Pray without ceasing

In the latest of our series of articles on prayer, Helen Julian CSF, author of Franciscan Footprints: Following Christ in the ways of Francis and Clare, reflects on Paul’s plea to the Christians of Thessalonica to ‘pray without ceasing’.

1 November 2020

Asking the impossible?

When the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17), he started a long-running debate about how this was possible. It’s the only place in the New Testament where this is specifically commanded, though Luke in particular shows Jesus as praying frequently, and in the parable of the unjust judge (18:1–8) gives an example of the value of praying ‘always’.

Early church hacks

The early church took this injunction very seriously and found various ways of trying to obey it, while also mainly recognising that it was impossible to fulfil literally.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers perhaps came closest to a literal following of Paul’s instruction. They would do very simple work, such as weaving baskets out of reeds, while reciting the psalms, which they knew by heart.

But the realities of life still had to be accepted. One story tells how an old monk called Lucius taught a group of monks who claimed that they only prayed, nothing else. So he asked them who prayed for them when they ate or when they slept. They couldn’t answer. Then Lucius told them that he prayed, repeating a single verse from the psalms, while doing simple handiwork. Daily he sold the results of his work, and left some of his earnings as alms outside his hut. Whoever found them would pray for him while he ate or slept.

The prayer of the heart

Over time this way of prayer developed into what is called the prayer of the heart, the constant repetition of a God-directed phrase. Over the years it made its way into the heart of the one praying, where it in a sense prayed itself. One of the best known of these phrases is the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox tradition: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’

For monks living a communal life in monasteries, the regular saying of the office, with its pattern of psalms, Bible readings and prayers of intercession, was the chosen way of prayer. It was always understood that these formal times of prayer should spill over into the rest of the day, with its work and study and recreation. The constant return, traditionally seven times a day, to the chapel and to conscious prayer together, fuelled the rest of life and made holy all the hours of the day.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’

And for many Christians outside the monastery, undertaking at least some part of this pattern of prayer became their way of praying without ceasing.

To work is to pray – true or false?

Another solution was found in combining prayer and work, so that godly work, united with prayer, made up a whole life of prayer. This was a more realistic goal for most Christians, but ran the risk of downplaying actual times of prayer and elevating work, as can be seen in the common phrase ‘to work is to pray’. Ultimately the work could become detached from any connection to God, and actual times in prayer withered away or became merely formal, with little time given to seeking God’s will and discerning what work would fulfil it.

If our desire for the things of God was unceasing, so also would be our prayer.

Augustine proposed a new way through the quandary, which put desire in central place. He recognised the difficulty in praying continually, but said that the solution was found in desire. If our desire for the things of God was unceasing, then so also would be our prayer. He did not downplay the importance of prayer at particular times of the day, but saw it as a tool for stirring up and feeding interior desire.

The prayers of the saints

The saints through the ages have found their own ways of praying without ceasing, often amid busy and complicated lives. Even those who lived contemplative lives were not detached from the rest of life.

Clare of Assisi was abbess of her community for many years, much in demand among her sisters and people outside the convent for both prayer of healing and advice. But she also spent many hours in silent prayer, as well as in the common prayer of the community. That desire for God of which Augustine spoke drove her to spend time simply gazing on God, present in the sacrament of the Eucharist and on the cross.

Veronica of Guiliani, a later Poor Clare sister, also lived an enclosed contemplative life from the age of 17. She too became abbess, and alongside a very deep spiritual life, recorded in her diary, she also improved the lives of her sisters by having water piped into the convent and enlarging their rooms.

Teresa of Ávila, the re-founder of the Carmelite life, spent much of her life travelling around Spain founding new communities and supporting her sisters, often against much opposition and in poor health. But she also had a rich life of prayer and wrote about it for her sisters and for all of us.

The saints through the ages have found their own ways of praying without ceasing.

Another Franciscan, Conrad of Parzham, spent over 40 years as porter of his busy friary, welcoming pilgrims and ministering to the poor. But he also loved silence and prayer, and had a nook near the door from which he could see the Blessed Sacrament in church; he would retreat there whenever he could, and also slept less in order to pray more.

All of these had a foundation of praying regularly through the day, as well as prioritising times of private prayer. They also prayed through their work and in their work, hoping to glorify God by it.

Rooted in prayer

My own Franciscan community has its own instructions on life, called The Principles. The section on prayer begins ‘Praise and prayer constitute the atmosphere in which the brothers and sisters must strive to live.’ It speaks of the importance of the Eucharist, of faithful and attentive presence with others at the common prayer throughout the day, and of times of private prayer, ‘the quiet communion of the individual soul with God’. And it goes on to say that it is in this communion we can come to be ‘living in so constant a remembrance of God’s presence that [we] do indeed pray continually’. 

Paul’s instruction may still sound impossible, but from seeking to follow it a whole rich tradition has developed: of regular times of prayer which sanctify all of time; of work for the glory of God, rooted in prayer; of prayer of the heart, built up over years of faithful repetition; and of the prayer of desire, placing the longing for God above all else.

From this one small phrase, a lifetime of prayer possibilities has sprung up. Which one might you want to explore next?

Helen Julian CSF is an Anglican Franciscan sister and a priest, currently serving her community as minister general. She has written three books for BRF and is a contributor to BRF’s New Daylight Bible reading notes and the Holy Habits Bible Reflections and Group Studies on Fellowship.

Franciscan Footprints

There are many ways of following Christ – each footprint is unique. One of these, the Franciscan spiritual journey, has been tried and tested over the centuries, and the experiences of St Francis and St Clare and all those who have been inspired by their lives still resonate with us. Helen Julian CSF explores the distinctive features of their spirituality and shows how these practices can be applied to, and become part of, our daily lives.

Through stories of care for creation, social justice, mission, preaching, contemplative spirituality and simple living, discover your own pathway today.

Further ideas to help you pray without ceasing

Augustine’s Life of Prayer, Learning and Love by Cally Hammond

At the Foot of the Cross with Julian of Norwich by Emma Pennington