The saint wrote about various steps of the prayer:
“The Jesus prayer is divided into three, even four steps. The first step is oral prayer, when the mind often runs away and the person has to apply great effort in order to collect his scattered thoughts. This prayer takes work, but it gives one a repentant mood.
“The second step is the prayer of the mind in the heart, when the mind and the heart, reason and feelings are one; then prayer is made without interruption. No mater what the person is doing—eating, drinking, or resting—the prayer continues.
“The third step is creative prayer, which can move mountains with one word. This is the prayer that for example St. Mark the desert dweller of Thrace had.
“Finally there is the fourth step. This is such a high level of prayer that only the angels have it, and it may be given to one man only out of all humankind.”
In order to understand better what gifts the Lord sends to those who pray and what prayer corresponds to the level of spiritual growth of the one praying, St. Barsanuphius explained in more detail:
“The first gift the Lord gives in prayer is attention; that is, when the mind can dwell in the words of the prayer without being distracted by thoughts. But with such attentive, undistracted prayer the heart is yet silent. That is the whole matter—our feelings and thoughts are separated; there is no agreement between them. Thus, the first prayer, the first gift, is undistracted prayer.
“The second prayer, the second gift, is inner prayer; that is, when the feelings and thoughts are in agreement and directed toward God. Up until this stage, every struggle with passion ends in the passion’s victory over the person; but from that stage on, when the mind and heart pray together—that is, the feelings and thoughts are in God—the passions are already conquered. They are conquered, but not destroyed; they can come back to life if he is careless. Here the passions are like corpses lying in the coffins, and if a passion but twitches, the man of prayer beats it down and conquers it.
“The third gift is spiritual prayer. I cannot say anything about this prayer. Here there is no longer anything earthly left in the person. True, a person can live on earth, walk on earth, sit, drink, and eat—but in his mind and thoughts he is wholly in God, in the heavens. To some have even been revealed the service of the angelic ranks. This prayer is the prayer of a visionary. The one who has attained this prayer sees spiritual things, for example the state of a human soul, just as we see tangible things, as if in a picture. They look with the eyes of the spirit; in them the spirit is looking.”
How to correctly pray the Jesus prayer
“Go through the Jesus prayer as you do it, and the time will come when God’s mercy itself will enlighten and inform your soul as to how and who to ask; and what you search for and desire will be sent.”
The elders counseled to pronounce the Jesus prayer as often as possible, but not to look for any kind of pleasant feelings, spiritual consolations or delights.
St. Ambrose explained:
“No matter who it is, no one has ever fallen into demonic delusion (prelest) by praying the Jesus prayer orally. However, those who incorrectly pray the Jesus prayer of the mind and heart often fall into demonic delusion. Therefore, one should first of all hold fast to oral prayer and then to mental prayer and humility; and only then, whoever can and whoever has the Lord’s will for it, will go on to prayer of the heart according to the instruction of the holy fathers, who taught from experience.”
At the question of how to attain prayer of the heart and what it means to “have the mind descend to the heart,” St. Anatoly (Zertsalov) replied with a warning:
“One should not search for the place of the heart; when prayer grows, it will find it itself. Our striving is to enclose the mind in the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
During the Jesus prayer there is often a storm of thoughts sown by the enemy.
St. Hilarion taught not to contradict enemy thoughts because only those experienced in prayer can do this, but to simply continue praying in simplicity of heart, hoping in God’s mercy:
“And if the mind is captivated against your wishes, then continue the prayer; but do not contradict—contradicting is not your measure yet.
The Optina elders warned about the necessity of humility in prayer. Once a spiritual daughter of St. Ambrose complained to him that when pronouncing the Jesus prayer, she stumbles at the words, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” The elder replied:
“You write that when doing the Jesus prayer you experience a kind of stumbling on the words, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner.’ This shows that you have done the prayer without the proper humility, without which our prayer is not pleasing to God. Therefore, force yourself to emphasize the word ‘sinner’ with the proper understanding.”
St. Barsanuphius noted that whoever walks the path of the Jesus prayer is can endure sorrows, which he must nevertheless accept without murmuring”
“The path of the Jesus prayer is the shortest, most convenient path. But do not complain, for whoever walks this path will experience sorrows.”
On the danger of asking for spiritual gifts and exalted prayer
St. Leo wrote that whoever has not cleansed his heart, or has not conquered the passions, cannot preserve spiritual riches without harm to himself:
“Having by God’s mercy tasted sweetness and consolation from prayer, but now not finding that in yourself, you are depressed and consider it your own fault for the loss and the fault of your carelessness. This is really true. But I also find God’s Providence in this, which took away that consolation. Can anyone who has not conquered the passions or cleansed his heart possibly preserve these riches without harm?! For your own good it’s not given to you, so that you would not fall into delusion.”
St. Barsanuphius also warned about the danger of asking for gifts and exalted levels of prayer:
“One can pray for attentive prayer, but I would say that it is sinful to pray for the gift of exalted states of prayer. This must be entirely left to God. Some have begged exalted prayer for themselves; the Lord gave it to them according to His mercy, but it was of no benefit to them…”
Elder Macarius taught:
“Remember: Prayer is a gift, and not your own property. You have to earn this gift—not only by prayer, but also by all the other good works: humility of mind, simplicity, patience, and guilelessness. But without these virtues, the person may think he has attained prayer, but he is deluded; this is not prayer, but a mask of prayer.