I remember reading through the letters of St. Paul in college and being struck by a line that had never really stood out to me before. In his letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul urges his listeners, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). That seemed like such a daunting command to me.
I certainly have struggled with what it means to pray in my own life. Whether I’m wondering how I can possibly fit an hour of prayer into my day, or doubting that my prayers are truly from the heart – it’s safe to say, the idea of prayer without ceasing was a fantasy in my eyes.
In my studies at school and in personal readings, I’ve discovered that Paul’s call to ceaseless prayer is in fact an invitation to a happier life through constant communication with our Lord. Of course it can still be difficult for me to set aside time in prayer and focus completely on the Lord, but with the help of some great Catholic writers, I have learned not to fear prayer, but rather embrace it. Here are four concrete ways that we can begin to practice unceasing prayer.
1. Pray consistently
To truly pray ceaselessly, we must first be able to pray consistently. By praying at set times throughout our day, we can orient our work and ourselves towards the Lord.
One beautiful way that we can practice consistent prayer is through the Liturgy of the Hours. This is the public and communal prayer of the Church, in which there are set prayers to be said at specific times throughout the day. I have found this to be a helpful way to schedule consistent prayer for my day, and I truly enjoy the beautiful morning and evening prayers that start and end my day with the Lord.
2. Give alms
St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers in the Church, explains that we can accept the Lord’s invitation to unceasing prayer by giving alms. Our generosity and almsgiving can be a cause of continual prayer for others on our behalf. Aquinas explains, “He who gives alms is the one who always prays, for the person who receives alms prays for you even when you are asleep” (Commentary on 1 Thessalonians).
For years, my family created care packages for the homeless, each of us purchasing a few essential items that we’d then pack in tote bags and share with those in need, especially around Christmastime. There are many ways to practice almsgiving, such as tithing at Sunday Mass, donating clothes and food to a local shelter, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Imagine the beautiful tapestry of perpetual prayer there would be if all Christians were as generous as Christ calls us to be, sharing our gifts and inviting those we serve to pray for us.
3. Desire God
Perhaps the most common excuse for why we don’t pray is that we are too busy — it certainly is for me. Yet all the busyness in the world can’t keep us from ceaseless prayer. In fact, St. Augustine points out that while it is beneficial to spend much time in prayer, this is not necessary for unending prayer. We can continue with the good and necessary work in our lives, all the while desiring the Lord and his will for us. This means keeping God at the heart of all we do.
Augustine explains that prayer without ceasing is “Desire without intermission, from him who alone can give it, a happy life, which no life can be but that which is eternal.” We can pray ceaselessly, by desiring continually, the Lord and the true happiness that only he can bring (Letter 130.9.18). It can be very easy for me to get overwhelmed by the struggles and anxieties of my daily life, but I strive to remember and focus on what is at the heart of my life — the Lord. When I can end the day knowing that I kept God and his love for me in mind with all that I did, I can rest knowing it was a day of prayer.
4. Turn all thoughts to the Lord
One of the most transformative approaches to ceaseless prayer I have learned is to turn the interior monologue of my thoughts into a dialogue with God. If there is one thing I already do without end, it is thinking! There is a beautiful opportunity to invite the Lord into these thoughts so that they are transformed into a conversation with him. I often become overwhelmed when thinking of my plans for the future. Instead of planning my future alone in my mind, I turn my thoughts into a dialogue with God, asking him to guide my ideas, show me the right way, and help me accomplish his will for my future. Through that continual conversation and contact with the Lord, we are truly praying without ceasing.
St. Paul’s command, I’ve come to understand, is not some oppressive law on the number of hours I must spend in prayer. Rather, it is an invitation to transform my life so that I am always in contact with and in the presence of God. I hope these steps to pray without ceasing help anyone looking to achieve everlasting union with our Lord.