How do you pray without ceasing?
I doubt many of us have ever really worried about answering that question all that much. Sure, the Apostle Paul ends one of his letters with the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but most of us don’t really take it all that seriously.
It’s like when the apostles tell us to “sin no more.” Nice advice, but is that really possible in this life? Maybe in heaven, but here and now? It’s just not something we really worry about.
I guess it’s why it surprised me that there is a long tradition in the eastern church that takes Paul’s admonition far more seriously than you and I might. There are whole books devoted to answering that question.
One such is The Way of a Pilgrim, the anonymous tale of a Russian pilgrim trying to answer that question of how to pray without ceasing. And part of the answer he finds is something called the Jesus Prayer.
Maybe you’ve heard of it. I hadn’t. It was new to me. But, I find the idea fascinating. If we’ll just pray this little prayer over and over again, it will bring us into such close contact with Jesus that not only will we unceasingly pray in our heart, but what’s more, we’ll be transformed by God’s grace.
I’m probably not doing it justice. Here’s how it’s explained to the pilgrim by a monk in the story. The monk puts it this way:
The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence and imploring His grace during every occasion, at all times, in all places, even during sleep.
The appeal is couched in these terms, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the Prayer always that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within him of its own accord.
Now do you understand what prayer without ceasing is? (6-7)
Later, the monk reads these words of instruction from St. Simeon the New Theologian:
Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process frequently. (7)
Again, I find something appealing about this type of prayer. It’s short, easy to remember, and helps us focus our thoughts on Jesus.
Plus, it solves that problem I get asked about so much as a pastor: What do I say when I pray? Most of us run out of things to say in about 5 minutes. “God, this is what want, this is what I need, this is who I want you to help. Amen.” Then what? That’s the dilemma.
This prayer resolves that. These are the words. Short. Simple. Say them over and over, and in time it will work its way from your lips to your mind to your heart and will end with a deeper communion with God.
That’s the idea, at least. May well be worth a try. Centuries of Christian monks can’t be wrong, can they?