“Heartful thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King.” So writes St John Climacus, seventh-century abbot of Mount Sinai, in his classic work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. I do not think that he intended to lay down an inflexible rule to which no exceptions could be allowed. It was rather his purpose to indicate the usual pattern, the normal sequence, to be followed in our practice of prayer. Thanksgiving, repentance, petition: such is the basic and primary succession that we should envisage.
To many it might seem that to pray is essentially to ask God for something, to bringing before Him the distress and the needs of others and ourselves. Alternatively, some of us might imagine that prayer should begin with an act of repentance. But this is not the perspective adopted by Climacus. On the contrary, before bringing before Christ the suffering and pain of the world, and before looking downward at our own ugliness and failings, we should look upwards at the beauty and glory of God. All too often our prayer can take the form of grumbling before God, of complaining and expressing regret. But that, so Climacus assures us, is not true prayer.Continue reading