St. Ignatius Brianchaninov on Prayer and the Fire of the Spirit


St. Ignatius Brianchaninov was an early 19th century Russian Bishop and saint. His teachings on prayer, drawn from the fathers are among the best modern commentaries. His work, The Arena, is a must-read on the subject of spiritual delusion. The following excerpt is from his book, On the Prayer of Jesus, in which he draws from various fathers their teaching on this most classic of Orthodox disciplines. This excerpt is from the chapter on the teachings of St. John Climacus.

God is the teacher of prayer; true prayer is the gift of God. To him who prays constantly with contrition of spirit, with the fear of God and with attention, God Himself gives gradual progress in prayer. From humble and attentive prayer, spiritual action and spiritual warmth make their appearance and quicken the heart. The quickened heart draws the mind to itself and becomes a temple of grace-given prayer and a treasury of the spiritual gifts which are procured by such prayer as a matter of course.

“Labor away,” say great ascetics and teachers of prayer, “with pain of heart to obtain warmth and prayer, and God will grant you to have them always. Forgetfulness expels them, and it is born of sloth and carelessness.” If you want to be delivered from forgetfulness and captivity, you will not be able to attain it otherwise than by acquiring within you the spiritual fire; only from the warmth of the fire of the Spirit forgetfulness and captivity vanish. This fire is obtained by desire for God. Brother! Unless your heart seeks the Lord day and night with pain, you will not be able to succeed. But if you abandon everything else and occupy yourself with this, you will attain it, as Scripture says: Be still and realize (Ps. 45:11). Brother! Implore the goodness of Him Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). to give you spiritual vigilance which kindles the spiritual fire. The Lord of heaven and earth came to earth to pour that fire upon it (Luke 12:49). According to my power I shall pray with you that God Who gives grace to all who ask with fervor and toil may grant you that vigilance. When it comes it will guide you to the truth. It enlightens the eyes, directs the mind, banishes the sleep of languor and negligence, restores luster to the weapon covered with rust in the earth of sloth, restores radiance to clothes defiled by captivity to barbarians, inspires a desire to be satisfied with the great sacrifice of which it was revealed to the Prophet that it cleanses sins and takes away iniquities (Isa. 6:7), forgives those who weep, and gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34), manifests itself in the worthy, and by it they inherit eternal life, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

All of which yields a simple message: pray!


  1. Father Stephen,
    As usual, your post has a profound way of finding the corners of my heart that would rather be left undisturbed….O that great enemy sloth!
    Thank you, again.

  2. Oh, what a struggle prayer can be. The imaginations of the mind (fear, pride, laziness, busyness) are so good at keeping me from the one important thing and that being communion with God through prayer. Also, how inexpressible that communion is when in prayer.

  3. This quotation reminds me of a passage from John of the Cross that always struck me as ironic and frustrating. Near the beginning of Living Flame of Love (I think), he writes that ascetic struggle is impossible unless God first infuses the desire for union with Him that makes the sacrifices involved possible. Without that infused motivation, it is like trying to stay on a diet when you don’t want to. You might pull it off for a day or two, or a week, but you won’t make it for the duration. My problem is that I love God just enough to want to serve him, but not enough to actually serve him. I am so weak-willed that it is a torment just to make it through the Wednesday and Friday fasts. Do you the Fathers have a cure for extreme weakness of will?

  4. Yes, pride and sloth are big ones for me. Whenever I’m feeling prideful, I don’t want to pray because that means I’d have to be childlike before GOD; and that’s always tough! Laziness is a big one because, well, if I had to pray then that would mean turning off the computer or turning off the music.

  5. Father, bless. Thank you for such an enlightening and moving quotation from St. Ignatius. Prayer and fasting have been a struggle, and I hope to take the approaching Nativity fast by force, as far as grace may carry me.

    Yours, a sinner,


  6. I, like everyone else, struggle and fight to pray. Any lovely little snippet on prayer that my priest, Father Anthony puts in our bulletin on Sunday greatly cheers me.
    Here is last Sunday’s offering:

    “Can you read a spiritual book for five minutes a day? Then read. Can you pray for five minutes a day? Pray. And if you can’t manage five minutes, pray for two. The rest is God’s affair.” -Elder Aimilianos of Simonpetra

    Sometimes it is like the widows mite, all I have to offer and it is an intense struggle against… everything else drawing me away. I am a babe when it comes to prayer.

  7. Father,

    Can you help me understand a troubling aspect of St. John’s “The Ladder”? His depiction of the “prisoners” seems like abuse or even torture by today’s standards. I’m deeply troubled by this part of the book. It just doesn’t seem normal or right for humans to behave this way.

    I also admit that my own ignorance is probably why I can’t appreciate parts of this venerable classic.

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