Holden Evening Prayer
10 December 2020
I remember wondering in my teenage years about how one could pray without ceasing and how one could give thanks always. It was a few us us who were wondering then and we did not find an answer. And I imagine most Western Christians who have come upon this passage from 1 Thessalonians have had a similar experience.
However, in my early twenties I was introduced to a first-hand account by an anonymous author entitled, “The Way of a Pilgrim.” All we know for certain is that it originates in the 19th century and that it’s theology is not unlike what we find among the Russian Starets we meet in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
The Way of the Pilgrim begins like this,
“By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back, and in my breast pocket a Bible. And that is all.
On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the liturgy. The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among other words I heard these — ‘Pray without ceasing.’ It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living. I looked at my Bible and with my own eyes read the words which I had heard, that is, that we ought always, at all times and in all places, to pray with uplifted hands. I thought and thought, but knew not what to make of it.”1
What is striking is that the pilgrim finds the idea compelling enough to want to understand, unlike me in my younger years when I may have shrugged my shoulders and thought, ‘beats me.’
The reason the Pilgrim is intrigued by the idea of praying without ceasing is that he seeks God with his whole heart, and if one could pray without ceasing, wouldn’t one not be closer to God?
The reason that this is a concept harder to understand for people of the Western church is likely that we think of prayer as an occupation of the intellect before we think of it as an activity of the heart. And so we worry about what we would say, and we write out long prayers, and keep lists of the people we pray for, all of which is good.
But the prayer the Pilgrim seeks is one he carries inside of him, it is not an activity of the mind but an attitude of the heart, where words are not unimportant, but their number, eloquence, and organization does not matter.
Such prayer is a little closer to the Apostle Paul’s word in Romans 8, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (v.26)
And so such prayer in it’s practise is closer to the prayer practise of Eastern religions, where a word or a sentence may be repeated over and over again, so that it imprints itself on our whole being and thus begins to guide our lives.
The passage from 1 Thessalonians has three sections.
The first one concerns worship: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. But these are not activities restricted to Sundays but are to permeate every hour and minute. This is not so much a command as it is a gift, for being able to do so, even in little steps is a sign of our hearts being enfolded into the heart of God.
The second section concerns discernment: Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. Discernment is thus to be guided by the Holy Spirit and the communion of saints, not necessarily by my own inclinations.
The third section concerns moral behaviour: Abstain from every form of evil. Evil is not spelled out here but the Apostle trusts the discernment of the community as guided by the practise of prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing.
Now you wonder what it was that the Pilgrim learned to pray. It is the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If you wanted to practise it, it could be this but it also be something else, like, “Lord, you are my light and my salvation,” or a shortened Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.”
If you want to know more about, give me a call.
1The complete text can be found at https://desertfathers.webs.com/thewayofthepilgrim.htm