Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Unceasing Prayer?

What does it mean to pray without ceasing? Some groups take this to mean that God wants perpetual prayer-prayer marathons, so to speak. So all day and all night long, people take turns to pray continually. Is this what God wants us to do? Obviously not, for He has given us work to do. He wants us to have rest periods as well. To pray unceasingly means to be diligent in prayer. Morning prayers, evening prayers, table prayers, and prayers in special circumstances add up to the diligence God wants. (Rudolph F. Norden, Every Day with the Savior: Daily Devotions. Concordia, St. Louis, 2004. September 14 devotion.)

I read this with severe disappointment. It sounds too much like my sinful nature which says, "God's Word certainly cannot mean it what it says. 'Pray without ceasing,' (1 Thes. 5:17) certainly is hyperbole." It should raise flags that our enemy also speaks this way.

Norden's objection to unceasing prayer is couched in a straw man, that unceasing prayer means a continual prayer vigil, where a church or group prays unceasingly. This is a straw man because the Epistle does not indicate that these are "group" prayers, but that all of us should pray unceasingly. Furthermore, his critique--that God doesn't mean this because we have other things to do--is invalid, as the example itself shows that no one person is praying all the time, but shifts are taken so that people can do other things. I wonder why he tries so hard to re-interpret this passage.

The Church Fathers have a radically different understanding of what unceasing prayer means. St. Basil the Great writes,
For prayer and psalmody, however...every hour is suitable, that, while our hands are busy at their tasks, we may praise God sometimes with the tongue (when this is possible, or, rather, when it is conducive to edification); or, if not, with the heart.... Thus we acquire a recollected spirit--when in every action we beg from God the success of our labors and satisfy our debt of gratitude to him who gave us the power to do the work, and when, as has been said, we keep before our minds the aim of pleasing him. If this is not the case, how can there be consistency in the words of the apostle bidding us to 'pray without ceasing," with those other words, "we worked night and day." (The Long Rules, Q37.R.; quoted from ACCS, vol. NT IX)

St. Augustine likewise says,
Let your desire be before him, and 'the Father, who sees in secret, shall reward you.' For it is your heart's desire that is your prayer. If your desire continues uninterrupted, your prayer continues also. For it was not without meaning, when the apostle said, 'Pray without ceasing.' Are we to be 'without ceasing' in bending the knee and prostrating the body and lifting up our hands, such that he says, 'without ceasing'? If that is what 'without ceasing' means, then I do not believe it is possible. There is another kind of inward prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart. (Augstine, Commentary on the Psalms, 37.14; quoted in ACCS, vol. NT IX)

What's interesting about the quote from St. Augustine is that he says something similar to Norden, that we cannot pray "liturgically" without ceasing. It would be impossible to form petitions in our mind to God at all times--and especially to accompany that with proper prayer posture.

But both of these Fathers describe a kind of prayer of faith. It is not so much a prayer of the mind, which forms words and sentences, but more a prayer of the heart, a prayer that beats along with our heart, that accompanies our rising and resting, our work and our speech. Later Eastern Fathers describe this kind of prayer especially in terms of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (a sinner)." There is a host of teaching on what this means and how it was practiced. During the 14-15th Centuries it was controversial, and Western Christians since have been prone to denigrate this at times as nearly un-Christian mysticism and "navel gazing." (Which incidentally, was a slur against Eastern Orthodox monks, not against Hindus or Buddhists, as many today take it to mean).

Apart from the historical (and present) controversy, the practice of saying the Jesus Prayer is excellent and commendable. As a prayer it is Biblical, echoing the cry of the publican (Luk. 18:13); the blind men (Mat. 9:27; and in Mat. 20:30), the Canaanite woman (Mat. 15:22); etc. It is the simplest cry of a faithful Christian. It is also short and memorable, easy to say in the mind while doing other work, or even while falling asleep.

While saying the Jesus Prayer (or any prayer) continuously is far from our abilities, it is dangerous for the Christian to simply dismiss the notion as impossible. We can certainly take a page from the Fathers who show us how prayer is so conjoined to faith that they are inseparable.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


  1. Dixie said...

    Ugh! What a disappointing thing to read. I don't know if you caught my most recent post on experiencing God but it really tracks along the same notion...in essence that which makes sense from our modern perspective, aligned and corrected by our modern experiences...well, we understand the faith from that vantage point. And somehow...over the centuries, the understanding of prayer of the heart has been lost to many. So the logical end result is "pray unceasingly" doesn't really mean "pray unceasingly!" Lord have mercy!

    We have a book that is widely read in Orthodoxy that follows one man's journey to this prayer of the heart called "The Way of the Pilgrim". I heard a podcast on it the other day and the speaker said how odd it must sound to modern readers unfamiliar with such a thing (and how monotonous the book must be for such readers)...and you know, that speaker was right. When I first was exposed to it I discovered it to be well beyond my experience, completely outside of my modern perspective. But this was the teaching and practice of Christianity for centuries. How tragic that it has been lost to so much of the world.

    You are fortunate to understand this at your age. I am in the emptying nest years and discovered the understanding of prayer of the heart too late to teach my children what it means to pray unceasingly and almost too late to learn myself. (You know...old dogs, new tricks...)

    Oh well...there are wacky things taught all around. Reminds me when I was taking a class on prayer many years ago and the author of the book we were using said we should never pray "if it is Your will" or "according to Your will" but we should just boldly ask and expect God to act accordingly! Lord protect us from such crazy teachings.

  2. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    We do not understand what it means that the Holy Spirit has made us His temple. IF that is so, that God dwells within us - how are we ever not praying? What we need to to recognize this, to conform our thoughts and words to the Mind of Christ and His Spirit (I love Sunday's Epistle from Philippians's) - we learn to be like God.

    I must decrease that He may increase.
    I believe, Help my unbelief.
    Lord God, mercy me, a sinner!

  3. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Yes, Eric, but it sounds like you've gone the other way, what I call the "Lutheran Shuffle." In our efforts to ensure we are "Christ-centered", we tend to say that when the Bible says do x we respond that God does x for us automatically, and so we really don't have to do, worry about, or attempt x at all.

    To be sure the Spirit intercedes for us, yet St. Paul does say we should pray without ceasing too. Yes, we have received the indwelling Holy Spirit, but our will should be praying too.

    ...More on the Lutheran Shuffle later...

  4. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    It does happen - however that is not all. Our sinful flesh often gets in the way, so we need to learn to beat down our sinful flesh. We need to be aware more and more of what God does in and through us. This includes our "prayer life" if one wants to use this phrase.

    I like putting things on Christ first. He fulfills the Law in my stead. However, that doesn't mean I am indifferent. I see what I should strive for - that that is what I do.

    The Lutheran shuffle says it doesn't matter what I do - I say I know what I need to try to do.