“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that soon after the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, three thousand persons were baptized and added to the Church. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41-42). Thus from the earliest days of Christianity, following the pattern already set by devout Jews, the practice of daily prayer was established. Later, when the Apostles began to go out on missionary journeys accompanied by believers, the gathering for “the breaking of bread” (The Holy Eucharist) came to be observed primarily on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. However there are indications that the practice of daily prayers continued on all days of the week. Paul’s words of encouragement near the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, quoted above, give us an indication of the importance of daily prayer in those early times. Those same words have continued to be a rallying cry to Christians of all generations to persevere in daily prayer.
There are many ways of praying daily, including repetitive prayer using the Rosary or Scripture or one’s own words, spontaneous prayer, intercessory prayer, the Daily Office, as well as the monastic form of meditative prayer called Lectio Divina, which is an unhurried reading of a passage from scripture, or from some other spiritual book, in which we let the words speak to us. Whatever approach you use, a sentence from the SSJE Rule of Life might be helpful: “Without silence words become empty” (SSJE Rule, Ch. 27).
One very famous repetitive prayer with which you might be familiar is the well-known “Jesus Prayer”: Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me. This prayer has an interesting history relating to our Order. In the mid 1960s, Fr. John Sakurai, of the Japanese Province of the SSJE, made a translation of the popular 19th century devotional manual, The Pilgrim’s Way, which he titled using the words from 1st Thessalonians in Japanese “Taezu Inorinasai,” that is “Pray without ceasing.” The devotional manual tells of a Russian pilgrim who took those same words as his inspiration to practice the repetition of the Jesus Prayer as the foundation for his daily prayers. Over the years the manual has been published in Russian, English, Japanese, and many other languages. Thus the Jesus Prayer has been used as one form of daily prayer by many people. Repeated over and over, it takes on its own life subconsciously. If we pray the Jesus Prayer faithfully over time it takes on the rhythm of our breathing and heartbeat. Yet in The Pilgrim’s Way the reader is also warned to avoid repeating it in a strained way, as well as advised to have a spiritual director as a guide. I find, in my own practice, that I only use that prayer periodically, for example during quiet waiting times or as part of my prayer on a retreat day. When I was living in Japan some years ago, and since then, on subsequent visits, I found that riding on a train for some distance, if I had a seat that was relatively quiet, the Jesus Prayer would come to me with the rhythmic sound of the wheels of the train.
Even very short prayers can be helpful in our daily prayer. In his book Toward God, Michael Casey, an Australian Cistercian monk, offers the 4th century monk, John Cassian, and the anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing, as proponents of the importance of short prayers. One of the reasons Cassian favored short prayers was the belief (still held in those early days) that short prayers didn’t give demons time to get into one’s soul. With longer prayers, they might sneak in during the pauses. So too, The Cloud of Unknowing advocates the use of short words, preferably only one syllable, such as God or love, because the intent of prayer put into that word could the more easily penetrate the cloud separating us from God.
In my own experience, I’ve found that shorter prayers prayed frequently can be much more effective than longer prayers. As a small boy, from the age of about three or four, until twelve, I was exposed every Sunday to the long pastoral prayers that were part of Presbyterian worship in those days. Those long prayers were to me just times for drawing pictures in the margins of the bulletin. I was occasionally taken to Sunday Evensong at the Cathedral in Spokane, which was my mother’s parish. From those days forward, I came to appreciate the shorter prayers of the Episcopal Church. To this day, I find that when I offer prayer to God – the concerns that are on my heart, my contrition, my penitence, as well as the offering of praise and glory – shorter prayers of just a few words help me to concentrate and focus my prayer. I wonder what short prayer might focus your life with God today?
You might also focus your daily prayer around the patterns of the day. From the earliest times, the daily prayers used by Christians probably have included some form of greeting the new day in the early morning, asking God’s blessing on whatever is to be done in that new day. For noonday prayer, they perhaps included some form of thanksgiving for food at meals, before or after the noon meal. And finally, there was likely a form of evening prayers: at the end of the day, a final prayer of confession of sins, thanksgiving for the day’s blessings, and a commendation to God’s mercy before sleep. Throughout these set times, there might be prayers of intercession and petition for the sick and the needy. Some form of this daily pattern has undoubtedly been used by all devout Christians down through the ages of history.
Of course, while words can be useful in prayer, words are not necessary to prayer, nor do words alone make prayer. True prayer is opening oneself to God with love as a response to God’s love for us. Our Rule explains that prayer is not just saying words: “Our prayer is not merely communication with God; it is coming to know God by participation in [God’s] divine life” (SSJE Rule, Ch. 21). This is important to remember in regard to repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary. If we pray with the intention of offering our words to God in love, and in union with the prayers of many other people throughout the world, and perhaps in other languages (when I say the Jesus Prayer, and many other private prayers, I do so in Japanese), then we are participating in God’s divine life. And so we continue our prayer without ceasing to this day.