The four living creatures around the throne ceaselessly sing the Sanctus, as reported by the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation (4:6-8). Perhaps St. Paul has this model in mind when he admonishes the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess.5:17). Paul has challenged and confused centuries of New Testament scholars with the thought. Cloistered nuns and monks have tried to spend almost all their waking hours sending up prayers, but fall short on praying “without ceasing.” Devout evangelicals dedicate many hours to prayer, and while their efforts may seem interminable, they still must take breaks.
Sometimes we miss things hidden in plain sight. A few years ago, an urban couple visited me in rural New Mexico. The birds were singing a wonderful concert in the trees in the morning and I commented, “Isn’t that beautiful?” They looked at me blankly. “Isn’t what beautiful?” Tuned to urban sounds, they had not noticed the bird song.
Often New Testament exegesis fails to understand the eucharistic and liturgical context of much of the material, because the context of the exegete is often not sacramental and he or she does not grasp the eucharistic process of life. The concept of the early Church was that of liturgy, from the Greek words meaning “the work of the people.” It meant to be ordained in baptism to be a royal priesthood, priests and kings and queens (1 Peter 2:9). As royal rulers, they exercised their stewardship of the earth, and as priests offered that stewardship to the Lord, as symbolized by the bread and wine they brought forward to be used to host the presence of Christ, as he receives their offering and returns it to them, filled with his presence. It is the people’s offering of their total being, 24/7, without ceasing, as even their sleep is offered.
This represents a stark contrast from the concept of speaking prayers in words, whether formal or spontaneous, and while it does not prevent such efforts, it sets them in a context as a part of a much larger life of prayer.
In spiritual formation, the desire to offer prayer is crucial. As with so many things in our modern faith life, obstacles caused by misunderstanding of what that really means hinder people from a true life of prayer.
First, prayer is a continuous state of being and action (the four living creatures around the Throne, as seen by John, are dynamic, in tumultuous motion, as are all the humans and other creatures around them.) The idea of heaven as a quiet, restful place is completely foreign to the Book of Revelation. It is incorrect to refer to a priest as “saying mass,” or a congregation as “hearing mass,” or to people as “reading” the Liturgy. The correct term for both heaven and here is that we are “doing” the Liturgy, an active living of the work we offer, both the stewardship and the praise. It absorbs every moment and every part of our being, body, soul, intellect, 24/7, the same as in heaven. It is centered in Eucharist, and in our participation in all dimensions of the Body of Christ, from reception of the real and complete transformed Christ at the altar, through absorption in the community of the Trinity and our brothers and sisters, to the final completion in ultimate theosis. All of this is prayer, as we do our Liturgy at all times, places and dimensions.
Second, spoken prayer is an important part of liturgical-action prayer. But it is a conversation, not simply a recitation to God of my thoughts and needs. Conversation implies as much listening as speaking. Christians often are so anxious to tell God things, that they are not very good listeners to him. God must be very weary of monologues disguised as prayer.
Third, encounter with the Divine Other, the Holy One, is beyond awesome and onto terrifying. Read Isaiah’s reaction in chapter 6: “Woe to me! I am ruined!” The contrast between the Almighty and his sinful self is obvious and overwhelming. There is no “walk in the garden”while “he walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.” It is more like a dynamite blast. It is hard to imagine Isaiah continuing with something like, “Well, Father God, we just want to say that we lift up Suzy’s sore toe to you….” Only when the Lord uses a sacramental tool of absolution can the conversation even begin.
Fourth, St. John of the Ladder (7th. Century) compares effective and ineffective prayer: “Let there be no studied eloquence in your prayer; how often the simple and monotonous lispings of little children make their father give in to them! Do not launch out into long discourses that fritter away your mind in efforts at eloquence. One word alone spoken by the Publican touched God’s mercy. ” Neither the Lord’s Prayer nor the Jesus Prayer, the two model spoken prayers for Christians, includes a long shopping list of everything I think I need or want. “Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me,” is the only sane response of a sinful being to encounter with the All-Holy, All-Powerful Lord. The succinct summary of needs in the Lord’s Prayer covers the rest. God does not need to be informed of the details (“O Lord, we lift up Suzy who will have surgery tomorrow at 8 in Mt. Pisgah Hospital and can receive visitors after 4…”). An advantage of being Omniscient is that you already know that. A disadvantage is that you have to listen to a lot of redundant information from those who don’t think you can possibly keep it all straight, especially at your age.
Fifth, think of spiritual formation as leading you to a realization that every breath is a prayer. Gregory Palomas (14th Century) notes how we are integrated as humans in a harmony of soul, mind and body, just as the Christian can achieve harmony with all creation, as he or she dwells in the Body of Christ. Doing our prayer means every breath is harmonized with doing our Liturgy, with offering our prayer, even as a sigh can express to a loving Father the yearning that is felt. And the ordered prayer life of the Church, honed over the centuries, is likewise a valid expression (check out, for example, many of the Collect prayers, such as those for Trinity XII, Trinity XIII, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and All Saints Day)
Sixth, the formation of prayer grows from the Eucharistic center, that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him” (my italics) (BCP 1928, p.81, Eucharistic Canon).
Spiritual formation is neither a technique nor a climb to greater righteousness. It is a gift, received in the measure that room is allowed for it to dwell.
“Ora et labora,” pray and work, says St. Benedict. In the illusory divide of our present age into sacred and secular, the world and much of the Church neatly separates those into a religious aside and a secular endeavor. In such a world, “thoughts and prayers” are easy to offer, unattached as they are to any labor or material result. And the latter is done in the secular context for my gain, comfort and profit, not as my stewardship to be offered. But prayer and work are an indivisible unity. The royal priesthood offers its stewardship, as we offer “ourselves, and one another and our whole life to Christ our God” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).