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Unceasing Prayer

In his let­ter to the Romans St. Paul instructs Chris­tians to “be con­stant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12) In his first let­ter to the Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans he says sim­ply, “pray with­out ceas­ing.” (I Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 5:17)

These two com­mands of the apos­tle have been inter­pret­ed in the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion in two dif­fer­ent ways. The first way, men­tioned by St. John Chrysos­tom and St. Dim­it­ry of Ros­tov, is that Chris­tians should have reg­u­lar times for prayer which they nev­er skip — “in the evening and the morn­ing and at noon day” (Psalm 55:17) — and then in between they should always remem­ber God and do all things to His glo­ry (cf. I Corinthi­ans 10:31), offer­ing up sup­pli­ca­tions and peti­tions as the need may arise, prais­ing and thank­ing when the occa­sion requires it. Such is the nor­mal way that all Chris­tians must live.

Pre­pare for your set times of prayer by unceas­ing prayer in your soul, and you will soon make progress. (St. John of the Lad­der, Step 28)

The set times of prayer are very impor­tant, and should not be put aside for any rea­son, even when one prays con­tin­u­ous­ly in his heart. This is the teach­ing and prac­tice of the saints. Each per­son desir­ing to live the spir­i­tu­al life should have his own rule of prayer. It should be brief and reg­u­lar, such that it could be kept in all con­di­tions and cir­cum­stances. In this set rule of prayer, the prayers of the Church should be used, the Lord’s Prayer and those from the prayer book. This gives dis­ci­pline in prayer and pro­vides instruc­tion and inspi­ra­tion in prayer which is per­fect­ly trust­wor­thy and sound, hav­ing demon­strat­ed its pow­er in the lives of the saints. A per­son who does not fol­low a set rule of prayer using the tra­di­tion­al prayers of the Church runs the great risk of impov­er­ish­ing his prayer and reduc­ing its dimen­sions and scope to the lim­it­ed per­spec­tive of his own indi­vid­ual desires and needs.

When pray­ing with a set rule of prayer, the spir­i­tu­al teach­ers tell us to put our whole mind and heart into the mean­ing of the words, not mere­ly “say­ing prayers,” which is not prayer at all, but gen­uine­ly pray­ing through per­son­al atten­tion and fer­vor. They tell us to allow our mind not to wan­der from the words of the prayer, but to use the giv­en words as the basis of our own per­son­al devo­tion, even allow­ing our mind to go beyond the giv­en words to our own words, or to no words in the prayer of silence, if the Lord leads us this way. They also tell begin­ners — and St. Dim­it­ry of Ros­tov says that we are all begin­ners, no mat­ter how advanced — nev­er to go back and repeat prayers done poor­ly. They tell us rather to put our­selves at the mer­cy of God, and to try to do bet­ter the next time. This method reduces the pos­si­bil­i­ty of think­ing that God hears our prayers accord­ing to the per­fec­tion of our per­for­mance and not accord­ing to the great­ness of His mer­cy, and safe­guards against both pride and despair. It gives humil­i­ty and hope, and keeps us always forg­ing ahead. (cf. Luke 9:62, Philip­pi­ans 3:13–15)

Thus when one fin­ish­es his rule of prayer, how­ev­er well or poor­ly he has done it, he should say Amen, and go about his busi­ness of liv­ing in Christ, remem­ber­ing God and doing His will until the next time comes for the rule of prayer to be done. Then he should do it as well as he can, begin­ning all over again.

The sec­ond way of inter­pret­ing the teach­ings about unceas­ing prayer is that men should actu­al­ly pray with con­scious aware­ness at every moment of their lives, and even in their uncon­scious selves while their bod­ies are sleep­ing. This under­stand­ing of “unceas­ing prayer” was devel­oped in the monas­tic tra­di­tion, but then spread rapid­ly through­out the whole mem­ber­ship of the church. It became very pop­u­lar in recent times, most­ly through the appear­ance of the book by the anony­mous Russ­ian peas­ant called The Way of the Pil­grim.

The search for active “unceas­ing prayer” has its source not only in the instruc­tion of Saint Paul, but also in the lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of such words of the psalmist:

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall con­tin­u­ous­ly be in my mouth. (Psalm 34:1)

And of the Song of Solomon:

I slept, but my heart was awake. (Song 5:2)

The method of “unceas­ing prayer” is to have a brief prayer verse, usu­al­ly the Jesus Prayer (see p. 131ff.) which is repeat­ed over and over, lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of times through­out the day and night, until it becomes per­pet­u­al­ly implant­ed in the heart as a “bub­bling spring,” a con­tin­u­al pres­ence in the soul call­ing out to the Lord. (cf. Theo­phan the Recluse, 19th c., The Art of Prayer) It is often, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly, con­nect­ed with one’s breath­ing, so much so that it is uttered “with every breath.” (St. Gre­go­ry the The­olo­gian; St. John Chrysos­tom) It begins by being said vocal­ly, silent­ly with the lips, and then it becomes whol­ly men­tal. The claim is made that one can con­tin­ue this “unceas­ing prayer” even while engaged in the nor­mal activ­i­ties of life, while read­ing or writ­ing, and even while sleep­ing, thus the “body sleeps,” but the “heart is awake.” Then, when­ev­er one’s atten­tion to the affairs of life cease, or when one awakes from one’s bed, one finds that the prayer is con­tin­u­ing itself.

The prayer is also known to break through one’s con­scious­ness with pow­er in times of temp­ta­tion or stress, appear­ing, as it were, of its own accord. (cf The Art of Prayer, Igu­men Chari­ton, ed.)

We are not com­mand­ed to work, keep vig­il or fast with­out ceas­ing, but we are com­mand­ed to pray with­out ceas­ing. For…prayer puri­fies, and strength­ens the mind which was cre­at­ed to pray…and to fight the demons for the pro­tec­tion of all the pow­ers of the soul. (Eva­grius of Pon­tus, 4th c.)

He who has entered his room (i.e. his heart) and prays with­out ceas­ing has includ­ed in this all prayer every­where. (St. Mark the Ascetic, 4th c., Direc­tion from Dis­cours­es)

Let no one think, my broth­er Chris­tians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray with­out ceas­ing, and not of lay­men. No, no; it is the duty of all Chris­tians to remain always in prayer.

…bear in mind the method of prayer — how it is pos­si­ble to pray with­out ceas­ing, name­ly by pray­ing in the mind. And this we can do always if we wish. For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink we can always pray men­tal­ly and prac­tice this men­tal prayer — the true prayer pleas­ing to God.

Blessed are those who acquire this heav­en­ly habit, for by it they over­come every temp­ta­tion…

This prac­tice of inner prayer tames the passions…by it the dew of the Holy Spir­it is brought down into the heart…

This men­tal prayer is the light which illu­mines man’s soul and inflames his heart with the fire of love for God. It is the chain link­ing God with man and man with God. Oh, the incom­pa­ra­ble bless­ing of men­tal prayer. It allows a man con­stant­ly to con­verse with God.

And what oth­er and greater rewards can you wish than this, when…you are always before the face of God, con­stant­ly con­vers­ing with Him — con­vers­ing with God, with­out whom no per­son can ever be blessed, either here or in the life still to come. (St. Gre­go­ry Pala­mas, 14th c., How All Chris­tians In Gen­er­al Must Pray With­out Ceas­ing)