Dimitri of Rostov on Unceasing Prayer

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But someone may ask: “Why did the Apostle say in the Epistle to the Thessalonians, ‘Pray without ceasing?'” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Usually in the Holy Scriptures, the word “always” is used in the sense of “often,” for instance, “The priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service for God” (Hebrews 9:6): this means that the priests went into the first tabernacle at certain fixed hours, not that they went there unceasingly by day and by night; they went often, but not uninterruptedly. Even if the priests were all the time in church, keeping alight the fire which came from heaven, and adding fuel to it so that it should not go out, they were not doing this all at the same time, but by turns, as we see from St. Zacharias: “He executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course” (Luke 1:8). One should think in the same way about prayer, which the Apostle ordains to be done unceasingly, for it is impossible for man to remain in prayer day and night without interruption. After all, time is also needed for other things, for necessary cares in the administration of one’s house; we need time for working, time for talking, time for eating and drinking, time for rest and sleep. How is it possible to pray unceasingly except by praying often? But oft-repeated prayer may be considered unceasing prayer.

St. Dimitri of Rostov in “The Inner Closet of the Heart,” from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p. 49

Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” has given me something to ponder. I’ve done my best to make sense of it, reasoning that if this is possible, prayer must mean something other than what I’ve experienced or thought thus far.

Above, Dimitri of Rostov reasons from Scripture that “always” does not always mean “always.” As a result, Paul must be exaggerating to make a point. Praying “often” must be what he meant. And besides, we have other things to do. Praying must cease so other activity can be done.

But this is not the only answer on offer in church history. Theophan the Recluse, another Christian in the Orthodox tradition, differentiates between spoken prayer, prayer in the mind, and prayer in the heart. When our words align with our thoughts, and our thoughts align with our inmost being, fully attentive and present to God, this is “inner spiritual prayer.” Theophan writes, “[U]nceasing prayer is only possible by praying with the mind in the heart.” He thought it was possible.

I agree with Theophan. Prayer without ceasing is possible. Christians believe they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for us by searching out the human spirit and lifting our deepest needs to God “with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). This truth, combined with other biblical passages that describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit, lead me to believe that prayer is not only a practice that involves speaking and thinking, but is a posture of the heart. When we pray, we do not pray on our own, but in, through, by, and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. We have a Helper. Even if we are not actively praying as it is commonly understood, the Holy Spirit is actively advocating, praying on our behalf.

This does not negate our responsibility to seek God during appointed times of prayer, or to pray aloud, or to think carefully about the words we form as we praise or petition God. But it does encourage us in faith, helping us to know that while we may conclude a time of speaking and thinking our prayers to God, a fire is kept within our hearts by the Holy Spirit within us, and we remain in communion with God.

Theophan writes, “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” With God’s help, it is possible.

Discern, then Respond

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