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Catholic Moment: Pray unceasingly

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September 26, 2011

By Father Earl Fernandes

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they were distracted during prayer or at Mass, I would be a wealthy priest! St. Paul instructs the Thessalonians to pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). How difficult, seemingly impossible, that is! Maximus the Confessor claims “that Scripture commands nothing that is impossible.” Still, spiritual writers have wondered how to pray unceasingly.


In the early church, there was a group called the Messalians who took the command literally; to pray meant saying prayers and to pray always meant to refuse all secular work, especially manual labor. Another group was the Acoemeti (non-sleepers), who believed that they could achieve continual prayer through teamwork, by rotating within the community and by having the various groups of monks pray the psalms in succession within the monastery without interruption day and night.


Origen of Alexandria grappled with the command: “Since virtuous deeds and the carrying out of what is enjoined are the parts of prayer, he prays without ceasing who adds prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For thus alone can we accept ‘pray without ceasing’ as a possible command- if we speak of the entire life of a saint as one continual prayer, of which what is customarily called prayer is a part.”


Origen’s idea makes a prayer out of work, but it presupposes that the work is done with a good inward disposition, which is nourished through contemplation and explicit prayers. This is why the monks always sought to increase their practice of prayer, which could summed up as the state of prayer. Continuous acts of prayer soon lead to weariness and distractions. By contrast, life is a state, a habitual disposition of the heart. We should give our heart this habitual disposition, which somehow deserves the name prayer, in addition to other acts of prayer.


How can we develop this habitual disposition of the heart? One possible way is given to us through the “Way of the Pilgrim.” According to the story, the pilgrim, a simple peasant, is seeking an answer to a traditional question: how am I to pray without ceasing? He hears many things about the need to pray; about the power of prayer; and about the importance of prayer, but no one provides a satisfactory answer to his question.


Finally, his spiritual father suggests a simplified method of prayer. He should repeat the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (a sinner).” It is a short prayer, which brings about repentance while invoking the holy name of the One who saves. He begins with the repeated invocation of Jesus and progresses in saying it from 300 to 6,000, and 12,000 times per day. After that he no longer counts, because his lips and tongue pronounce the words by themselves, without any urging, even during sleep.


After some time, he enters another stage: the movement is transferred from his lips, which must not move, to his tongue. The prayer then passes from his tongue to his heart. The pilgrim is aware that his prayer is now recited within the beating of his heart, as if the heart somehow began to say, one, Lord, two, Jesus, three, Christ, etc… The conclusion is that the person who unites prayer to the beating of his heart will never be able to stop praying, because prayer becomes a vital function of his existence.


Theophane the Recluse advises: “Make it your habit to pray these words with your mind in your heart: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ This prayer, when you have learned to use it properly, or rather, when it becomes grafted to your heart, will lead you to the end which you desire: it will unite your mind with your heart; it will quell the turbulence of your thoughts; and it will give you power to govern the movements of your soul.”


If your mind is distracted at prayer or you find it difficult to pray, unite your mind and heart by repeating this simple phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”  


It is not so impossible to pray unceasingly. Try it.


Father Fernandes is an assistant professor of moral theology and dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

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