In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Saint Paul throws down the spiritual gauntlet. He instructs his readers to “pray without ceasing.”
For almost two thousand years now, Christian saints, nuns, monks, and mystics have been trying to unpack that simple three-word verse (just two words in the original Greek).
What, pray tell, did Saint Paul mean? Did he expect us to go through life, every waking hour engaging in a never-ending interior dialogue with God, sort of like The Truman Show On Bended Knee? Or was he speaking metaphorically, simply instructing followers of Jesus Christ to make prayer a priority, day in and day out?
This verse inspired the Desert Fathers and Mothers to recite all 150 Psalms, each and every day. A few generations later, it contributed to the earliest monasteries developing their liturgy of prayer at fixed hours throughout the day. And it was the inspiration for the Eastern Orthodox practice of “the Jesus Prayer” as immortalized in The Way of a Pilgrim — a practice of reciting the name of Jesus, and/or one or two scripture verses, synchronized with the rhythm of breathing, and literally “without ceasing.”
I love the invitation to pray continually, but I am not a monk, or a hermit, or a pilgrim. Chances are, you who read these words are like me — immersed in the hurly-burly of modern life, trying to navigate a meaningful faith while getting enough sleep, getting the laundry and dishes done, and juggling far too many commitments and appointments.
Compared to us, perhaps the monks and hermits had it easy!
The Secret Sauce for Unceasing Prayer
So how do we do it? I think Saint Paul himself left us an important clue, right there in 1 Thessalonians 5. If we look at the verses that immediately precede and follow verse 17, we get some insight into how Paul understood prayer:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (I Thessalonians 5:17-18)
Saint Paul serves up his mandate for never-ending prayer with two other invitations: to rejoice, and to give thanks. Joy and gratitude, apparently, are the secret sauce for unceasing prayer.
Furthermore, he’s not just telling us to pray when it’s easy to feel the joy or the gratitude. Rejoice always. In all circumstances give thanks.
Easier said than done. I freely admit that I’m not very good at rejoicing over a root canal, or giving thanks for lower back pain. Maybe learning to say yes to everything life gives me is the secret to prayer (and to true spirituality), but most days I need help getting there.
Fostering the “Habit” of Prayer
Our friends the monks and the nuns have it easy, in that they live in a community that is dedicated to praying always. But for the rest of us, regular prayer is something we have to cultivate, like learning a new habit. Likewise, joy and gratitude are also qualities that we need to slowly grow within us, like a vintner slowly cultivating a crop of grapes.
Most of us may not have the benefit of living in a monastery where a bell calls us to pray seven times a day. But on the positive side, we are free to “grow’ our own habit of daily prayer in a manner that works for us. Chanting the Psalms may not be your preferred way to pray, but perhaps learning to find the joy and gratitude in every corner of your life might just be your ticket to a truly prayerful life.
In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Christian philosopher James Smith explores how being human means being creatures of habit. Not just bad habits like too many candy bars — but good habits, too, from working out to expressing love to, well, cultivating a life of gratitude and joy. When we pay attention to the fact that we are, by nature, creatures of habit, we can begin to steer our lives into fostering habits that align with our highest values: like learning to always rejoice. To express gratitude in all situations. And to pray without ceasing.
This fall (starting September 10, 2018) I’ll be teaching an online course through Columbia Theological Seminary called Living Prayer: The Spirituality of Everyday Liturgy. Together we’ll read You Are What You Love and we will explore how to create our own “Everyday Liturgy” — our own day-to-day habits of prayer, gratitude, and joy. Each one of us will approach this project differently, so it will be inspiring to see how different folks respond to the call in different ways. This isn’t about being perfect, but about being on the journey — and willing to share the journey with others.
Will you join me in this online experience? Let’s pray together, support one another as we seek to find the most optimal and life-giving ways to respond to God’s love and mercy in our lives. And then let’s harness the power of habit, and transform our lives!
Carl McColman is a contemplative writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. He is the author of several books, including Befriending Silence, Answering the Contemplative Call, and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in the Huffington Post, Contemplative Journal, Patheos, as well as his own blog on Christian spirituality and contemplative living, www.carlmccolman.net.