Monday, February 23, 2009

Pray Without Ceasing: This Lent and Beyond…

It is a commonplace to speak of Lent as a good time to focus on prayer. We say: “I’ll offer more prayers” during Lent, or maybe pick up something about it from the library or the Lenten resource table. Often, we leave it at that. We get our “dose” of prayer, then return to the world as we left it. Yet, is not something more needed?

The Lord’s expectation about his disciples is that we will “pray without ceasing.” In other words, the normative state and condition of the Christian life is to be in silent communion with God the Holy Trinity. Anything less than this is an aberration and a rejection of the Kingdom of God Christ offers. For Jesus, each moment was in communion with the will and love of the Father. We, as “little Christs” (the true meaning of Christian) are to become more and more like Jesus in this and all other regards.

If this standard seems too high, it is because our expectations and the form of Christian life to which we have become accustomed are too low. Many Christians from ancient times through today have come to a state of regular, if not continuous, communion with God. This is done by living out a rule of prayer, one with regular times for learning and focused attention (the Daily Office, in a simple or rich form as found in the Prayer Book, serving as anchor points of intentional prayer) while also developing the tools to grow in the steady, conscious presence of God hour-by-hour.

This latter form of prayer (variously described as recollection, mental prayer, meditatio, mindfulness, &c.) is usually based on some very simple recited phrase, such as the Jesus Prayer (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy”), the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy”), or a short verse of Scripture (often from the Psalms). Developed as a constant rhythm of mental concentration occupying each moment the mind is not otherwise engaged (and, over time, pervading even those occupied moments by the awareness of God’s presence), recollected prayer allows us to see the truth of our identity as beloved children of God and gives us the ability to serve as agents of God’s grace in the various interactions and choices found each day.

Lent is the season par excellence for developing our life of prayer, moving from the notion that prayer is a “luxury” or an “escape” from daily life to the experience of prayer as something closer to us than our own breath. This often starts with a re-orientation of our schedule by making morning and evening prayer time a priority, and by developing our skills in recollection of God through the day.

When I am asked about how I gauge the health of a parish, most people expect me to point to the budget, a busy church-calendar, the number of ministries, or Sunday attendance. While these all have their place, I have come to feel the single most important sign of spiritual health in a parish is the number of people who say the Daily Office in some form and who are developing deeply recollected lives of prayer. Parishioners who do this are open to the Holy Spirit’s promptings, exhibit Christ-like humility, are less anxious, practice generous stewardship of God’s gifts, are better able to see mission and evangelism opportunities, and are likely to sort out their own agendas from God’s will.

If you seek to know God better this Lent and beyond, start to pray without ceasing. The result will not make you “look” different or require you wear a monastic habit, but it will bring you to the balance, peace, and clarity God seeks for you and for the world.

The tools are at hand; let the adventure begin. With God, all things are possible!

A Collect for Continual Mindfulness of God’s Presence:

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.