Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pray Continually?

One of the most challenging aspects of the spirituality surrounding the Jesus Prayer is its emphasis on following the command of St. Paul to "pray always." Prayer, I'm venturing to guess, in the minds of most people means reading written prayers or saying memorized prayers. It may even mean simply turning to God and saying a prayer that wells up from your heart. This, of course, is one aspect of prayer, but it is not prayer at its core. All the great mystics have pointed out that prayer is more an attitude or disposition than the recitation of formulas. No matter the tradition, Eastern or Western, whether you're reading the writings contained in the Philokalia, or the writings of the great Syrian mystics; whether you're reading the writings of Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross or the wisdom of Russian masters like Sts. Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov, it doesn't matter. They all emphasize that prayer is much more than a mere repetition of written or memorized formulas. Prayer is beyond words.

However, perhaps we still fall into the trap of reducing prayer to words, to a repetition of written or memorized formulas, or spouting out a quick prayer that wells up from within. I know that I personally fall into this trap all the time. I sit in my little corner in the morning and pray my morning prayers out of my little book. Perhaps I sit in "silence" for a little while trying to glean what bits insight I can from the prayers I just read (in reality my mind is racing over the things I need to get done today). Even on my way to work I may pray the Jesus Prayer, but my mind is full of other thoughts and my heart is grasping at the lures of the world which present themselves to me day-in and day-out. I may know in my head what prayer is, I may have an academic understanding of it and be able to define it, but so often my day-to-day prayer life is simply routine. If I miss a day of my routine then my entire day is thrown off.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with routine even in one's prayer life. If you are in a stage in your prayer life where all you can do is go through the motions, then it is better to go through the motions with hope that this time will pass than to give up on prayer all together. Sometimes we have to "fake it 'till we make it." But as we go through the motions we have to still be striving for authentic prayer.

I believe I have mentioned in previous posts that authentic prayer is a Presence. Authentic prayer is a humble awareness of God's Presence with us. Authentic prayer also requires that we be present to God.  Sometimes while I'm at work my fellow employees and I may become preoccupied with whatever tasks we are attempting to complete. We become so focused on our tasks that we are not even aware of each other. We have blinders on, and all we see is the task in front of us. From time to time throughout the day, in order to break up the monotony, I will reach out to the employee next to me and "fist bump" him, or "high-five" my manager, or simply smile at one of my other coworkers. No words are spoken. But such actions demonstrate to my fellow employees that I'm aware of them, I appreciate them. I believe it reminds all of us that we are all in this together. But most importantly for our purposes, it is a form of being present to them.

The same holds true in our prayer life, and particularly in our striving to pray without ceasing. If prayer truly means to be humbly aware of God's Presence, and to be present to Him, then words are not necessary. All we need to do is to turn to God in our mind and heart and acknowledge Him. In dealing with these same questions, Fr. George Maloney, S.J. makes the following comments in his wonderful book Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East:

"The majority of the desert fathers saw prayer, not in terms of the strong intellectual accent that Evagrius gave to the subject, but rather in terms of the praxis or ascetical life along with the inner "pushing" of one's consciousness always more toward God as the goal of all one's actions or thoughts..."

Fr. Maloney goes on to describe prayer as "straining toward God" and to say that while the early monks went about their daily labors, the invented short prayers that they would then repeat in order to push the mind toward God. This was the roots of the Jesus Prayer. The short prayers themselves were never meant as an end in themselves. Rather, they were always intended to bring the mind and heart into the Presence of God. These short prayers, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, are meant to break us out of our focus on our day-to-day tasks and to remind us of God's Presence to us and the necessity of our presence to Him. Fr. Maloney goes on to say:

"This is the beginning of the Jesus Prayer that centers around a phrase, including the name of Jesus, repeated as often as the person can do so, accompanied by an interior desire to be in the presence of the Lord and Savior. The prayer element consists in the longing and the stretching out spiritually toward the Lord." (Emphasis Mine).

Prayer consists of longing for and stretching out to the Lord. St. Augustine famously said, "My heart searches restlessly, and it finds no rest until it rests in you." Our hearts long for a Presence. Too often we seek to fill that longing with anything but the Presence for which our hearts desire. The point of written prayers, even the Jesus Prayer, is to remind us that our real longing is for the Presence of God. That Presence, the hesychast Fathers teach us, can be found within us if we have the courage to look for it.

For me I know that my own prayer becomes rout oftentimes because I fear allowing Christ to shed His light into my heart. I am ashamed at what He will find there. But most of all I am ashamed at what I will see there. And so I go through my prayers and I do all the talking. I ignore God's Presence while I pray. It's as though I say to the Lord, "What I have to say to you now is more important than what you have to say to me. So please be quiet, sit back, and listen. And if there's time after I'm done talking, then maybe I'll let you do some talking." But this morning, as I was going through my prayer routine, I realized that I have lost sight of my faith in the power of Christ's light to transform and transfigure. Most importantly I have lost sight of the power of God's Word to heal the wounds of my sins and to transform my heart of stone into a heart of flesh. But Christ can only heal if we allow Him. The Word of God will only exercise His Power over us if we allow Him to be present to us, and if we are present to Him. The power of the Holy Spirit that the Father bestows through Christ Jesus will only come upon us if we invite Him and open ourselves to Him. So much for such a little effort! And yet how often are we hesitant to make such an effort? The "longing and the stretching out spiritually towards the Lord" simply means attentiveness to His Presence, and attentive and humble listening to His Word wherever we encounter it/Him.

In the Cherubic Hymn of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we sing, "Let us lay aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all." The first step to continual prayer is the laying aside of whatever care we have before us at the moment and welcoming the Presence of God the Trinity within us. Over time the more we break up our day with these moments of welcoming the Trinity, the more we become aware of and attentive to God's Presence until eventually we have a continual attentiveness to this Presence. It is then that the gift of continual prayer has been given to us. But we must do our part and strive, longing and stretching out towards that Presence. May Heaven consume us!


  1. Thank you. Your illustration of being so taken up by a project that you forget your fellow workers is the clearest explanation I have ever read about prayer! That doesn't mean that I will suddenly succeed, but just that I feel I now have a fighting chance.

    1. For me the biggest struggle with prayer is patience. Only very few are given the gift of continual prayer after only a short period of practice. For the rest of us, continual prayer only comes after years and years of struggle. Remembering to break up the day by turning to the Lord, even if only for a brief moment, and reaching out with longing for His Presence is the beginning of prayer. If we can persist in this, then over time we will be constantly aware of His Presence. His grace is always there to help us. We just have to remember to be mindful of Him.

  2. Hi, Phillip. I'm busy making a prayer rope :) so I'll just say thanks for this post. As always, your words are like a laser-guided missile to my heart.

    1. Hi Kim! I hope you're doing well. One of these days I'm going to have to have you make a prayer rope for me. :) How are things going for St. Xenia's prayer rope business? :)

  3. Hi phillip, I just have to contact you, we have a lot of commons !!! it's incredible.... I'm "jeremy v" on you tube, I'm a french flute player and whistler... and.... i practice every day the Jesus prayer with my komboskini ! I 've been looking your videos on you tube since a long time, and I didn't know that you are this kind of christian... like me... happy to have a new brother in religion and music !
    I have a christian blog as well, but it's in french :

    have a nice week end !


    1. Hi Jeremy!!!

      It's always exciting to come across a fellow flute and whistle player who also takes their Christianity seriously. Are you Orthodox or Catholic (or Eastern Catholic)? Not that it really matters, I'm just curious. I'm so happy you found this blog though. Please keep me in your prayers. Send me an email at I'd love to get in touch with you. :)

      ICXC + NIKA,