Sometimes as the Apostle Paul reached the end of a letter he would sort of pile it on. It’s a little like Steve Jobs — “Just one more thing!”
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-22, NRSV)
But some of Paul’s parting advice can be a bit daunting. Check out the tiny little command in the middle
pray without ceasing
Paul, you have got to be kidding. Without ceasing?
- If I want to pray in the morning I have to get up before my seven year old.
- If I want to pray during the day I have to set aside my job.
- If I want to pray when I get home nobody gets dinner.
- If I want to pray before bed I need a shot of espresso. (Or maybe an Irn-Bru. Depends on where I am.)
Life feels more like “pray without starting.”
Christians have wrestled pretty hard with this one over the centuries. Most choose between two main options.
Keep Coming Back To Prayer
The first main take is this: Paul’s words mean we just need to keep coming back to it. Our flighty little minds and busy little lives can’t really do anything without ceasing.
So with this interpretation, we would take one of two strategies:
One would be a regular schedule for prayer, like the Divine Office, which I recently wrote about. Monks and nuns are our role models here, but countless ordinary Christians also pray some version of the Office. Day in, day out, we come back to it — without ceasing.
Another would be what Teresa of Avila called “recollection,” especially as practiced by Brother Lawrence. In the little book The Practice of the Presence of God he tells how he took up the discipline of bringing his mind back to awareness of God. Every time he found himself distracted by ordinary life, he turned back to inner conversation with his Friend — without ceasing.
Pray Without Ceasing
A second approach (including Brother Lawrence actually) aims for a more literal interpretation: Lots of Christians want to know how to remain constantly in prayer, without ceasing for even a moment.
To highlight just one, let me mention the Russian peasant at the center of the 19th century Way of a Pilgrim. He heard Paul’s words in church and set out on a journey to learn how to obey them. He asked everyone who might know how to pray without ceasing.
The answer came in the ancient Orthodox practice of saying the “Jesus Prayer.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
He learns to repeat this little phrase every moment of the day, and eventually it becomes as natural and necessary as breathing. He goes to sleep praying the Jesus Prayer, and when he wakes up he find his mouth already forming the words.
Unceasing Prayer for Busy People
Personally, especially in seasons where demanding schedules or parenting are the order of the day, I suggest a combination of these two classic interpretations of Paul’s instruction:
- Create a pattern of reminders to pray. Set alarms on your phone if it helps: morning, noon, evening, night.
- When the time comes, say the Jesus Prayer for a bit.
Start with just two minutes every time your alarm goes off. Soon you’ll be making it five.
Here’s the thing: repeating the Jesus Prayer, even while wranglin’ kids, draws your attention back to the presence of God. It really is praying — if you give your attention to the meaning of the words.
And when your day has even for brief intervals where you stand before God asking Jesus for mercy, it is going to make a difference.
It is a structure to build on. It is a solid place to start. You can do this. And it will help.
(You can find out more about all the forms of prayer in this post in my book Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.)
Lent is almost here. That’s a great time to deepen your prayer life.
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