A Side-Journey with the Desert Fathers; Exploring Unceasing Prayer. Part Two: Beginning…

That prayer should be unceasing is a continuing theme throughout early monastic literature and is drawn from Paul’s aforementioned injunction to the Thessalonian church. In apothegm six, Bishop Epiphanius uses this foundational verse to address the laxity that routine can encourage. In this encounter, the abbot of his monastery in Palestine relayed that they “carefully observe the offices of terce, sext, none, and vespers” (12.6), but Bishop Epiphanius recognizes the iterative nature of their prayers and responds that they are “failing to pray at other times. The true monk ought to pray without ceasing” (ibid). Epiphanius does not leave them with no instruction, however, and offers the suggestion that they always sing psalms in their heart, thus creating a bridge between these points of corporate prayer to sustain them throughout the day. This is a very important and foundational principle to unceasing prayer, and one that is communicated in the Greek word itself.[1] The word here translated “unceasing” is the Greek contraction, συνεχής [sun-echēs], which means a “having together” or “holding together.” In this way, then, one might consider unceasing prayer to be that continual prayer which holds together the various punctuated moments of more intensive, prolonged prayer throughout the day. Epiphanius offers the praying of the Psalms as a means of praying continuously. In saying ten, Macarius advises his students to carry with them a simple prayer of help to the Lord and in both distraction and distress to offer this prayer and thus re-center the mind on God Himself and unceasing prayer.

Abba Agatho also emphasizes the importance of unceasing prayer but recognizes that it is the most difficult to acquire and calls it “the great struggle” (12.2). Fortunately, within this section are given many means by which one can develop this discipline. To begin with, an unnamed hermit says, “No one can see his face reflected in muddy water; so the soul cannot pray to God with contemplation unless it is first cleansed of harmful thoughts” (12.13). The first step is, as mentioned above, the necessary ascesis to bring the passions and logismoi under control and to calm the waters of the soul so that θεωρία is possible. Yet while the ascetic life has often been misinterpreted as a regula by which one must work to attain this end, this was not the idea of those pursuing the contemplative life. For the monk, it is a cooperation with God’s work, enabled by God’s grace, and given at God’s discretion. The ascetic life was only the discipline and preparation of the body, soul, and mind to receive that gift. With contemplatio being a grace and gift of the Lord alone, and being a passive reception on the recipient’s part, oratio (prayer) takes one to the doorstep of contemplation and kindly asks admittance.

In addition to the necessity of proper spiritual posture, this section makes much of physical posture as well. The first apothegm of this section relays the posture of Abba Arsenius during his prayers on Saturday night and how he would stand with his back to the sun and remain there until the sun rose on his face at dawn. This is important for many reasons. First, hands outstretched (seen in 1, 10, and 11) is a physical representation of surrender and submission. Just as the novice monk would prostrate himself before the doors of the monastery to plead for admittance, so too the monk continues to prostrate himself before the doors of the throne room of God, begging for the admittance that God may grant as a grace. In addition, this discipline of body in posture greatly aids in discipline of the mind by creating a focus and stillness of thought. In Benedictine monasticism, stability in one’s community is imperative[2] and is perhaps representative of a progressive stability conducive to contemplation: stability of location, body, mind, and finally soul.

Stability, both in life and in the posture addressed here, also serves to free one from distraction, better aiding in the reception of God’s gift of contemplation. Having set out some of the foundational principles for walking in unceasing prayer here, we will examine how the Desert Fathers address dealing with these distractions in our next post.

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[1] Though these sayings were originally spoken and transmitted in Coptic, the language of Egypt at the time of the Desert Fathers.

[2] Cf. Rule of St. Benedict, 1.8, 11; 4.78.

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