“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)
These verses set quite a challenge: how can we always be at prayer? The monastic pattern provides a brief service (office) of psalms and bible verses at different times to sanctify the day, in addition to the daily Mass. Our Anglican tradition offers Morning and Evening Prayer, and sometimes Compline.
Last week I wrote about the Angelus, traditionally said three times a day to help us focus on the presence of God-with-us.
The Eastern Orthodox “Jesus Prayer” is another way of regular, focused prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, (Son of the living God,) have mercy (on me, a sinner).”
The practice is to repeat this over a period of time, perhaps breathing in with the first phrase, and out with the second. To still the body, prayer beads may be used too. The intention is for the heart to become stilled and focused on Christ. As recitation of the prayer continues, intercession and thanksgiving for particular people or situations may be offered. Attuning this prayer to our breathing gives it a rhythm: the prayer becomes a natural part of our pattern of life.
This is explored beautifully in The Way of a Pilgrim, a 19th century Russian spiritual classic, which recounts a pilgrim’s inner journey after being moved upon hearing these words of Paul to “pray without ceasing.” He visits churches and monasteries to try and understand how to do this. His travels lead him to a starets (a spiritual father) who teaches him the Jesus Prayer—”Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”—and gives him practical advice on how to recite the prayer uninterruptedly, as a type of mantra. The book details the gradual spiritual development and struggles of the narrator, and the effect the narrator’s spirituality has on those around him. There is a sequel entitled The Pilgrim Continues his Way.