St. Paul the Apostle tells all Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). A seemingly simple thing to do since he doesn’t go into any detail at all as to how we are supposed to do this. How are we supposed to do this? How can I, while talking to my friend, pray to God at the same time? How can I, while focusing on my work, my education, my personal and family life, at the same time be praying to God? Unfortunately, we have such a limited understanding of what it means to pray. Just like everything that has to do with our spiritual life, we feel the need to separate prayer from everything we do, and to reserve it for the few minutes after we wake up and the few minutes before we sleep, if we do that, to begin with. When we take the next step, we can see that there are many different forms of prayer—namely private, family, and communal prayer. The first we are all familiar with; this one we do in our private room with the doors closed, just me and God. The next one isn’t as obvious. Through the mystery of marriage, the husband and the wife are united into one flesh, and their household and relationship mirror that of Christ and the Church. In this form of prayer, the father leads the prayer just like the priest in the church, and the family prays together as a whole. The last form of prayer, the communal prayer, involves every member of the community, sharing in a single activity. This form of prayer is heavily focused on the many liturgical services the church offers to her children: vespers, midnight praises, matins, and liturgy. However, we view these forms of prayer as different and split them up, and by doing so we limit our prayer life drastically. By having a proper understanding of what it means to pray, we can take that last step to be in perfect communion with God and to pray without ceasing. We can form this proper understanding by learning from our God. Our God is trinitarian—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in three and three in one, a perfect unity. When we observe this oneness, we can learn to apply it to our prayer life. We learn that we are surrounded by a similar community and that each form of prayer that we discussed is actually connected and collaborate through this community. Each form of prayer involves the body of believers. With each prayer that we offer, whether private, family, or communal, we are not just communing with God, but with all the heavenly hosts and the victorious church, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Through the life of the saints, we can see how these seemingly different forms of prayer are connected and centered around the community of believers. Let’s take a look at St. Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism. I can’t think of a more perfect example of how private prayer impacts the community of believers. While attending liturgy, St. Anthony heard from a deacon reading, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). Wanting to gain this perfection with the Lord, St. Anthony did as he was told and began living his life in seclusion. After observing the ascetic life of local hermits for 15 years, St. Anthony retreated to the desert to an old abandoned Roman fort for 20 years, practicing a life of asceticism and prayer. During these 20 years, the Devil did everything in his power to tempt and defeat St. Anthony, even physically beating him close to death. But why? Why would the Devil go through all that to try to cause St. Anthony to fall when he’s locked himself inside a fort in the middle of the desert? What would the Devil have to fear so much from someone who is in complete isolation away from everyone else? The Devil knew exactly what would happen if St. Anthony were to succeed in his asceticism and prayer. The Devil knew that the desert would be transformed into a place of worship inhabited by thousands of believers. When Christ tells us to go into our rooms and pray in secret, our secret prayers closely impact those who are around us. When we offer up our secret prayers, they are amplified by the many intercessions and prayers of the saints, and we share in the communion with the victorious church. St. Anthony didn’t gain this perfection through one specific means of prayer, rather it was through the Eucharist, his intense asceticism, his private prayer, his thanksgiving, and so much more.
Prayer is not simply an action; it is a relationship with God. When we come to this realization, we understand that to pray without ceasing means to always be in the presence of God. St. Augustine lived an extreme life of sin, but through the tears and prayers of his mother St. Monica, God transformed his heart and filled him with grace. This is what he has to say about St. Paul’s task: “Does ‘prayer without ceasing’ mean that we continuously bow our knees and raise our hands? If this were true, we could not do it. However, there is an inner kind of continuous prayer, which is the desire of the heart to accomplish a good deed” (Fr. Tadros Malaty, 1 Thessalonians 59). Just having the desire to want to pray is sufficient for the Lord to hear from you. Do not be fooled into thinking this is an excuse to keep you from continuously bowing your knees and raising your hands. God judges the heart and discerns between a genuine desire and an excuse for avoiding prayer. When we offer up thanksgiving to our God, this is an acceptable form of prayer. When we glorify our God through our education and go about it by righteous means, this is an acceptable form of prayer. When we likewise glorify God in our jobs and give our tidings, this is an acceptable form of prayer. Our life reflects that of the church and the church is the body of Christ; amid all her diversity, true unity is formed. Likewise, our prayer life reflects the relationship of the church. Not through one form of prayer, but rather through all of them, working together in unity, can we attain that perfection desired by our Lord, and complete the simple task of praying without ceasing.