Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(I Thessalonians 5: 16-18)
Although each phrase in this text is fertile ground for sacred conversation, the admonition to pray without ceasing gives me particular pause. With the exception of those traditions within Christianity that preserve forms of The Daily Office—including Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer/Vespers, and Compline—fixed times of day for prayer are not prescribed for most Christians. Pray without ceasing, then, is understood by most to mean “be steadfast or constant in prayer.” By observing an ancient Christian practice of a breath prayer, I have found a particularly lovely way to enjoy the fruits of praying without ceasing quite literally. In meditation, I attach to my inhalation an invocation of God and to my exhalation an affirmation or petition important to my spiritual growth. The very act of breathing thus becomes an act of prayer, its fruits revealed in subtle changes within me over time. My current breath prayer: “Light of God, illumine me.”
Grace, I also engage in daily remembrance of God—during my ritual ablutions, while performing my daily prayers, and, of course, when I first wake up and just before going to bed. Part of my daily practice is to recite the phrase “Glory, praise and thanks be to God” 100 times every morning; then I make a conscious effort throughout my day to be aware of God’s presence. There are numerous verses in the Quran which are in tune with your biblical call to pray without ceasing. One of my favorite examples is “The seven heavens and the earth and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His Glory!”(17:44) This verse reminds me that when I utter words of thanks and praise to God I am joining all of God’s creatures in celebration. I seek to nourish my soul by praising God when I marvel at the nature around me, prepare a meal for my family, reflect on events and make new discoveries. As I go about my daily activities, I try to maintain a state of constant awareness and remembrance of God which humbles both my soul and intellect.
Friends, your personal reflections inspired by these texts remind me of the inherent tension of Jewish prayer: there is a requirement to recite specific prayers of the liturgy at fixed times and a rabbinic imperative to pray with kavannah, “intention.” As you imply, Grace, to pray without ceasing in a literal sense is not practical, and the rabbis were quite practical when establishing the norms of Jewish prayer nearly 2,000 years ago. At the same time, they suggested two modalities of spiritual expression that could be employed without limitations. First, they recommended the recitation of 100 blessings each day. Blessings—which have a prescribed formula—serve to elevate our quotidian acts of eating, drinking and even using the bathroom. Yasmina, I was delighted to learn from you that Muslims also include 100 praises of God in daily practice—our traditions share many common rituals designed to help us reach beyond ourselves. The early rabbis also connected with God through the study of Torah, which they considered to be a form of prayer. This inspired one twentieth century rabbi to explain his daily practice: “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” I, too, strive to pray without ceasing by reciting prayers, blessings and Psalms—and by studying Torah—every day.