To Pray Without Ceasing

McManaman Douglas P.
Homily for the 3rd Week of Advent
December 17, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

We've heard so much recently about Advent being a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, and the readings throughout the season certainly reflect that. But how do we prepare for Christ's Second Coming? What is Advent preparation? The answer to that question is in the Second Reading, in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians: "Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks."

How does one do that? How do we pray without ceasing? We understand what it means to pray before Mass, or pray before meals, or pray before we go to bed, but how does one pray without ceasing? The great spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an unknown 19th century Russian peasant, tackles that very question. This work focuses on the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner". Those in the Eastern rite say this repeatedly using a prayer rope, which is like a rosary, but it has 100 or 200 knots, some have 300 knots. Obviously, one cannot be constantly saying that prayer, when we are talking to someone, or in a meeting, or working on some project, etc. So how does this work? The purpose behind this constant repetition of that prayer is to create a habit in the soul, a disposition. Let me compare it to someone who has a musical disposition; those who are musically gifted almost always have a song playing in the back of their minds, perhaps a song they've heard on the radio, or a song they're working on, if they are musicians. The song is not at the forefront of their minds, but at the back.

Similarly, to pray without ceasing is to pray in the back of one's mind, constantly. A proclivity to prayer has been developed as a result of the constant repetition of this prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. But the same thing can occur for those who pray the rosary very often. What happens is that eventually the actual words are no longer necessary because the very meaning that the words express have become a habit imprinted in the subconscious, and so although the mind may be preoccupied with some matter, such as paying a phone bill or shopping or taking an important phone call, the soul is praying in the background, without words, like a candle that is burning constantly. That's when we have begun to pray without ceasing. We begin with words, but eventually we go beyond words.

There are different kinds of prayer: the prayer of petition, prayer of intercession, prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of praise, and prayer of adoration. The highest kind of prayer that each one of us is called to achieve is the prayer of adoration. In the words of Father Gerald Vann, this is the "prayer of wonder: the still, wordless gaze of Adoration, which is proper to the lover. You are not talking, not busy, not worried or agitated; you're not asking for anything: you are quiet, you are just being with, and there is love and wonder in your heart."

This prayer is much more difficult than we might tend to believe. It is about placing oneself in the presence of God, in silence, focusing all our attention on God. This is difficult, because what soon happens is that we are distracted by all kinds of thoughts, and our attention will be pulled this way and that way, without our being aware of it. Once we do become aware of it, however, we just have to refocus our attention on God, dwelling in his presence. But, within a minute, the mind will be drawn away again, distracted by thoughts. This is where short prayers are so important and helpful, like the Jesus prayer, or a short phrase from the psalms, like "God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me", or "Into your hands I commend my spirit". These short phrases repeated will help us to return to that interior dwelling place within. With constant practice, one eventually is able to dwell in silence, in the presence of God within, for a long time without distraction. This is also a kind of prayer that brings tremendous healing to the subconscious. Many of the thoughts that come to the surface during this time are often unhealed memories that have been stored in the subconscious, and learning to leave them behind brings about profound healing and peace; for much of our day to day lives is driven by these unhealed memories in the unconscious, which is why there is typically a great deal of turmoil in the interior lives of the faithful.

There are two types of people in this world: those who believe that this life is a preparation for eternal life, and those who believe that this life is all there is and that everything we do is only a preparation for life in this world. I've seen a lot of people in the hospital these past few months, people who have lost their mobility, who have had to spend months in a hospital bed, many of whom died after a long period, especially within these past 3 weeks. For those who do not have an interior life, who have not cultivated the habit of prayer throughout their lives, these final years and months are often very painful, very unpleasant, which is why euthanasia is becoming more popular. But those who have a rich interior life, those who have used the time in their lives to prepare for eternal life by learning to pray without ceasing, their final months or years, perhaps in a hospital bed, are not unbearable, and visiting these people is often a joy, because there is a deeper peace within them, and they are thankful. And the wonderful thing about them is that they are not asking to be euthanized. Instead of making their final act an act of rebellion and murder, their death becomes their final prayer, a final offering, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for all they've received throughout their lives.