In the middle of today’s readings, there’s a two-word phrase. It passes so quickly we can miss it altogether. It came in the second reading. It’s from St Paul. It’s ‘pray constantly.’ Two words in English, two in Greek. So quick, so simple, so easily missed. And yet, again and again through Christian history, it has caught the attention and the hearts of believers.
Jesus told the parable of the importunate widow to teach us ‘to pray always and not lose heart’ (Lk 18:1). ‘Watch at all times, he said, praying for strength’ (Lk 21:36). ‘Go on steadfastly in prayer’, says St Paul elsewhere (Col 4:2). ‘Pray at all times in the Spirit’ (Eph 6:18). So today’s ‘pray constantly’ has many echoes.
And like many things in our faith, it can puzzle. What does it mean in practice? To pray is to lift our heart and mind to God. And St Paul says, do this ‘without ceasing / without a break / without interruption’, i.e. non-stop. How can we?
Are we supposed to spend our whole time in church? Hardly.
Should we always have God at the forefront of our minds? That would be beautiful, and is getting closer to what St Paul meant. But we have to sleep, we have to think of our work and other people. So this can’t be quite it either. There were actually some Christians who thought St Paul was to be taken literally and therefore didn’t do any work at all. As you can imagine, that little movement faded away quite quickly.
So what does it mean? Is it just a typical preacher’s over-statement? There is an interpretation which says: it just means pray sometimes, pray at regular intervals, build a daily, weekly pattern of prayer into your life. Excellent, of course. We should know the great Christian prayers: the Sign of the Cross, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory be, the Angelus, the Rosary and all the rest. And they help us pray. And it’s good to have a daily routine, praying when we get up and before going to bed, or praying the Divine Office and the Psalms at their different times, or saying the Rosary every day, joining a prayer group, going to Mass on a regular basis. Excellent and helpful and very, very commendable, indispenable really. But it’s not quite what St Paul has in mind, I think.
So let’s press on. Here’s a comparison. A second Forth Road Bridge is being built. You see it from the current one. And it’s clear, even if like me you know nothing of engineering, that the first thing is to set up the pillars and supports which will hold up the bridge. This is happening now. It’s a parable. The ground beneath the river is like the faith in our hearts. The pillars or supports need that solid floor, and the pillars are like regular moments of prayer in our life. There’s no bridge without them. They make the road possible. They hold up our spiritual life. But the road is the point of it all. The road with its constant, ceaseless traffic. So, first faith, then patterns of prayer and sacramental practice, but all in view of a constant flowing Christian life of prayer. It’s this road and its traffic St Paul is after – a life of prayer.
Or take a fire. It needs fuel. Prayer is a fire in the heart; it’s the flame of God in our heart. And that fire needs fuel. It needs good reading, the word of God. It needs prayers and patterns of prayer. The fire keeps alight thanks to them. No fuel, no fire. But the fire is more than the fuel. And you can put so much fuel on the fire that goes out. You can say so many prayers that you don’t really pray. Balance is the thing. The Church bids us go to Mass on Sundays and holydays of obligation, a basic minimum. But beyond that we are free to find our own pattern of prayer-practices. What do I need to keep the fire burning? How much fuel? It depends on circumstances and temperament and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The fire is the thing – prayer alive in the heart.
And so we come to the best interpretation of all. It was St Augustine who gave it. ‘To pray without ceasing is to desire without ceasing.’ He is locating it at another level. Prayer is a hunger of the heart. Prayer is longing, desire. ‘Of you, my heart has spoken: ‘Seek his face’. It’s your face. O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face’ (Ps 26). Prayer is an orientation of our inside towards God. It’s an inner compass pointing to the magnetic north of the kingdom of God. It’s a feeling of incompleteness. It’s a kind of hidden, underground cry, an inner groaning, a salutary restlessness – all these things. It’s a sense of being on the way, of not having arrived. It’s looking out. It’s waiting for the Lord to come. ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ That’s the road-bridge. That’s the fire. And it’s a sign of our greatness as human beings. ‘Birds fly, fish swim, men pray.’ Animals fit our world, they’re content in it, they’re completely adapted to their environment. But we are funny creatures, maladjusted. We partly fit. At one level, we’re at home in the world. And at another, we’re not. It’s never quite right. It always falls short. We’re congenitally discontent. We’re always looking beyond. It’s our fatal flaw, in a way, and all our glory. And prayer is its sign.
‘Pray without ceasing.’ This is Advent – a life-long Advent, an inner Advent, an Advent that’s part of the human being, a constitutional Advent. ‘Pray without ceasing.’ Think of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. He keeps saying, ‘I am not.’ ‘I am not the Christ, not Elijah, not the Prophet.’ He’s not self-contained. He’s not self-satisfied. There’s a crack in him, as it were. There’s a window to his house and he has got his face pressed against the window-pane. He’s looking out. He’s on the watch. ‘There is one coming after me, and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ That’s prayer without ceasing. Think of Mary focussed on her Son. Even when she was shopping or helping Joseph with the accounts, her heart would have been turned to Jesus.
‘Pray without ceasing.’ This is prayer of the heart. It comes from grace, from the Holy Spirit. It comes from suffering. It comes from life, from joys and sorrows. It comes with the years. And it doesn’t despise words. It finds them. It uses them. They keep the flame burning. Maybe just the holy name of Jesus, maybe the Jesus Prayer, maybe a phrase of the Psalms, maybe ‘Lord, have mercy.’ Maybe just a silent pain or a quiet stream of inexplicable happiness.
‘Pray constantly, pray without ceasing, pray and don’t lose heart.’ May this Advent be inside us! May this fire be inside us! May the prayer of our hearts warm the whole world and open it to Christ!