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."