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.

Theophan the Recluse’s Three Types of Prayer

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You have probably heard such words as: oral prayer, mental prayer, prayer of the heart; you may also have heard discussions about each of them separately. What is the cause of this division of prayer into parts? Because it happens that sometimes through our negligence the tongue recites the holy words of prayer, but the mind wanders elsewhere: or the mind understands the words of the prayer, but the heart does not respond to them by feeling. In the first case prayer is only oral, and is not prayer at all, in the second, mental prayer joins the oral, but this prayer is still perfect and incomplete. Complete and real prayer of word and thought is joined by prayer of feeling.

Spiritual or inner prayer comes when he who prays, after gathering his mind within his heart, from there directs his prayer to God in words no longer oral but silent: glorifying Him and giving thanks, confessing his sins with contrition before God, asking from Him the spiritual and physical blessings that he needs. You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them are absent your prayer is either not perfect, or is not prayer at all.

Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer, p. 66-67

The divisions are helpful, as they enable us to be more attentive to our inner dispositions as we pray. Are we speaking empty words? Do we understand what we say? Is our heart aligned with both thoughts and words? Are we humble before God in our inmost being, and does the Spirit intercede with our spirit in identifying and requesting divine help for our deepest needs?

Our goal is to come before God as complete selves, and, as Theophan says, unite body to mind and heart, thus entering “real prayer.”

Kinda Morbid

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In the spiritual formation class that I teach we explore different approaches to prayer.

Most of my students are familiar with extemporaneous spoken prayer and liturgical prayer. Fewer are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [a sinner].” This prayer is most commonly associated with the Eastern Orthodox Tradition and is said to trace back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 5th century, but biblically you can say its origins rest in Mark 10:46-52, when Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

I asked my students for other short, memorizable prayers that are familiar to them.

Some said, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Amen.”

Others, to the tune of “The Theme from Superman:”

“We thank You Lord for giving us food (put one hand in the air), We thank You Lord for giving us friends (put the other hand in the air), (with both hands up swaying back and forth like flying) For giving us food, for giving us friends (hands up standing still) We thank You Lord, (both hands to hips in superhero pose). Amen.”

And still others cited examples from the Bible like The Lord’s Prayer or Praying the 23rd Psalm.

But one of my students raised his hand and said, “I know it’s kinda morbid, but…’Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.'”

Slowly, I replied, “Yeah, I think I know that one. It’s from a Metallica song.”

One of the Greatest Vocations We Have as Christians is a Humble Task Open to Everyone but Few Undertake

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One of the greatest vocations we as Christians have is to pray for others. To pray for the many people who we know as well as for the many we don’t know but of whose suffering we are aware. My sense is that you will come closer to the Lord Jesus the more you pray for others, because Jesus came for others and praying for others is entering more deeply into the mystery of His divine intercession. There are so many people who need our prayers, and to take the time to lift them up to the Lord is one of the greatest services we can perform.

Maybe you can buy a notebook in which you can write down all the people for whom you want to pray. I am sure that book will fill up very soon, and you can take that book with you in your prayer and ask the Lord to touch all the people whose names you have brought together. Doing so, you certainly will experience more fully the love of Jesus.

Henri Nouwen in a letter to “Ruth” dated February 3, 1983, from Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life [affiliate link]

This isn’t a bad idea. Nouwen states further, “My conviction is that those who desire to come closer to the Lord will be richly rewarded. Be sure to ask the Lord to give you the gift of prayers. It is the greatest gift He wants to give.” In prayer, we commune with God. We experience further God’s companionship and presence. The reward Nouwen speaks of is God; God is our treasure, and we receive it by seeking after him. The desire to seek God is a gift. It is a gift extended to us and made sure in and through Jesus.

In Isaiah 33:5-6, the prophet writes:

The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high;
    he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness.
He will be the sure foundation for your times,
    a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
    the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.

To the degree that we know the Lord, and to the degree that we seek fervently after God, the desire of our hearts should be that others would be blessed by Jesus, would come to know Jesus, and to receive from the Spirit access to salvation and wisdom and knowledge. We have been extended the invitation and privilege and opportunity to pray toward that very end. We have God’s ear. As intercessors, we are invited to bend it.

An Unbroken Life of Humble Quiet Adoration

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But to some at least He gives an amazing stayedness in Him, a well-nigh unbroken life of humble quiet adoration in His Presence, in the depths of our being. Day and night, winter and summer, sunshine and shadow, He is here, the great Champion. And we are with Him, held in His Tenderness, quickened into quietness and peace, children in Paradise before the Fall, walking with Him in the garden in the heat as well as the cool of the day. Here is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakeableness, firmness of life-orientation. We are become what [George] Fox calls “established men.”

Such men are not found merely among the canonized Saints of the Church. They are the John Woolmans of today. They are housewives and hand workers, plumbers and teachers, learned and unlettered, black and white, poor and perchance even rich. They exist, and happy is the church that contains them. They may not be known widely, nor serve on boards of trustees, or preach in pulpits. Where pride in one’s learning is found, there they are not. For they do not confuse acquaintance with theology and church history with commitment and the life lived in the secret sanctuary. Cleaving simply through forms and externals, they dwell in immediacy with Him who is the abiding Light behind all changing forms, really nullifying much of the external trappings of religion. They have found the secret of the Nazarene, and, not content to assent to it intellectually, they have committed themselves to it in action, and walk in newness of life in the vast fellowship of unceasing prayer.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 15-16

You could be one of these people. I could be one of these people.

Kelly writes about the life of inward prayer in a way that is clear and compelling, showing how prayer can be cultivated from the level of our conscious thought life and progressing further, deeper within, to become the rooted and established orientation of the soul. This is what he means by “an amazing stayedness,” or a “well-nigh unbroken life of quiet adoration.” How is this cultivated? By a conscious decision of the will, and a steadfast commitment of the heart. And, of course, God’s grace.

Psalm 16:8 says, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” With practice and a disciplining of the heart and mind, this is possible. You could be one of these people. I could be one of these people.

Praying Against the Grain

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O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, “A Christian Litany of Humility

I had read portions of this prayer before, I had encountered it before, but it strangely compelled and stuck with me when seeing it referenced by Clarence Thomas in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son [affiliate link].

Cardinal Merry del Val lived from 1865 to 1930 and served under Pope Pius X as Cardinal Secretary of State, an office described as “prime minister” of the papacy.

Merry del Val’s prayer brought to mind another, by John Wesley:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Such prayers run against the grain of human nature, as it is in our post-fall reality. We are glory seeking creatures. When that desire for glory is misdirected toward the self, as it is in our state of disorder, this pursuit gives way to destruction of ourselves and anyone who stands in our way.

The other-directed orientation expressed in both these prayers–in the latter portion of Merry del Val’s prayer toward the neighbor and in Wesley’s prayer directed toward God–is exactly the dual reorientation we need.

This can be done by yielding ourselves and placing ourselves fully at God’s mercy. We can do so with confidence, and in hope, because God put aside self in Jesus Christ, in order that we might receive back from him our true selves. Having redeemed us, the glory is no longer ours to pursue, but his to bestow, and then ours to display.

Living into the fullness of our redeemed humanity restores us and fits us for life as a servant, first to God, and second to those we encounter. It is a life reflecting and revealing the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one who was humiliated but who is now exalted, and before whom, if we are brought low, will find ourselves likewise lifted up.

A Prayer: On the Occasion of “Remade”

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This invocation was offered in Truett’s chapel service on April 26, 2022.

Lord of all creation,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

We enter your presence with gladness,
For all you have made is good.

As we come before you to worship, as we enter into your courts, as we lift our voices in song, as we open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to you,
Grant us your grace, your strength, your wisdom, your guidance, and your power.

We confess you as our Creator.
We confess you as our Redeemer.
We confess you as the one who sanctifies us, sustains us, preserves us, and as the one who alone brings ultimate peace, justice, restoration, and renewal.

In a word: Salvation.

If we turn toward you, if we behold you as you truly are, we are compelled to lay our hearts low, to fall upon our faces and to admit we are unworthy, that we do not honor you as we ought, that we fail you, we sin. We serve other gods. We do not love our neighbor as ourselves. We do not keep your commands.

And yet, where we are faithless, you, O God, are faithful.

And by your great, unending, and unceasing mercy, you have unleashed the power of new creation through the life, death, resurrection, and reign of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You have undone death.

You have cast down the devil.

You have disarmed the powers, principalities, and authorities.

You have renewed your covenant.

You have extended your salvation to those who were once far off.

You have taken our hearts of stone, and given us hearts of flesh.

You have mended bone and sinew, muscle and flesh, and you have moved us from death–death in our transgressions and sins–to life–life in and through Christ, and through the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and who has sealed us for the day of your redemption.

Your work of new creation is evidenced here. All we need to do is look around and witness those you have gathered as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

You have anointed, appointed, called, and equipped us for your kingdom work. You have gathered us to worship.

We trust you are sanctifying us, even making us perfect and complete in your love.

We know one day you will glorify us, and welcome us to your banquet table in the City of God, the New Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth.

We wait for that day. We hope in it.

Give us patience, Lord.

Grant us diligence, as workers in your field.

And as we wait, and as we work, remake us in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

May we adore him, and worship him, this hour, and discover our hearts being made new.

We pray these things in Jesus’ name, the worthy one, the honored one.

Amen.

Be That Person

Dayspring Baptist Church, Waco, Texas

Do you find yourself thinking that there is no one interceding properly? Then be that person yourself. Be a person who worships God and lives in a holy relationship with Him. Get involved in the real work of intercession, remembering that it truly is work— work that demands all your energy, but work which has no hidden pitfalls. Preaching the gospel has its share of pitfalls, but intercessory prayer has none whatsoever.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, March 30

An Invitation

Come, Holy Spirit, with all your sweet and precious favor.
Come, Lord, to convince and comfort me, to humble and direct me, to chill my affections to the world, and to warm them toward Jesus.

Come, you holy, gracious, almighty reviver and restored–and glorifier of my God and Savior!

Cause the graces you have planted in my soul to go forth in a way of love and desire, faith and expectation. Let me hope in the person and glory of the one my soul loves. Then I will cry out with the church, “Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat of his pleasant fruits.” Amen!

Robert Hawker, as cited in Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, Robert Elmer, ed.

Every Moment Holy: A Collection of Liturgies, Prayers Worth Having

A few weeks ago Molly and I stopped by our local bookshop, and as we browsed the shelves we came across a little book called Every Moment Holy [affiliate link]. I’ve linked to the pocket edition. There is a full-sized edition as well. It is published by Rabbit Room Press. This collection of prayers are written by Douglas Kaine McKelvey, and the book is illustrated by Ned Bustard.

You can visit the Every Moment Holy website to download sample liturgies, to purchase prints, and to learn more about the book. If you like what you see, you could also pick up Every Moment Holy, Vol. 2: Death, Grief & Hope [affiliate link]. The pocket edition of Vol. 2 releases later this month.

The prayers contained in Vol. 1 include liturgies for window washing, changing diapers, fiction writing, and meal preparation. Those are “Liturgies for Labor and Vocation.” You can view the contents here. There are prayers of petition, lament, for recreation, for relationships, for the table, for laughter, for thoughts of another…and for so many common occurrences of life, which, when bathed in prayer, take on a new frame.

I’ve only held Vol. 1 in my hand. This book contains compelling liturgies and prayers; it is also pleasant to hold. Not all books these days are.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing.” These prayers help us see that every moment, every occasion, can be conducted while in communion with God. The heart can be set, fixed upon God’s presence and activity. Words help us direct our attention and sharpen our focus. Every Moment Holy is a tool, one that can be put to edifying use.

Check it out.