Fr. Sophrony relates part of his struggle for prayer and the grace he received to help others. The passage is from On Prayer.
…On more than one occasion I felt as if I were crucified on an invisible cross. This would happen on Mt. Athos when I got angry with those who vexed me. My wickedness would destroy prayer and fill me with horror. At times it seemed impossible to struggle against it – it lacerated me like a wild beast tearing its prey to pieces. Once because of a flash of irritation prayer departed from me. I had to struggle for eight months in order to find it again. But when the Lord yielded to my tears, my heart took courage and I became more patient.
This experience of crucifixion happened again later (when I was back in France) but in a different form. I would never refuse to accept the task of caring, as a spiritual father, for those who turned to me for help. My heart felt especial compassion for the mentally ill. Overwhelmed by the monstrous difficulties of contemporary life, some of them would try to insist on prolonged attention that I had not the strength for. My position became desperate: whichever way I turned, someone would be crying out in pain. This revealed to me the depths of suffering in our times, with people shattered by the cruelty of our famous civilisation. Colossal state mechanisms, although set up by men, are impersonal, not to say inhuman apparatus, indifferently crusing millions of lives. Powerless as I was to change the actually intolerable though lefitimized crimes of society, in my prayer, away from any visible imges, I felt the presence of the crucifed Christ. I lived His suffering in spirit so distinctly that a physical vision of of His being ‘lifted up from the earth’ could in no way have intensified my participation in His pain. However insignificant my experiences may have been, they deepened my perception of Christ in His earthly coming to save the world.
Fr. Sophrony writes here of “losing prayer” for eight months. This is not the same thing as saying that he did not pray for eight months as most of us understand the word. Rather, it means that he lost prayer in the sense of true union with God found in the depths of the heart. Reading this passage made me keenly aware of how easy it is in my life to settle for the perfunctory or to have “said” my prayers and be satisfied that I have done something, when I have hardly done anything at all.
Prayer, as described by Fr. Sophrony, is a gift from God, but this does not mean it cannot be sought. He struggled again for eight months to regain “prayer.” In many cases simply struggling to pray with attention is a huge step forward and a struggle worth making. This is true whether we are praying in private or in the midst of a liturgy. It is possible to direct one’s attention – not easily – and not for an hour.
I recall last summer talking with a teenager when I was at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex. The two main services on an average day consist largely of an individual reciting repetitions of the Jesus Prayer in the candle-lit darkness of the Church. It is easy to fall asleep – easier still to let the mind wander. This teenager, speaking candidly and without any knowledge of what he was saying said, “I was able to pray for 45 minutes, but then I had to stop and go outside.” He’ll never know how much I held in awe his 45 minutes! Five minutes would have impressed me. But it was a quiet reminder to me to continue the struggle and to continue until I am able to pray.