Almost 20 years ago, I had a traumatic experience that shut down my prayer life. I was doing fine spiritually and in my faith (or so it seemed). Didn't have any doubts, or unconfessed sin (that I knew of). My mind was right (so why was I so depressed?) The short of it was, I was experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul (no, this is not the latest Batman movie, it is a mystical and painful experience as first coined by St. John of the Cross, ca. 1578). It would last for about half a year at it's intensest, and linger on for a bit longer. During that period, one of the most immediate effects I felt was loss of the ability to pray. I simply had nothing. I loathed speaking in prayer because it plunged me further into darkness. I could not understand. And this was a surprise to me, because I loved prayer. Prior, I had cultivated a well-disciplined prayer life. Maybe not rich - but certainly disciplined. And then caput. It was as if God shut my lips and said, "No more speaking."
I knew I had to go deeper. Performance was no substitute for richness. I began learning about different forms of prayer; different ways to pray to maintain my conscious contact with God. I heard about Brother Lawrence's Practice of the Presence of God. I learned about Hudson Taylor's "Abiding in Christ." I learned about Sabbathing and rest as spirituality. I was exposed to Bible meditation and silence-as-prayer. Today I am still learning about the practices of spiritual presence from my spiritual director Tom Peery.
And today, 20 years later, I am still learning.
Truthfully, I have no spiritual secret to offer, only certain insights from the struggle over the years. How do we pray without ceasing, maintaining our constant & conscious contact with God?
1. Stop performing.
Get some serenity (this takes a lifetime of work). It makes more sense to have contentedness with a life of prayer rather than a perfected prayer life, which is what James Houston used to tell his students at Regent College. In that regard, constant contact with God / praying without ceasing is about a life well-lived, a trusting life, a life at-rest (as the author of Hebrews would describe this state). It is simultaneously a great deal of work and humbling and death of ego, and yet at the same time the lightest and easiest thing in the world. But make no mistake, it is work:
2. Pray sometimes somewhere.
We must still strive for a regular discipline of prayer. It should be, in my view, a regular place to go at a regular time. To loosely claim constant consciousness of God without the regular and disciplined practice of it is like claiming to know how to do jazz improvisation without knowing your scales or music theory. Richard Foster observes, in his great work, Prayer: “We must firmly discipline ourselves to a regular pattern of prayer… we have to be ruthless with our rationalizations. We must never, for instance, excuse our prayerlessness under the guise of ‘always living prayerfully’... The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.”
3. Give your mind a rest. Find a mantra.
Please don't be putoff by that word. "Mantra". Understand it for our uses as a repeated and biblical phrase. There are some great examples of it here. The “Jesus Prayer” (or “breath prayer”) is a powerful one used throughout the centuries: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Or imagine if you are a doctor (I was sharing this talk in front of several MD's) and your patient has just "coded". As you rush down the hall to resuscitate, imagine praying this mantra in your mind: "I believe help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24) - how would that effect your practice as a physician? And one of the most mysterious and powerful mantras to pray all throughout the day: "Thy will not mine be done" (Luke 22:42).
4. Don't stack up words. Use few words well.
Do you think he already knows what you need before you ask? Even better than you know? Many words more spiritual do not make. Silence is perhaps the hardest type of prayer. Sometimes I grow tired of hearing my own rationalizations. Then I depend on the words of liturgy, such as the Divine Hours.
Have I attained perfection in a "life of prayer" / "praying without ceasing"? No. But I am far more serene and trusting than I was 20 years ago. I still have a discipline. I also still improvise a lot. Tell me how you are learning to pray.