Paul's admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 had always seemed a practical impossibility to me. But ten or so years ago, I went on a four-day prayer retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in Kentucky, and a mere twenty-four hours into it, I found myself praying as I walked, as I read, as I ate. For the first time in my life, I had experienced unceasing prayer.
It was a surprise. And I came home from that prayer retreat determined to "practice the presence" of God as long and as consistently as possible.
Since then, while I can't say it's a daily experience with me, it IS a regular experience, and (for me, at least) I've learned that there are several ingredients that foster constant prayer:
1. I spend time in prayer every morning and evening. The Trappist monks at Gethsemani practice the Divine Office, seven "hours" of prayer throughout the day, as a way of keeping them in an unceasing rhythm of prayer and work. When I am on retreat at the abbey, I will practice those offices with them. But at home, while there are times when I might pray the midday and Vespers offices, I typically practice morning and evening prayers. I find that this is the bare minimum: waking and retiring, a habit that goes a long way toward maintaining an ongoing conversation with God.
2. I celebrate the Sabbath. For me, the rhythm of prayer in my life absolutely requires a weekly Sabbath, a day when I focus on God and re-connect with him at a deeper level than I do the other six days of the week. Most weeks, I thirst for my Sabbath (and my God) as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I reserve my Sabbath for four main activities: I pray, walk, read, and nap (and, in recent months, play with my granddaughter).
3. I take an annual prayer retreat. Once, sometimes twice, a year, I spend four-to-five days at a monastery, re-focusing my heart, mind, and life around God, and re-capturing my passion for prayer. It never fails to revive me and restore me. And, on those occasions when it's been more than twelve months between retreats, I feel my strength in prayer waning, as if it is "leaking" out of my spirit.
4. I prayer journal. Writing some of my prayers helps me tremendously. It focuses my mind. It helps me listen to God. Sometimes I discover what God wants me to pray AS I'm writing. And a quick look at my prayer journal shows me many things about myself, my prayers, and more.
5. I listen frequently to a daily morning prayer podcast. I never have to miss morning prayer, because I can pop in my iPhone's earbuds and pray in the car, on the exercise machine, on a walk, etc.
6. I pray on the spur of the moment, on the phone, on Facebook, and on email. People often ask me to pray for them, and sometimes I'm able to stop what I'm doing and pray immediately, with or without their knowledge. I might offer to pray with them, even in a public place. Or I'll pray as we're parting. Or I'll type my prayer, on Facebook or via email.
7. I'll pray while I wait. I have always hated to wait in line--especially at the grocery store. I would tap my fingers, count the items of the person ahead of me in the express checkout lane, browse any magazine or tabloid that happened to be at hand. But not anymore. Now I use time spent waiting--in bank lines, traffic jams, airport terminals, or doctor’s offices--to pray.
8. I'll pray on hold. "On hold" commercials and Muzak make it harder, but I try to make a habit of praying anytime I'm on hold, even when it's for just a few moments. Sometimes I'll pray for the person I'm waiting for, sometimes for whatever need is on my heart, and sometimes just to praise God or thank him for those few precious moments.
9. I pray with the help of “triggers.” For a period of time, I carried a large disc in my pocket; every time I reached into my pocket for change, the disc reminded me to pray for several seeking friends. I have used a candle, a screensaver, even the automated "alarm" reminders on my computer to interrupt my routine and spark a few moments of prayer.
10. I regularly read classics on prayer and biographies of prayer warriors and pioneers in contemplative prayer. Reading some of Thomas Merton's writings on prayer, or Teresa of Avila's The Way of Perfection, or John Baillie's A Diary of Private Prayer inspires me to pray like few other things.
11. I pray "The Jesus Prayer" and "Isaiah's Prayer" throughout the day. As I said, several times a year, I make it a habit to read classics on prayer; not long ago I read The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian ascetic who cultivated a life of prayer by learning to pray the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner") as often as possible throughout the day. Since then, I will often pray that prayer (sometimes in abbreviated form: "Lord, have mercy") and my own version of Isaiah's prayer ("Here I am, Lord") repeatedly throughout the day.
12. I pray what I see and hear. I’ve also tried to cultivate the habit of infusing prayer into as many waking moments as possible by praying short prayers in response to the world around me. When I hear an ambulance siren, I may utter a brief prayer for the victim; when I see a funeral procession, I pray for the bereaved. When I open a card from a friend, I sometimes pray for the sender. There are times, of course, when I don’t know what to pray, but I’ll still say something like “Lord, please,” or “Lord, have mercy,” and let the Holy Spirit fill in the blanks (Romans 8:26).
I'm sure there are many things I'm forgetting that cultivate a spirit of unceasing prayer in my life and routine. Foremost among them, for sure, would be an awareness of my own sinfulness and need for prayer. The more I pray, the more I need to pray, and the more I KNOW I need to pray. But, thankfully, too, the more I pray...the more I pray.
Funny how that works.