Unceasing Prayer

“See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone….Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:15-18)

Too often Orthodoxy has been patronized by those who know little about us. The fault is our own. We allow others to describe and to define who we are. What they see are immigrants intent on perpetuating cult and customs brought from the Old World to the New – funny foods and folk frolics. At long last Orthodox Christianity has been acknowledged as a faith with elements of salvation that present an alternative life style to all who search for a meaning to life beyond the vast varieties of contemporary religions which fail to satisfy the yearnings of the human soul to be in touch with the image of God in which they had been made. On Palm Sunday a major television network presented one such aspect of Orthodox prayer life in a program based on the Jesus Prayer. Another station was given the blessing of taking their cameras and reporter through some of the monasteries on Mount Athos. Both experiences shed light on the possibility to realize the ability to pray without ceasing.

St. Paul, in writing to those he loved, is winding up his epistle, and the reader gets the feeling that he is finding it difficult to stop. He is bubbling over with love for them, and it manifests itself in the many directives he puts to them, and also to us who want to be included in his advice. One is a moral imperative: No one renders evil for evil. There must be no thought of revenge or punishment. Do not continue to keep sin alive, but stamp it out by goodness. As in the prayer from the liturgy of St. Basil: “Make the evil be good by Your goodness.”

Another is an attitude reinforced with the inner Holy Spirit: “Rejoice always.” Christ intends His worshippers to let their inner happiness reflect on their faces. If the Church is not the place to find gaiety, who would want to be there? These challenges are not simple to achieve – we call on the help of Christ and the Holy Spirit - but to pray without ceasing, if taken literally, appears impossible. How do we do it?

Some give prayer another definition. They say that we should count work as prayer if we do it with good will – but that’s not what the holy apostle meant. It doesn’t mean what ancient heretics believed, such as the Messalians who took it so literally that they refused all normal work, especially manual labor. There have been communities of monks who would take turns praying in a way that would make possible not to have a moment in the monastery when prayers were not being lifted up to the Lord, the so-called non-sleepers [Acoemeti].

Orthodox Christians consider it not only possible but spiritually rewarding to pray constantly. We find it in the classic Philokalia, that marvelous treasure of spiritual advice for all those who follow the Way of Jesus Christ to His Father’s kingdom. It appears in the writings of Theophane the Recluse, who borrowed it from the instructions of Abba Philemon:

“Call to Him with fervor: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ Do this constantly in church and at home, while traveling, working, during your meals and in bed; In a word from the time you open your eyes until the time you shut them. This will be exactly like holding an object in the sun, because this is to hold your face up to the Lord, who is the Sun of the spiritual world.”