When I was a youth, back in the 1980s, one of the popular things that youth workers and ministers were always promoting was having a “quiet time.” What they were referring to was a time of personal devotion. The idea was, that if you really wanted to draw close to God the way to do it was to have a “quiet time” which consisted of spending some time, usually at least 30 minutes, reading your Bible and praying. Ideally you were supposed to do this in the morning, but you could do it at other times as well. Recently I heard a youth minister use this phrase in passing and decided he must be pretty old school as I haven’t heard anyone really use that phrase in 15 or 20 years.
But, that got me to contrasting the idea of the quiet time, as I had learned it, with the idea of constant or unceasing prayer that I have been learning. Throughout my life I had read Paul’s admonition to, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18) many times and entirely missed that the instruction is that we are to “pray constantly” until I was given a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim.
This little book, written by an unknown 19th century Russian author, tells the simple but profound story of a man wandering through Russia seeking to learn how to follow this instruction of St. Paul to pray without ceasing. He hears in Church the reading from 1 Thessalonians, which says in part, “Pray constantly.” This causes him to begin to wonder how it can be possible for someone to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention.
The narrator continues: “I checked my Bible and saw with my own eyes exactly what I had heard, that it is necessary to pray constantly, (1 Thess. 5:17); to pray in the Spirit on every possible occasion (Eph. 6:18); in every place to lift your hands reverently in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). I thought and thought about these words, but no understanding came to me.”
Thus begins the adventure for this wanderer. He finds an elder who instructs him in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, which has so important a place in Orthodox spirituality.
“Without frequent prayer,” the elder explains, ” it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh….I say frequent prayer because purity and perfection in prayers are not within our reach…Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.”
In explaining the Jesus Prayer, the elder goes on, “The ceaseless Jesus Prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, and heart; and in the awareness of His abiding presence it is a plea for His blessing in all undertakings, in all places, at all times, even in sleep. The words of the prayer are ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!’ Anyone who becomes accustomed to this prayer will experience great comfort as well as the need to say it continuously.”
The remainder of the book is about this man’s journeys and the ever deepening faith and devotion to God that grows within him through his constant use of the Jesus Prayer.
Compared to this very ancient practice of constant prayer, which can be traced back into the early centuries of the Church, the idea of a “quiet time” while not bad, seems very inadequate and incomplete. A “quiet time” is the modern way of approaching God. I will give God 30 minutes a day. Then, I can leave God at home and go about my life. But, ceaseless prayer that is another thing entirely. In ceaseless prayer I call to mind the name of Christ every available minute of every available day. And, according to the Fathers, after awhile the prayer will become automatic and self-activating within you. It is as if Christ and the thought of Christ take over and dwell in you and your life is constantly consumed with the presence of Christ on your mind, heart and lips.
And, isn’t that the whole point?