‘Pray without ceasing’ (5:17) sounds like a great idea, but how can we understand it in a way that makes it realistic? It would be easy to pass it over as part of the enthusiasm of this letter, with the confidence in these chapters normal life can be put on hold because Jesus will return soon anyway. That in turn fits the belief that this is the first of Paul’s surviving letters, before he realised that we need a faith which is sustainable for a lifetime.
So perhaps Paul did have in view the kind of intense, overt and conscious prayer we first think of with these words. But over the years people have found different ways to take them seriously if not literally.
The Western monastic tradition took one approach with the Daily Office, the regular pattern of psalms and prayer which we still observe in the church of England (though without the services which involve getting up in the middle of the night). I’ve found over the years that while this part of prayer isn’t enough for my spiritual life to feel healthy, it’s a great foundation to keeping prayer (and Bible reading) a key structural part of my day as a priest.
The Eastern tradition takes a different approach with the Jesus Prayer. The words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ are repeated quietly with the rhythm of the breath, and with part of the aim being so to link prayer and breathing that the prayer no longer requires conscious thought. To breathe should then become to pray.
I know that when I’m disciplined in this kind of prayer or other forms of contemplative prayer, then I feel more at ease with the world, with myself and with God. I also know that keeping the Daily Office going gives me a safety net that catches me whenever other prayer gets forgotten or squeezed out of the day. So perhaps East and West go well together in prayer.
I think, though, that the closest I’m likely to get to praying without ceasing is to be ready to turn the ordinary bits of life into prayer. Today I’ve spent time just being at events where in both cases I had a few words to say but mostly was just there to be there – or perhaps to show that these events were important to God, important enough for his ‘official’ representative to be there. Both were recognising the good work of others. First a long – serving and much loved teacher retiring from our church school, then a group of young adults speaking publicly in church as the final challenge of a 3-month course run by the Prince’s Trust to help them into education, employment or training. See the picture at the top of the page…
I tried during both of these events to concentrate on what was happening with enough focus to turn attention into prayer. I think it worked, at least part of the time. Throughout, I felt more focused and present than I usually do in such circumstances – and enjoyed the experience much more than usual!
So maybe that’s part of the way for me to learn to pray without ceasing. To be present and focused on the presence of God in the moment. It won’t replace the other ways of praying, but it may add to them.
It’s not going to happen overnight but I think it’s worth a go. Because Jesus hasn’t come back yet, and I’m not planning to build my prayer life or any part of my discipleship on a pattern which can’t be kept up.