To pray without ceasing means to live purposefully
Thursday, June 5, 2014
Father John Paul Erickson
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle to the Gentiles admonishes his readers “to pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Pray without ceasing?! I have trouble enough just praying for an hour, let alone the whole day. And our heavenly patron is exhorting us to pray without ceasing!?
Right . . . .
The context of Paul’s exhortation is, of course, important for understanding the meaning of the words recorded. In point of fact, Paul’s remarks regarding constant prayer are delivered in a section of the letter dedicated to Church order and to commands related to the communal life of the community. The exhortation to pray always, therefore, is a summons given to the whole Church and not just to individuals.
But while this communal dimension to the command eases some of the burden the apostle seems to be placing upon us, the resounding and uncompromising words “without ceasing” can still seem to us to be among the most unrealistic of Paul’s spiritual counsels. Maybe it’s just rhetorical flourish, a bit of pious hyperbole?
And yet, what if our entire life is meant to be prayer, a prayer of gratitude for the gift of existence and the even greater gift of supernatural faith? By means of baptism, this is exactly what our lives have become, because it is by means of our baptism that our entire life has become “hidden in Christ.” Everything we do, short of sin, has been charged with the Christ-life. As long as we stay in a state of grace, that is, as long as we do not deliberately leave communion with Jesus Christ and his Mystical Body through serious sin, our joys, works and sufferings are themselves prayers — offerings to God who has given us our life and calls us to eternal life through Christ, in Christ and with Christ.
All of Christ’s earthly life was, in fact, a prayer. And indeed, it continues to be a prayer even as he reigns now at the right hand of the Father for ages upon ages. From all eternity, the Logos sings a song of love to the Father, and when the Logos assumed human nature, this nature, our nature, began to ring with this same song — the song of “Thy Will be Done!” It is a song of loving obedience and of trust in the plan of the father. It is, in short, a prayer.
By means of our baptism, we are incorporated into this prayer. By means of the great sacraments of initiation, our flesh, too, begins to ring with the love song of the Logos, thus making our whole life a gift to the father; thus making our whole life a prayer — the prayer of Christ.
The call to pray without ceasing, therefore, is not a call to spend all of our days on our knees, or to recite the rosary 24/7 to the frustration of our friends and family who are trying to carry on a conversation with us! Nor does it mean spending every spare moment in church. But it does mean living purposefully, and for the right purpose, which is holiness. And what is holiness? It is communion with Jesus, the great high priest, who sanctifies and consecrates our life, making it ring with meaning, and dignity and eternal significance.
When our lives are lived in this way, that is, in union with Christ and his beloved bride the Church, we are in fact praying without ceasing.
But don’t get me wrong. The anxiety I expressed in the beginning of this column hasn’t completely evaporated. Paul’s exhortation still poses a serious challenge to us, for holiness is a lifelong struggle, and to cling to Christ and his life demands effort and daily battles with oneself. But praise be to Almighty God, for the victory is his, a victory guaranteed to those whose life is hidden in Christ.
Father Erickson is director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship.