This is a “quick and dirty” post because I am exhausted; I’m just back from a weekend away, the other people in my house are packing to go on holiday, all my routines have gone to pot, and I am feeling overwhelmed and generally rough. None of that is to complain though, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to write about how to pray without ceasing even, and especially, at times like this when I cannot focus, feel ill, and just want to hide away.
So, what does it mean to pray without ceasing?
St Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”, or to “pray constantly”. It can’t mean formal prayers or in depth verbal prayer, because that would be impossible. I think it means learning to develop and maintain an openness to God at all times (see previous post). Trying to keep heart and mind turned towards God whatever you’re doing and however you’re feeling. Maybe it’s more keeping heart and mind open a crack to allow God in, rather than making constant effort towards Him. Its aiming for an attitude that says to God “I want to be with you and let you be within me, even now when I feel ___ (happy/sad, energetic/exhausted, confident/overwhelmed, excited/depressed, strong/ill etc.).”
How do you do it?
The first thing is to begin trying and practicing when things are relatively easy and you feel fairly good. I need it at the moment, I can’t manage any other sort of prayer while I feel like this. But I can only do it because I’ve already put in the effort to learn. There is no magic formula because it is just maintaining an openness to, and desire for God. It is an attitude and relationship rather than a process or technique. I realise that’s not very helpful, so here are links to some resources that may help. They are all ways into learning and developing the internal attitude, they aren’t the thing itself, so try different methods and see what works:
- This short video gives a simple and concrete method to choose to spend time with God. It’s a good starting point if you have no idea how to begin.
- “The practice of the presence of God” is a small book containing the collected works of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk. He lived his whole life in the presence of God, even when doing mundane work and when he was ill and weak. I find this book encouraging because he wasn’t a great saint or mystic, he was limited both physically and mentally like me, but he loved God in an all-consuming and active way, all of the time. This book is one of my absolute favourite books on prayer. This edition is unabridged.
- There is an ancient Orthodox prayer called the Jesus Prayer that is used both during dedicated times of prayer, and while going about daily activities to keep an awareness of God. The whole prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s simplicity is both it’s challenge and it’s power and effectiveness. There are a lot of books on the subject, here’s two I have seen that I think are useful. The Jesus Prayer by Bishop Kallistos Ware is an inexpensive and informative booklet. Using the Jesus Prayer by John Twisleton is a more descriptive book of how it can be used and applied to different circumstances.
What happens when we pray without ceasing?
The longer quote from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 is “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It doesn’t magically make everything easy and wonderful, but as I become more aware of God’s constant presence, it is easier to thank Him whatever is happening. Thanking and praising God is closely linked to trusting Him. I have to trust that God is with me even when I can’t feel it. When I thank Him for being with me even at times I feel alone, it is an act of trust as well as praise. Trust and love and praise don’t have to be nice spontaneous feelings. They are an act of will, a deliberate choice. They are just as real (if not more so) when we choose them, as when they pop up spontaneously. Whatever I am finding difficult or overwhelming, I can thank God and praise Him for the quality in Him that makes Him bigger than my circumstances and shows He is the answer. For example, if I feel confused, He knows everything; if I can’t cope with the world, He holds the world in His hand. Making the deliberate act of praise is choosing, almost forcing myself to trust God and believe what Jesus showed us of Himself. So, by practicing this sort of prayer I do gradually become more aware of God’s presence and goodness, learn to trust Him more, and desire to follow Him more closely.