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As we labor to ascend to God (understanding that prayer is both the way of and the end of the ascent) we must prepare ourselves for the test of prayer. The first battle is getting to the place and time of prayer. This is what St. John talked about in Step 19: overcoming sleep, getting out of bed (or staying out of bed) and actually forcing ourselves to attend to the time of prayer. In Step 20 he talks about the next part of our struggle in prayer - alertness.


Alertness begins when we approach the time of prayer. "The bell rings for prayer. The monk who loves God says, `Bravo! Bravo!' The lazy monk says, `Alas. Alas.' Mealtime reveals the gluttonous, prayer time the lovers of God. The former dance and the latter frown when the table is made ready." We should not be surprised if we "don't feel like praying." This is part of our fallenness, our own sinful condition, the disorientation of our internal selves. There are many times when the desire for prayer is almost nonexistent. We must rouse ourselves to prayer. Alertness is doing battle with our laziness and our lack of interest in prayer. Alertness is motivating ourselves to attend to the things of God rather than the things of this world. It is the triumph of the spirit over the body, of the will for God over the will for self.
Alertness continues as we pray. "The inexperienced monk is wide awake when talking to his friends but half asleep at prayer." We learn from this that the labor of prayer is a labor with the thoughts. We are far too "lazy" and "undisciplined" when it comes to our minds. Instead of directing our thoughts and controlling them we allow them to run free, here and there, wherever they wish to go. So, during prayer, we find ourselves often thinking about all kinds of other things. How many times have we come to the end of a prayer only to realize that we have no idea what we just said? How many times in the middle of liturgy do we catch ourselves reviewing yesterday's events and planning for the rest of the day? Alertness is the struggle to control our minds and center them on the one thing that is needful. It is the attempt to center our mind in our hearts, to eliminate not simply the bad thoughts but even the good thoughts which distract us from the pursuit of God. 
 
This is not easy. In our beginning attempts we will fail many more times than we succeed, but we must keep up the struggle. For, as St. John promises: "This is the twentieth step. He who has climbed it has received light in his heart." 
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According to St. John, as we pursue the heavenly goal we need to be aware of the great danger of becoming desensitized to the importance of spiritual realities. What he describes should be familiar to all. When we are first awakened to the spiritual life and introduced to its depths, we are awestruck and experience a godly fear. Yet, familiarity often breeds contempt or at least invites one to have a casual attitude.


Insensitivity develops when we allow a division to exist between our words and our actions. It is brought on by a lengthy illness which prevents a person from engaging in spiritual disciplines, carelessness and prolonged negligence. In many ways it is hypocrisy at its worst and most pathetic. We speak to others about certain spiritual practices and their importance and yet rarely embrace themselves for ourselves. We remain unmoved and untouched by our own words and exhortations. Even the reality of death and the judgement of God provoke no response.

To understand such a vice and overcome it, John tells us, we must deliberately take hold of it and scourge it with unceasing prayer and the fear of God. The source of this vice is not the same for all, and so greater effort is required from us to expose its causes and defeat them

There is a saying in the book of Proverbs which introduces the theme of Step 19 very well: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep - - so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man." (Interestingly, this saying is repeated twice: Proverbs 6:10,11 and Proverbs 24:33,34). In step 19, St. John reminds us that too much sleep, like too much of anything, can be spiritually dangerous. Of course, we all need to sleep. Just as we need to eat, so we need to sleep in order to live. But, although sleep is natural and needful, like desire it has many sources.

How can we tell the difference? St. John does not spend a great deal of time in explaining the answer. He simply reminds us: it is too much sleep when it keeps us from fulfilling our rule of prayer. When we choose to sleep rather than to pray - we have entered into the spiritual danger zone.
Many of the fathers have pointed out that Satan can oppress and make us feel more tired than we are in order to keep us from praying. This often happens at night when it is time to say your prayers before going to bed. All of a sudden, you are hit with a tremendous sense of fatigue so that you can barely make it to your bed without falling asleep. Sometimes, undoubtedly, this is natural, but more often than not it comes from the evil one. It is a trick to get us to go to bed without prayer. For if we go to bed without prayer, we leave open our minds and imaginations for demonic assault all night. When we are sleeping, we cannot be vigilant over our thoughts. Therefore, our prayer before sleep is of the greatest importance.

In this short step, John describes sleep and its sources, the habit of oversleeping, the tactics of demons especially at the time of prayer, and finally how these demons may be overcome.
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We will be looking at these two steps together because they represent opposite sides of the same coin. Step 16 describes the spiritual illness, while Step 17 prescribes the spiritual cure. The words of Jesus fittingly introduce their theme: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). There is very little which reveals the state of our hearts more clearly than our attitude towards our possessions and the way we use them. It is easy to say we are living for heaven. The way that we use our money demonstrates the veracity of our claim. Are we living for the kingdom or do the things of this world predominate and consume us?

The cure for avarice is poverty. For the monk this poverty is absolute. The true monk owns nothing, having forsaken it all in his pursuit of God. For those of us who live in the world, this poverty is approximate. We have obligations ("mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, shelter to obtain") and we must fulfill these obligations. Poverty is best approximated in our position by striving to reduce the amount of our obligations. What we should be aiming for is the simple life, not deprivation. Severe deprivation can be as distracting as financial prosperity. The words of scripture reveal the royal way: "Give me neither poverty nor riches - - feed me with the food allotted to me, lest I be full and deny you, and say, `Who is the Lord?' Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Prov. 30:8,9).
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