Is it possible to pray without ceasing, as St Paul tells the believers in Thessalonica in his first letter to them (IThess. 5:17)? Christ himself teaches that it is possible and commends it to his followers (Luke 18:1). Certainly, to grow so that we are always turned towards God seems to be an attitude and practice which belongs to Christians, in imitation of Christ, and, as such, should define the monastic’s way of life.
One of the most powerful exhortations in all of Scripture is given to us in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 12, when the Apostle urges the Romans to make their very lives a prayer and sacrifice:
“I urge you, then, remembering the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God; that is the kind of worship for you, as rational people… let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and mature”.
Here, Paul is mindful that the whole of our Christian lives can receive a consecration which effectively turns us into a prayer, an offering to God, which embraces every moment of our lives and who we are.
When we speak about ‘ceaseless prayer’ we have come to the very essence of our relationship with God – the working out of our inmost desire to be with God and always in his presence. Indeed, the thought of the great spiritual writers over the course of Christian centuries has tried to express this. St Gregory of Nazianzen says that you must ‘remember God more often than you breathe’ – in other words, the very memory of God and his presence to me can become knit intimately into my very living and breathing! And this memory is not just a thinking about God, but an acknowledgement of his being in me. St Macarius of Egypt lets us know about this dwelling of God in my deepest self – ‘Within the heart there are unfathomable depths’. And God is here already.
What is prayer? Theophan the Recluse tells us – ‘the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life’. Prayer is precisely this conscious recollection of God, in whatever I do, wherever I find myself, whatever I struggle with or rejoice in. And it is not merely thinking about God. On the contrary, at some stage we are asked to move beyond the mental prayer which so often characterises how we pray, to allow our thoughts and images to give way to a search for God in our deepest being – in our heart, the place where God has made his home, the place where he has written his love for us.
Tito Colliander, a modern Finnish Orthodox writer, tells us: ‘When you pray you yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak (ie let God speak). We should always remain silent and let God speak’.
And George Lefebvre has written: To be simply and utterly what we are: pure assent to God, pure call to him. Therein lives our real truth; it subsists only in him, born along in his grace. A tending of our whole being toward God, even before the free assent by which we give ourselves to him. A belonging to God alone that deepens our sense of being in his trust, of being able to do nothing except remain simply in his hands. An abandonment into his hands that enables us to live the joy of belonging to him. Plain and ordinary though it may be, a prayer arising out of our deepest, most hidden truth.
Perhaps one of the most profound and yet seemingly simple approaches to ceaseless prayer has been the practice of the presence of God handed on to us from a 17th century French Carmelite, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Without leaving any formal teaching, except letters and short meditations and conversations noted by his friends, Br Lawrence reveals that we can, at any time of the day, in whatever occupation busies us, acknowledge the God who is present to us. He advises that we should turn to him frequently throughout our day, greeting him, thanking him, praising him, petitioning him, laying others before him, and that this practice can become the normal manner of our prayer and behaviour. But to do this, he reminds us, we must leave aside the thoughts which distract us, burden us, afflict us, and crowd our minds like so many flies which fill the rooms of a house and which we must turn outside first (William of St Thierry). And along with this we must be people who live lives sustained by the sacraments, and particularly the sacrament by which our sins are forgiven and the life of grace is restored within us. So, while there is a simplicity inherent in this practice of the presence of God our interior work to continually, and gently, move aside the things which prevent our constant turning to God makes demands of us and calls for patience and perseverance.
Those of us who practice the art of lectio divina – encounter with Christ addressing himself to us in the word of Sacred Scripture – are already,in some way, opening ourselves to the reality of ceaseless prayer. To carry around with us, in our minds and hearts, a phrase from our reading of Scripture which we repeat to ourselves through the day, mull over and chew so that we acquire not just the sense of the word for me in my life but almost begin to taste it, in some way, so that it nourishes us and flavours our life, begin to practice ceaseless prayer. And the centre of this way of praying is that the prayer takes over. It’s a little like a driverless car – I am completely involved in the journey, being carried along to my destination, but God is now entirely in control and bringing me safely to my destination, always accompanying, never abandoning.
Above all, the prayer practice which has most effectively allowed us to become people who pray without ceasing is the practice of the Jesus Prayer or the Invocation of the Holy Name. And this will be the practice which we will consider next week.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-