Let no one think, my Christian Brethren, that only persons in holy orders, or monks, are obliged to pray unceasingly and at all times, but not laymen. No, no! It is the duty of all us Christians to remain always in prayer.
~ St. Gregory Palamas, On the Necessity of Constant Prayer for all Christians in General
This is both an encouraging and a hard saying. It is encouraging because it affirms the focus of this blog, everyday asceticism. It is hard because it seemingly sets the bar so high.
My first instinct is to object, with the elder Job, who is named in the work this is taken from, that “to pray unceasingly [is] only fit for ascetics and monks living outside the world and its vanities, but not for lay people who have so many cares and so much work.”
But I like St. Gregory’s insistence. Sometimes the bar needs to be set high in order for people to rise to it.
Indeed, reading the rest of the text, I was struck by how many techniques he recommends are things I do or used to (more on that in a minute) practice.
He talks about praying just mentally if necessary, while doing housework or physical labor.
He talks about an advisor to an emperor who would repeat the same question over and over because he was too distracted with prayer in his mind. (Remarkably, the emperor knew this was the cause and didn’t fire him.)
I know these things are possible.
I used to work in a factory, and after months of wishing I could be a student instead, I embraced my situation and was able pray with gladness while I worked, usually the Jesus prayer but then regularly the few psalms I’d memorized (many of which I’ve since forgotten).
I’ve also prayed mentally while carrying on a conversation, and actually I found that I didn’t have that much trouble following along. What I found instead is that I was more likely to listen and less likely to speak. I should probably get back into the practice of that….
Tonight, I was reminded of another occasion for prayer that I’ve been missing. Brendan, who is now four, had been going to sleep very well on his own … before daylight savings time. Since then, bedtime is now a struggle. Brendan defies us, says he’ll stay in bed but then gets up once we close the door, only with great effort apologizing for his disobedience and dishonesty, and only then to do it again.
It’s been disappointing. I know he can do better, which makes me stubborn too. I want to teach him to be righteous, and I know that it starts with little things like keeping your word when you tell your dad you’ll stay in bed when he leaves the room.
Tonight, however, I took a different approach. I laid down with him like I used to when he was younger. I sang a psalm. I mentally recited the Jesus prayer forty times before getting up. He wasn’t quite asleep when I left, but he was calm. And I was calm. And he stayed in bed after that and soon after fell asleep.
As created beings, even apart from corruption and sin, we live in an ever-changing world, and we ourselves are ever-changing. Life doesn’t stay the same. I shouldn’t lie down with Brendan every night. But I should find a way to replace that lost practice of prayer with a new one.
Maybe “unceasing” prayer is hyperbole for laypeople. Or, well, maybe unceasing doesn’t mean without any starts and stops. (I know, I know, that’s the opposite of what the word means.)
Let me put it this way: Perhaps the effort of prayer is what needs to be unceasing, so that when we notice prayer has stopped, we find anew how to begin it again. On second thought, maybe the word “prayer” is the one that needs to be broadened.
In any case, I plan to try again … again and again and again. When St. Paul told the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), he was talking to everyone. To virgins and the married. To parents and the childless. To young and old. To me.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.