Pray Constantly! Never Stop Praying! (1Thes 5:17)
What does St. Paul mean when he tells the Christians of Thessalonika, "Pray constantly," or "Never stop praying," or "Pray without ceasing"? We need to answer the more basic question: What then did 'praying' mean for St. Paul? To me, as I am sure it was for Paul, prayer is falling in love with Jesus, constantly and even continuously or, as the hymn says so pointedly, over and over again - for the simple reason that Jesus has become the most important person in my life. But what does this mean or entail in practice? When a woman, even more than a man, is in love, she will want to speak to her beloved for hours, even on the telephone, not necessarily 'sense' but often just 'sweet nonsense'; she will yearn not so much to listen to what he has to say, as to just hear his voice; she will crave not really to do something grandiose for him but just to look at him, speechless with admiration and spellbound with love. This threefold desire or longing holds good even in our relationship with the Lord.
First of all, praying is speaking to God, true - but from the abundance of one's heart, i.e., with lips of love. For if there was a time when prayer for most of us meant merely or mainly 'saying prayers', we now know that prayer is more than that. It is speaking to God, and is therefore vocal prayer, but from the abundance of the heart - and that makes all the difference. For if there is no abundance - then one will just be saying prayers by memory or routine, but not really praying. As the saying goes, 'From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks' (Mt 12:34), and as Pascal, the famous French philosopher, observed, 'The heart has reasons which the mind knows not'. And that abundance comes from the Spirit of his Son, that God has sent into our hearts, that makes us call out to him 'Abba! Father!' (Gal 4:6). For, as St. Paul explains further, "When in our weakness we don't know what to pray for, the Spirit helps us and even prays for us in ways that could never be put into words" (Rom 8:26).
That is why St. Augustine exclaims, in his commentary of the Psalm, 'Sing a new Song', that prayer is jubilation - speaking to God with acclamations of praise, as in the litany, and with songs of joy. That is why the 'Prayer of the Church' begins each morning with the invocation, 'Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall praise your name'. That is why 'Praying in Tongues' is a prayer specifically of the heart and not of the mind, so comparable in its motivation and expression to the amusing outpourings of one who has fallen in love and even to the delightful outbursts of the infant, who wants to speak, but cannot speak, and therefore 'speaks'.
Secondly, praying is even more than speaking to God - it is listening to Him, in the silence and stillness of one's heart, i.e., with ears of love. If one were to have the good fortune to be granted an audience with the President of the country to get a big favor in some case, but would spend the entire allotted time just in talking and talking about the case, he would then realize, on being ushered out, that his petition would remained unanswered only because he did not give the President the necessary time to give, hopefully, his favourable answer granting him his request. That is exactly what often happens even in prayer. We spend so much time in just talking to the Lord, who does listen to us, but we rarely make time for him to speak back to us, by just being still and quiet and saying, even silently, "Speak, Lord. I am listening" (Ps 46:10; 1Sam 3:10).
I do believe that whenever we come to the Lord in prayer, he always wants to speak to us in the depths of our heart, in order to teach us to be holy, to guide, help and encourage us to live well, to train us to do good and to correct us. This could happen through a Scripture verse that one has just read or has come to one's mind, 'out of the blue', or a reflection from the Sunday homily, or a casual remark made by a prayer partner, or just an inner inspiration (2Tim 3:16). Like Mary we then need to receive that word like a seed sown in a grateful and generous heart, treasuring it and pondering over it, and then allowing it to not just ring in our ears or strike a chord, but to even cut into our hearts and bear fruit in our lives (Lk 2:19).
And thirdly, praying is even more than listening to the Lord - it is looking at Jesus, with the love of one's heart, i.e., with eyes of love. For there comes a moment in my prayer time, when I feel that I have spoken all that I wanted to say to God - and I have nothing more to say, and have listened to all that the Lord wanted me to hear - and there is nothing more to receive. It does not mean that my prayer time has successfully ended, but rather its most important part has now begun: a time of prayerful silence, profound adoration and deep contemplation, just looking at the Lord face to face, all lost in wonder, speechless with love and gratitude, as I experience my utter nothingness and God's amazing fullness, and can declare in the words of the well known hymn, and mean it, 'He is my Everything'. This is the time when God does not just listen to me or speak to me but comes down into the cave of my heart to make his dwelling place there.
St. John Vianney would notice a peasant come to his small church everyday and sit on the last bench, apparently doing nothing. One day he went up to him and asked him, "My good fellow, what are you doing here? Are you praying? You seem to be doing nothing." And pointing to the Blessed Sacrament, he said in reply, "I look at him - and he looks at me." This is the heart of prayer - at its best and at its deepest: No longer speaking, no longer even listening, but just looking at Jesus, my Lord and my all - with love - like an infant who cannot speak and does not understand, but will just smile at its mother with love and joy, which will make the mother in turn burst into a beautiful smile of love and joy.
The sudden and unexpected death of my sister on 18th January was a great shock to the whole family, but obviously to her two children, and above all to her husband who was so dependent on and so attached to her. But I gauged the intensity of this relationship only whenever I dropped in to see how he was doing, and would see him, as I peeped through the door unawares, always sitting before the large photo of his wife in a deep contemplative silence, with a large candle burning brightly day and night. That is a faint picture of what prayer really is and should be: making oneself present to Jesus, knowing that he is always present and already waiting for me, wanting us not so much to do anything for him as to allow him to do everything for us (Mt 28:20; Jn 14:23).
Just as the windows of Daniel's upper room where he prayed and praised God on his knees faced towards Jerusalem (Dan 6:10), the windows of my study on the first floor of the parish presbytery face the windows of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel directly across the garden. And so even in the midst of my parish work and personal study I have the unexpected privilege of facing and looking at Jesus in the brightly lit monstrance from early morning to late night, and in a way being forced through no merit of mine to 'pray constantly', thus reminding me of how Jesus himself prayed on every occasion, in every difficult situation and in lonely places (Mt 14:23; 26:36,39; Mk 1:35; Lk 6:12;9:28;22:44; Jn 17:1), and how he taught about the need to pray continually and never lose heart (Lk 18:1).
To thus 'pray always' is in the mind of St. Paul the will of God in Christ Jesus for his Christians of Thessalonika: "This is what God wants you to do." This is also our wish for you, dear readers, as is also ours to you his assurance to them that they will thus "always be joyful in the Lord" (1 Thes 5:16-18).