lord?” (see Is. 6:5).

If you want to pray praiseworthily, deny your own self at every moment. And if you suffer many hardships, consider the comfort you will find, when you take refuge in prayer.

If you long to pray as you ought, don’t sadden any person. Otherwise in vain do you pray.

Whatever you do against some brother who has mistreated you, will all become an obstacle in the time of prayer.

Leave your gift”, says Christ “before the altar and go first to reconcile yourself with your brother, and then come and pray without disturbance” (see Matt. 5:24). Because revenge dims the logic of man who prays, and darkens his prayers.

They who pray, but gather up in them sadnesses and revenges, resemble people who draw water from the well and empty it into a jug with holes.

Don’t love the many words and human glory. Otherwise, not behind your back, but before your eyes will the demons plot against you and will rejoice with you at the time of prayer, as easily then they will sway you and lure you with odd thoughts.

If you wish to pray purely, don’t yield to any fleshly demand, and you will not have at the time of prayer any cloud darkening you.

Don’t avoid poverty and affliction, because these make prayer light.

Be careful! Stand truly before God at the time of prayer, or maybe are you defeated by human praise and do you strive for this by doing long prayers.

Pray not pharisaically but publicanly, for you to also be justified by the Lord.

Praise of prayer is not the quantity but the quality. This becomes obvious from the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee and from the word of Christ: “When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, who think that with their much talking they will be heard” (Math. 6:7).

Don’t pray only with external forms, but urge your mind to feel the work of prayer with much fear.

Either on your own or together with brothers pray, struggle to pray not out of habit but with feeling.

Feeling prayer means concentration of the mind with piety, compunction, with mystical sighs and with pain of soul, which accompanies the confession of our sins.

Stand forbearing the toil, pray with intensity and persistence and reject the cares and thoughts which come to you. Because they disturb you and trouble you, to paralyze your power and intensity.

If you are patient, you will always pray with joy.

Struggle to keep your mind at the time of prayer hollow and speechless. Only thus will you be able to pray.

Chanting meekness the passions and calms the unruly movements of the body. For this reason chant with feeling and propriety. And you will thus resemble the young eagle which flies to the heights.

If you did not yet receive the gift of prayer or chanting, seek it persistently and you will receive it.

The devil greatly envies the man who prays, and uses every craft, in order to wound his purpose. Thus, when the demons see that you are eager to truly pray, they remind you supposedly of some supposed necessary things. In a little while however they make you forget them and push you to seek them. And because you won’t remember them, you get distressed and are sad. When you stand again at prayer, they again remind you of the things you were searching, for the mind to again turn to them and in the end to lost the fruitfulness of prayer.

At the time of prayer, your memory brings either fantasies of old things or new cares or the person of someone who has saddened you. So guard your memory well, so that it does not present to you its own matters. And constantly urge yourself to realize before whom you are standing. Because it is very natural for the mind to be easily swayed from the memory at the time of prayer.

The attention of the mind which is trying to find prayer, will find prayer. Because prayer follows like nothing else attention. So let’s strive with eagerness to obtain attention.

At other times, as soon as you will stand in prayer, you can immediately concentrate and pray well. And at other times again you will toil greatly, without achieving your purpose. This happens for you seek with more fervour prayer. And once you receive it, to have it as an achievement that cannot be taken away.

Know that the holy angels urge us to prayer and stand with us and rejoice and pray for us. So if we neglect and accept the thoughts which the demons submit to us, we greatly enrage the angels. Because, while they so much struggle for us, we not even for our own self don’t want to beseech God, but, scorning their service and abandoning their Lord and God, we converse with impure demons.

He who always offers his first thought as a sacrifice to God prays truly.

Don’t pray for your wills to be done, because of course they don’t agree with God’s will. But rather, as you were taught, say in your prayer: “Let your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). And for everything seek this from God, for His will to be done, because He wants the good and the advantage of your soul. Whereas you of course don’t always seek your advantage.

Many times I asked with prayer from God for something I thought was good to happen for me. And I insisted irrationally to seek it, forcing the divine will. I did not allow God to provide whatever HE knew as my own advantage. And so, once I received whatever I sought, I afterwards was greatly distressed, that I had not asked rather for His will to be done. Because the thing did not come to me thus as I thought.

What is good, except God? So to Him let us entrust all our concerns, and they will go well. Because the good one of course also grants good gifts.

In your prayer seek only for righteousness and the kingdom of God, in other words virtue and divine knowledge. And all the rest will be added to you.

Entrust with trust in God the needs of your body, and this will reveal how you also entrust to Him the needs of the spirit also.

Struggle to not seek the evil of anyone in your prayer, so that you don’t tear down whatever you are building, making your prayer disgusting.

The debtor of the myriad talents of the gospel parable, let him become an example to you. If you don’t forgive him who harmed you, nor will you achieve the remission of your sins. Because the Gospel says about the debtor of a myriad talents, who wouldn’t forgive his own debtor, that “he handed him over to the torturers” (Matt. 18:24-35).

It is good to not pray only for your own self, but also for every fellow man of yours, so that you thus imitate the angelic manner of prayer.

Don’t grieve, if you don’t immediately receive from God whatever you seek. Because He wants to benefactor you more by your forbearing steadfastly in prayer. What is higher, truly, than keeping company with God and conversing with Him?

The Lord, wanting to teach His disciples that they must always pray and not lose courage, related a related parable (Luke 18:1-8). In this parable a certain unjust judge said about a widow woman, who persistently sought her right:

IF I don’t fear either God nor am I ashamed of men, nevertheless because this woman is constantly bothering me, seeking her right, I will give it to her.

Thus also God will quickly fulfil the will of those who ask Him night and day”.

So for this reason, don’t you also lose your courage and don’t get upset, because you did not receive. Because you will receive later. Be joyous and persist, forbearing the toil of holy prayer.

Overlook the needs of the body when you pray, so that you don’t lose the greatest gain of your prayer from the biting of a mosquito or the bothering of a fly.

If you have diligence in prayer, prepare yourself for the attacks of the demons and bravely forbear their beatings. Because they will rush upon you like wild bests, to trouble you.

He who suffers the sad things, will also obtain the joyous things. And he who perseveres in the unpleasant things, will enjoy the pleasant things also.

Don’t imagine any shape for God when you pray, nor allow some figure to be formed in your mind, but approach in an immaterial manner the immaterial God.

Don’t desire to see with the eyes of your body angels or powers or Christ, so that you not per chance completely lose your mind and accept a wolf against a shepherd and worship the enemy demons.

Guard yourself from the traps of the demons. Because it happens, there where you are praying calmly and purely, suddenly they will present to you some strange figure, to lead you to pride, as you will suppose that there the divine lies. The divine however is immaterial and without a shape.

Strive to have much humble mindedness and bravery, and demonic influence will not touch your soul. The angels invisibly will chase far away all the action of the demons.

When the all-wicked demon uses many means and cannot prevent the prayer of the righteous one, then he draws back for a little. But he takes revenge on him later on, pushing him to wrath, in order to wipe out the exceptional internal condition which was created with prayer, or tickling him to fleshly pleasure to defile his soul.

When you pray as you ought, await temptations. So stand bravely, to preserve the fruit of prayer. Because from the beginning you have been enlisted in this, to work prayer and to guard its fruits (See Gen. 2:15). So once you work, don’t allow the unguarded any tiers. Otherwise, you were not at all benefitted by your prayer.

If you pray God-pleasingly, such trials will find you, that you will think that it is just for you to get angry. There does not however at all exist a justified anger against one’s neighbour. If you carefully examine the matter, you will find that it is possible without anger for the matter to be settled. So use every manner to not get angry.

The Holy Spirit, suffering along with our weakness, comes to us, despite the fact that we are impure from passions and sins. And if he finds the mind praying sincerely only to Him, He prevails over him, He wipes out all the rank of wicked passionate thoughts and thoughts, which encircle him, and He urges him to the eros of spiritual prayer.

Do you long to pray? Become dead to the earth. Have heaven as an everlasting homeland-not in words, but with an angelic life and with divine knowledge. Reject everything, to inherit everything.

If you are a real theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a real theologian.

Blessed is the mind, which at the time of prayer does not form inside it any form whatsoever. Blessed is the mind, which prays undistractedly and constantly obtains more longing for God. Blessed is the mind, which at the time of prayer becomes immaterial and free of everything. Blessed is the mind, which at the time of prayer remains uninfluenced from each thing.

If at the time of prayer you feel joy greater than every other joy, then truly you found true prayer.