Unceasing Prayer

Unceasing Prayer

Mr. Tom asked me, “father, please tell me how to pray always”. “Well, Tom, you need to find God in everything you do, and then your prayer becomes unceasing and continuous”. “How that can be achieved?” asked Tom. I told him that the answer can be found in the following article.

Prayer influences life itself when it permeates every detail of your life. When prayer becomes unceasing it becomes a habit and it influences your attitudes. Hence prayer becomes a constant habitual attitude.

Christ said, “Be ye perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect”. Each one of you needs to aim at becoming like the heavenly Father. Jesus himself accomplished the will of the Father as his daily ‘food’.

Human person grows always physically, spiritually, psychologically and morally. There is no end to growth unless it is terminated by death. Growth needs help and this help is provided by many factors like food, exercise, study, training etc. Speaking of spiritual growth the only contributor to this growth is grace and prayer. God provides the needed grace. Prayer is your elevation of heart and mind to God’s grace.

The first and foremost effect of prayer in your life is ‘Detachment’. You cannot grow unless you detach. Detachment simply cannot happen because the roots of attachments to things, persons, wealth, honor, approval, are deeply embedded in your self. To grow into Christ, to experience the real freedom detachment is the fundamental factor. Detachment does not mean running away from things and persons; rather it is a gradual attainment of balance and equilibrium in life. You cannot observe certain external rules and regulations and say that you are growing and progressing. This is wrong. It is a total and integral change that must happen in you. It is a growth inside out. When you are attached to something you cannot in any way grow as St. John of the Cross would put it “like a bird that is tied with a cord or by a slender thread” it cannot fly.

During your growth you come across varied situations, different people with diverse temperaments that are good as well as bad. They influence you. You need to form yourself in order to deal with all kinds of people, without disliking them or distancing yourself from them.

In this task of daily spiritual growth prayer plays a major role where one understands the need for a strong foundation in order to build an edifice. When you are ready to build a house with all the material that is necessary you sit and plan. You are keen on building a house that will last on a foundation that can guarantee support, strength and endurance.

Then what does prayer do? It informs you of the need to select material, the dangers and risks that are involved, the energy that is to be spent, the crisis you are going to experience etc.

Detachment is a big factor for growth in spiritual life or for any state of life be it civil or religious or spiritual. The term ‘detachment’ is expressed through multiple other equivalents, such as abnegation, renunciation, mortification, stripping off of old self, renunciation, self-abandonment, forgetfulness of self, self-sacrifice, humility or spiritual freedom. Our Lord said: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16.24); and again to the rich young man “sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me” (Lk 18.22); “there is no one who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive an over abundant return in this present age and eternal life in the age to come” (Lk 18.29-30). All these passages point to the attainment of a higher good at the denial of a lower one. St. Paul says it is “taking off the old self with its practices of immorality in order to be re-clothed with the new self, renovated in the image of its creator” (Col 3.5; 8-12).

Right from your childhood you learnt to grab things for yourself. When you wanted things you cried and your parents provided you. You are basically the one who wanted and accumulated things and never learnt the art of giving. Striving for more things leads to the realization that you cannot ever fulfil yourself from the outside. The more you get attached or value those things outside of yourself, the more you give those things the power to control you. When you are controlled by things external to yourself you are a slave to those externals, making suffering the only available course to you. Prayer helps you to value things in their proper place and context. It helps you to grasp the inner reality of your sacred self. You are worth much more than the things outside of you. You begin to form yourself from within and not form yourself depending on the things outside of you.

Attachment to People
I do not say that it is inappropriate to love someone, to value that person, and appreciate the presence of that person in your life. You need unconditional love relationships in life. My concern is to inform you of the danger of needing to own another and feeling useless and hurt if that person is not a part of your life in the way you desire. All human relationships and friendships can be happier from a position of detachment. This radically means loving people unconditionally and allowing them to make their own choices without hankering after them. Prayer is a help in this situation to discern well what kind of relationship in fact leads you to God. The moment you are attached inordinately to a person you are distancing yourself from God. The moment of prayer informs you where you are in your relationship with people. How far you can go and what are the dangers involved in exaggerating. Prayer is the touchstone of relationships. Detachment in human relationship does not in any way mean absence of caring. If your prayer is genuine you will know that love is for giving and not for taking.

The Disturbing Past
You normally have the habit of thinking about the past. Your past might have been glorious or painful. The thoughts of the past linger on and on in your life comparing them to your present situation. You participate in attachment to the past when you attempt to determine for others what their choices should be, based on what you were taught to believe. Due to attachment to your past you determine for others what education they should seek, what vocation to choose, who their friends should be, what they should wear, how they should speak, and even how they must choose to think as you had thought. This limits your freedom and chains you to your past and literally does not allow you to open yourself to the new and evolved reality in others. You complain saying when you were young you did things that way. You criticize the younger generation for not following your path. Prayer helps you to overcome such attachments. You know to discern and are better prepared to meet the challenges through the renewal of your mind.

Attachment to your Appearance
You are not your appearance. You are 99 percent invisible reality. What is seen of you is just one percent. Often you give much importance to your external than to your interior. You are worried to see what people say about your appearance, your external features. Human beauty is deeper and has a spiritual dimension to it. If you believe that you are only your body then you are inviting a lifetime of suffering. Hair loss, wrinkles, weakening vision, weakening limbs and all indications of physical change will bring you immense suffering. Being exclusively involved with outer appearance makes it difficult to see that your true essence is a formlessness that resides inside your body. You need to transcend this difficulty forming your inner self through contact with the Ultimate reality. Prayer helps you to journey inwards and discover the invaluable riches that are within. You can bring out the immense treasures that are within to make other people rich. The Lord said “The kingdom of God is within you” and “where your treasure is there your heart be also”.

Attachment to Wealth
No man can serve God and wealth. There is a normal tendency in you to get attached to money. You handle money and gradually there is a danger that you become the victim of money. Instead of managing money, money begins to manage you. Detachment means the awareness that you are not steered by money. If you strongly feel that you must have money in order to feel happy and successful, then you are basically attached to it. Here you need the help of prayer and dependence on God. Prayer begins in you a process of inner healing which does not allow you to be dependent on wealth or money. Your inner voice begins to affirm that you cannot buy happiness, peace and joy through money. Prayer strengthens you to be free and to be content with what you have.

Detachment from Your Own Sufferings
Your life cannot always be a bed of roses. Life is full of sufferings and pain. Without sufferings you cannot be really a complete human person. The Psalmist says “our life is over like a sigh, our span is seventy years or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly and we are gone. Give us joy Lord to balance our affliction” (Ps. 90). We undergo all kinds of suffering; physical, psychological, moral, spiritual, sociological, political etc. There is not a day perhaps when you have not suffered. This does not mean that you alone suffer. Often you are attached to your own pain without getting out of yourself. When you come to know that there are millions of people over the globe suffering in innumerable ways, your sufferings will be lightened. Since you have been thinking only of your sufferings you have become blind to the sufferings of others. You may be suffering of a toothache or the painful agony of an incurable sickness. I do not deny that pain and suffering nor do I like to make it light comparing it with the sufferings of others. But the fact is that the moment you live your pain with yourself that becomes unbearable for you. You can just imagine the way millions suffered in the concentration camps of Hitler during the Second World War. The excruciating pain of separation, nakedness, tortures of various kinds, lack of food and basic amenities of life, psychological isolation etc were endured by people like me and you. When you suffer you have company, a community around you, medical security and spiritual help is provided, you are given the best possible treatment, you are helped to accept your pain. Various people pray for you. Imagine the situation of a person on the streets, a beggar, a vagabond, having no financial security leave alone medical security; who lives for the day and does not even have enough money to get his daily bread. There are many such people who suffer innumerable pains and even incurable sicknesses. Now who is better? You or those unfortunate people? Believe that God has given you a cross that you can carry. Carry it with the spirit of Christ. Detach from thinking on your own sufferings and become a part of humanity’s suffering. Pray for others and learn from others how to carry your own cross. Prayer opens up your will to accept whatever God gives you. Let this be your prayer “naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return again. Yahweh gave, Yahweh has taken back. Blessed be the name of Yahweh” (Jb 1.21).

Love of Neighbour
Prayer strengthens your bonds with others. I have indicated in the section of detachment the need to cultivate mature relationship with others. The Lord said “love your neighbour as yourself”. This is easily said but difficult to practise.

If your love towards God is to be genuine and lasting it must be manifested in your love towards your neighbour. “The way we came to know love was that He laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers… Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 4.16-18). St. Teresa of Avila affirms that “our nature being so evil, I do not believe we should ever attain perfect love for our neighbour unless it has its roots in the love of God”[1]. Love embraces all trials and every act done with pure intention towards your neighbour. Your prayer cannot be authentic in so far as you are not able to see the image of God in the other. The moment you fail to understand the other you basically fail to understand the OTHER.

St. John in his first letter, Chapter 4 verses 7-20, explicitly exhorts: “love comes from God and those who love are born of God. Those who do not love do not know God. God is love. We must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God lives in us and His love spreads freely among us. God is love. One who lives in love, lives in God and God in him. We must strive to become like Him. There is no fear in love, perfect love drives away every fear. Those who fear do not love. Let us love one another. If you say ‘I love God’ while you hate your brother, you are a liar. How can you love God whom you cannot see, if you do not love your neighbour?” This text puts God as a concrete reality before us. Only when we love our neighbour as we love ourselves we know that God is present among us. In your neighbour you are able to touch and feel God. John again in the gospel clearly mentions that “there is no greater love than this to give one’s life for ones friend”. (Jn 15.13). The criterion to judge that love is genuine, is the same criterion Jesus gives “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15.12). Now you know clearly that God can be made a concrete reality through love. When you love you pray and you are in direct contact with God. There is no greater prayer than that of loving and becoming love in your daily life. When love becomes a reality God becomes a reality to you. “Where there is no love put love, and you will draw out love”[2]. When God becomes a concrete reality through love, prayer just happens.

Prayer and Humility
The Gospels recommend the need to be humble like little children to gain entry into God’s kingdom (Mk 10.15). Prayer is a door to the kingdom of God. Prayer opens up the doors of the kingdom. Prayer is knocking, seeking and searching for this kingdom. The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit who are childlike in humility (Mt 5.3). This is all inclusive of the spirit of Christ who invites his disciples to learn from him because He is meek and humble of heart (Mt 11.29). He humbled himself, being obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2.8).

In Christ’s teaching, humility is closely associated with love and service. The humility of Jesus is the model for progress in prayer life. “If I therefore, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13.14-15).

Gregory the great describes humility as “the mistress and mother of all virtues”[3]. St. Teresa of Avila clearly observes that however advanced you may be in prayer, humility always demands that you should be prepared to go back to the beginnings. “No soul is ever such a giant in this way that it will not need often to turn back to being a baby at the breast and never let this be forgotten; for it is very important and perhaps I shall speak of it more often. There is no state of prayer so exalted that it will not be necessary to return often to the beginnings”.[4] It is by gazing at God’s grandeur, you get in touch with your own lowliness; by looking at His purity, you shall see your own filth; by pondering His humility, you shall see how far you are from being humble.[5] For humility has an excellent feature: when it is present in a work, that work does not leave in the soul a feeling of frustration”.[6]

Humility is multifaceted. You cannot zero in on a particular aspect of your life for affirming that you are humble. It covers everything, your thoughts, judgements, categories, ideas, desires, ambitions, hopes and expectations. Prayer must affect all these areas to lead you to real humility. If these areas are not touched, prayer will be just an external practice. To determine the essential elements of Christian prayer, you must go to the very teaching of Christ himself. The fullest and most important characteristic is contained in Mt. 6.5-16: “When you pray” says Jesus “do not be like hypocrites”; “do not use a lot of meaningless words”. “go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen, because your Father already knows what you need”. This invitation to pray unseen and hidden brings out the real nature of humility that makes you humble before God. In order to be really humble you need the following attitudes:

The best example of humility is forgiveness. It is not so easy as you think it to be. For an awakened life, you must transcend your body, must learn to be detached. But if you have not learned forgiveness, you may master all of the other principles and still remain prisoner. To feel genuinely transformed you need to learn to forgive. This is a basic requirement and a prerequisite for prayer and growth. You cannot grow in the life of prayer if you fail to forgive the one who has offended you, hurt you, and abused you. Forgiveness is the ultimate test for the person who is willing and able to live the enlightened life.

When you go into the depth of your own self through prayer you begin to get a better vision of yourself as the part of the universe.  The universe is always working just the way it is supposed to, and so it has everything in it, even the things that you have judged to be wrong, improper, cruel, and painful for yourself and others. When a natural calamity occurs there is no one to be blamed. You accept the loss. Prayer helps you to understand that everything that happened to you is a lesson you can be grateful for. Everyone who came into your life was a teacher, regardless of how much you choose to hate and blame him/her. Someone has harmed you, hurt you in the past. You feel angry and there is hatred in you. You carry that hatred around with you wherever you go. This hatred infects your life and it goes on. Forgiveness is a tool to use to transcend these negative effects of hurt and pain. Forgiveness can only be the outcome of genuine prayer. It does not simply happen. No one can simply forgive. It requires inner strength. It is the fruit of prayer. You know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, you depend on the one who gives you the necessary strength and you forgive.  Forgiveness gives you control over your inner life and thoughts. Those nerve shattering words that Jesus uttered on the cross when he underwent torture and pain “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23.34) is an outcome of his inner journey and prayer. He was humbled and at the same time forgives. You see Jesus’ formation reached the culminating experience in forgiveness.

Your mind is never free. It is always busy judging. You judge who is good and who is bad; who is superior and who is inferior; who is talented and who is not; who is strong and who is weak; who is beautiful and who is ugly. Judgement means to view the world as you are, rather than as it is. When the mind is full of judgements it has little rest. When your mind has no rest you cannot pray. Your judgements only say something about you. They enumerate your likes and dislikes. Prayer helps you to go beyond your likes and dislikes.

You are on the way to growth in prayer and spiritual life when you do not judge others but accept them. Your thoughts about how others are behaving are yours and you are disturbed. Judgement has a connection with forgiveness and humility. Forgiveness is really just correcting your own misperceptions and judgements. You do this in humility. In prayer you learn to understand the other. You try to transcend the mere rationality of your mind which puts a stop to faith experience.

Prayer cannot be effective in so far as your mind is clouded with prejudices. They do not allow you to grow. They block your path towards freedom and growth. Often many prejudices are stored in your mind and you are heavy with the load. You are choked and chained. Your prayer becomes a battling time to find answers to your own distorted thoughts. It is like looking at a partially immersed staff in the water. It gives an appearance that the staff is bent in the water but in fact it is not. Your prejudices are just like the staff in the water. Prejudices never give you the right picture of the situation or person. They disturb your prayer and ruin your entire life. You need to form yourself to overcome these destructive prejudices. Genuine prayer helps you to go beyond your thoughts that contrive prejudices. You learn to live in faith. Faith is dark to our intellect. It darkens to purify the thoughts and prejudices and leads you to enlightenment.

Imagine your desire to improve your life; in fact it is your thought to improve your life. There are numerous thoughts that run through your mind. “As you think so shall you be”. Virtually everything that you do is a result of the picture that you place in your mind before you make the attempt. Shy persons make shy pictures over and over in their minds, and until they can see themselves as unafraid, they will always act on the picture they create. You have a culture around you that makes you as it portrays. You are bombarded with messages every day to remind you of perfumes, shaving creams, soaps, detergents, electronic gadgets to decorate your body and environment, to make you beautiful, healthy, happy and hopefully successful. Beware your thoughts are influenced by these standards and ideals. Where your treasure is there your heart be also. You begin to think of the persons who seem to be happy and you want to be like them. That’s how the products in markets are sold. You buy the thoughts of others. You do not have your own thoughts. Now prayer is a remedy to get rid of such thoughts. You begin to realign yourself for action in and through prayer. Through prayer you journey inwards to the depth of your self. Deep inside you is the reality of your genuine thought. If you want to be happy, you cannot get that happiness outside of your self. God is the centre of your self and by contacting God your thoughts change and you become better in your action. Jesus said “watch and pray always”. Before watching anything in your life, begin to watch your thoughts. They are either a tremendous block to your growth or they are a source of great energy to go on and on. Monitor your thoughts. They may revolve around your honor, prestige, approval, appreciation, sex, ambition, success, love, peace, achievement etc. Find out what have you been thinking right now. Have you observed your own thoughts? When you succeed in ‘watching’ your thoughts you are capable of directing them, guiding them and shaping them. Prayer contributes immensely to such constructive activity for growth in life.

The word responsibility is a combination of two verbs, ‘response‘ and ‘ability‘. I do not want to use the word as it is usually used: ‘to fulfil the work that is entrusted with’. As you grow in wisdom, understanding and prayer experience you respond to any reality with heightened awareness and consciousness. Enlightenment demands that you take responsibility for life. Doing a task entrusted with you is not the criterion to judge whether you have done progress in your life, rather the motivation and the deep conviction with which you accomplish the task shows if you are on the right track. Prayer purifies every one of your works in the crucible of love. You are then able to respond with ability that is procured in prayer. You become fully responsible before God for your acts. Often you do not know what you do. That is why God takes responsibility for your acts forgiving you. God experience is awareness to the maximum possible level in any given situation. This is responsibility. This form of ‘responsibility’ should be extended to every area of your life like responsibility in work, play, study, care, health, spiritual life, relationship, correspondence, conversation etc. When you are aware of your responsibility you are likely to find God’s will in your involvement. The emphasis here is on God’s role in transforming your life. Letting God into your life itself is a way of discernment of His will. This transformation is gradual and involves a process by which you conform yourself to the image of God in Christ (cf. Rm 8.29). St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians “your hearts and minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which is created in God’s likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is upright and holy” (Eph 4.23-24). When you are enlightened through prayer you do not respond in the manner the world does, your response is a completely ‘new’ one according to God’s will.

Silence and Solitude
Making room for solitude and silence offers new challenges in the fast progressing technological society. The urbanization process with its crowded living conditions and the constant communication provided by the media often presents insurmountable difficulties to the practice of solitude and to spend time ‘alone’ with God. Nevertheless, there is no other way than finding space and time to practise genuine prayer in solitude and silence. In the midst of hustle and bustle of the modern society the human spirit craves for solitude, because it is only in solitude that you can encounter God and dialogue with Him in the depth of your self. You need to pray abiding in Him (Jn 15.7). Prayer is more than an activity relegated to specific times and places where you talk to God. Prayer must be understood as a state of being, not just a particular activity. It is the movement of the human spirit towards the ever-fuller participation in the life of God. Thus, when you learn to be alone with God, prayer and life, God and the world, become increasingly a single experience of integration that begets spiritual energy and leads you to find God in the depth of your heart and establish His kingdom on earth.

[1] St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle,V,3,iii.

[2] St. John of the Cross,Letter to María de la Encarnación, July 6, 1591.

[3] Moralia xxiii,13,24.

[4]St. Teresa of Avila, Life 13,xv.

[5] St.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle I,2,ix

[6] St. Teresa of Avila, Life 12,v.