How Can We Pray Unceasingly?by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.
For all Christians, prayer is a habit to be cultivated. Jesus himself was a man of prayer, and he taught his disciples to pray regularly. The model prayer, of course, is what we call the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). It is short, direct, simple, and humble. It has rightly become the hallmark of Christian discipleship, and when it is prayed from the heart, there really is no better prayer that sums up our willingness to do God’s will in our lives.
St. Paul, too, was a man of prayer. Interestingly, he never records the Lord’s Prayer as such, but in one passage he mentions crying out “Abba, Father” as a prayerful address to God (Rom 8:15). The use of the Aramaic word “abba” most likely reflects the Gospel tradition that Jesus addressed God as his Father in this intimate way when he prayed (Mark 14:36).
In his letters St. Paul uses an incredibly rich vocabulary of prayer. There are also many examples of prayers found there, such as thanksgiving, praise, and petition. As a devout Jew, Paul — like Jesus — would most likely have prayed at key moments of the day as the Jewish Law required. This routine, now reflected in Christian monastic practice, is a way of consecrating the entire day to God, from morning until night. We do not have space here to summarize all of Paul’s advice about prayer, so I will focus on only one teaching that deserves closer scrutiny — his exhortation to “pray unceasingly” (1 Thess 5:16).
To try to understand Paul’s advice, we should first look at the context of this tiny passage. These two little words come near the end of First Thessalonians, probably Paul’s earliest extant letter, in a section of ethical exhortations. Paul’s letters frequently contain such sections. They are noticeable because of the presence of vocabulary like “urge,” “admonish,” “exhort,” “encourage,” as well as direct imperatives, like “do this” or “avoid that.” In this case, the advice to “pray unceasingly” (or “without stopping”) is the second of three terse exhortations: “Rejoice always. Pray unceasingly. In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5-16-18).
On one level the advice is simple and straightforward. We should rejoice, pray, and give thanks. Not bad advice as a basic Christian message. But if we remember the context of the entire letter, the commands are more challenging than we might think.
Paul wrote this letter primarily to restore the hope that some of the Thessalonians had lost. Some members had died, and their surviving friends were worried that they thereby would miss the resurrection of the dead. Others had begun to think that the resurrection promised by Jesus had already happened, and therefore they no longer needed to work or struggle in their lives. They could sit back and wait for the Lord’s victorious return. Paul writes to counter these tendencies and to restore hope in the community. His threefold advice, part of a larger section of ethical exhortations, is really intended to rally the best hopeful attitude the community could muster: rejoice, pray, give thanks.
But what does Paul mean when he encourages them to pray unceasingly?
St. Augustine’s Interpretation
Many interpreters have glossed over Paul’s admonition rather quickly. But not St. Augustine. He recognized that Paul’s seemingly simple advice could be misleading. In a commentary on the Psalms, Augustine weaves in a comment about Paul’s advice to pray unceasingly:
Are we to be “without ceasing” in bending the knee and prostrating the body and lifting up our hands, such that he says, “without ceasing”? If that is what “without ceasing” means, then I do not believe it is possible. There is another kind of inward prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart. (Commentary on the Psalms, 37:14)
Augustine recognized that taken at face value, Paul’s advice could impractically mean that we should spend all day in prayers and devotion, forever in church or on our knees in intense prayer and meditation. It would be as if Paul were advising his entire community to become monks and always pray formally. This is not practical, and we also know that Paul was not writing to monastics!
So what might Paul mean?
Prayer as a Habit
Paul’s advice is not as impractical as it sounds. In the context of his Jewish worldview, there was a strong desire to foster continuity between one’s interior attitudes and exterior behavior. Jesus also had a concern about this, as is seen in his stern warnings against hypocrisy. Paul’s advice on prayer, however, is not in the context of warnings. Rather Paul exhorts his readers to pray without ceasing with a very real goal in mind: you can make every minute and day of your life a prayer if you consciously bring an awareness of God’s constant presence to bear in daily life.
This requires development of a good habit. This is possible when we take our incarnational theology seriously that God is truly present to us in this world, and not only in the usual devotional ways, such as the sacraments and the Bible, but also in the routine of our everyday lives.
One example from the history of spirituality comes to mind, even though I do not know that this Pauline passage had any direct influence on it. I refer to Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and his little seventeenth-century spiritual treatise titled, The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence was a simple Carmelite brother whose tasks in his monastic community included the most menial of jobs, such as sweeping the kitchen. Troubled by how such simple chores could help him spiritually, he developed the habit of bringing awareness of God’s presence into every small task he had to do. For us, this might simply mean speaking to God quietly from the heart in one’s own words, such as “be with me in this simple task, Lord.” The most important aspect of the “practice” is that it needs to become a habit, a way of life, an attitude that makes its way into action.
In the same commentary on Psalm 37:14, St. Augustine had another observation that preceded his interpretation of Paul’s advice: “For it is your heart’s desire that is your prayer. If your desire continues uninterrupted, your prayer continues also.”
Developing the habit of praying constantly, without ceasing, is a habit of the heart. If we heighten our awareness of God’s presence and action in the world and do not waiver in that desire, our life can become our “prayer” in the proper sense. This is not the deception, “my life is my prayer,” implying that we do not take time to pray, to meditate, and quietly to be in God’s presence. Rather, it is the practice that I think Paul envisioned. We should let prayer be at the very center of our lives day in and day out.
So is it practical? Does it work? Brother Lawrence, among others, found it to be so, and so can you.Sulpician Father Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., is provincial of the U.S. Province of Sulpicians. His most recent book is “St. Paul: Called to Conversion - A Seven-Day Retreat”, St. Anthony Messenger, 2007.
The full text of Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God is available, free, online as text and audio book.
Photos credits: Stained glass of "Thy Kingdom Come", Victor Hoagland, C.P.; Saint Augustine - glass at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Denver Colorado, Patricia Tryon; Saint Paul - glass at royal castle of Rouen, Marie-Lan Nguyen.