Pray Without Ceasing
By Oblate Michael Ford
Pray without ceasing. In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all. (Thess. 5:17)
Little alarm bells went off in my head several years ago when I read St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. If praying always and giving thanks for all things are Christian duties, then despite my best intentions I was failing spectacularly, going entire days without thanking God, or even thinking of Him. My prayer life was not nearly up to standard—certainly not up to the Apostle’s standards. And without prayer, the rest of one’s life falls lamentably short as well.
Yet the question that troubled me was one that had been vexing Christians for centuries, possibly since the very time Saint Paul had written those words. During the course of a busy day, filled with the demands of a job, customers, a family, kids’ sports, overdrawn checkbooks, jury duty, and heaven knows what else—how does one find the time to pray at all, much less pray without ceasing? How does one even remember to pray in the first place?
Tellingly, the answer was right before my eyes, in a routine I had practiced for years when I was younger. How do high school students remember to move from their English class to their math class at the appropriate time? The answer is—they don’t remember at all. They listen for the bell, which takes the problem of remembering out of their hands. The structure they need in order to fulfill their daily duties is thus provided for them. They follow the will of the administrators who designed the class schedule, and they listen to bells to know what to do next. The moral support, if you will, is given them, to assist them on their journey to graduation by allowing them to focus on what is really important: the class at hand.
In short, they follow a rule.
It seems obvious now, and indeed it has been so for millennia. Monks from the earliest days of the Desert Fathers and, more famously, St. Benedict in the sixth century, had known the value of a rule all along. Even King David, over 3,000 years ago, had followed a regulated routine of prayer. But it was an insight that this child of the modern age took years to learn: that following a monastic-style rule would help me in my quest to discern and fulfill God’s will for me.
Of course, one need not become a monk to follow a formal rule—when I began looking, I found numerous options for lay Catholics seeking greater structure and guidance in their prayer life. In my own area of western Oregon alone, Carmelite Third-Order movements exist in both Portland and Eugene. The Trappist monastery in Lafayette offers spiritual direction, and I attended a number of very satisfying monthly conferences given by an Opus Dei priest at a beautiful parish church in Portland. It was only after some time, however, that I focused my search closer to home, attending a mid-week retreat at Mt. Angel Abbey, a mere 15 miles away. There, to jump slightly ahead in my story, I discovered the extraordinary value to lay people of St. Benedict’s rule, and most especially, I discovered a love for the Divine Office, wonderful in the structure of both its daily rhythm and the constant, yet ever-varying ebb and flow of the Church’s liturgical calendar.
At first, settling down to read the Psalms at specific times seemed more like a chore than a quest for spiritual improvement; but as the wisdom of Scripture and the lives of the Saints soon began soaking into my sometimes unwilling brain, my spiritual life became more disciplined, I began attending mid-week Mass and Hours at the Abbey, and my confessions became more frequent and more meaningful. Yet something else began to happen as well, something far more important than a mere regular reading of the Psalms, but which was a direct result of it: my attention and focus began shifting beyond myself, past my own spiritual weaknesses and neediness, outward, in other directions.
At this point, allow me to take a slight digression.
Grace, by definition, is a free and unmerited supernatural gift that God gives people for their sanctification. The grace of salvation through Jesus Christ is offered everywhere, at any time, to any person; in the words of the Benedictine monk Rémy Rougeau, it is as abundant as water. The Abbey, in its daily offerings of Mass, confession, chanted prayers and silence, offers the most accessible grace one can imagine. Of course, grace may also be gotten in other places, not least of all one’s own parish church. And yet, that is often not as easy as it sounds, or as it may have been in the past. Parish priests are inordinately busy, confession times are scarce, and parish activities tend to be a frenzy of scheduling, socializing, and “active participation.” Grace is sometimes harder to find than expected.
At the Abbey, however, grace is there for the taking, flowing as easily as water, nearly tangible in the chanting of the prayers, the whispers of the confessional, the singing of the bells. Indeed, the monks at the Abbey, in a sense, specialize in administering grace, by “praying ceaselessly,” welcoming visitors and seekers of silence, offering what is so often lacking in other, more worldly environments—the purity of quiet time spent with God. A visitor to the Abbey is afforded the breadth and wealth of the monks’ timeless traditions, the beauty and holiness of their music, the comfort of their silence, and their devotion to the Blessed Virgin (their last act in community every night is to chant the Salve Regina by candlelight, while gathered in a side chapel around a beautiful statue of the Virgin). Most significantly for me, however, while attending Mass at my first retreat, I was struck by the realization that an important part of the monks’ daily prayers is for the intentions of their oblates, and that by becoming an Oblate of St. Benedict at Mount Angel, I would be entering spiritually into this very life of silence, of prayer and of closeness to God that I had so carefully observed and admired.
And so, ironically, in my search for personal spirituality and my decision to become an oblate, my focus had turned away from myself, which is perhaps the first step toward the humility that seems so much to elude me. Now, someone else was concerned for my salvation, someone far more spiritual and experienced than me was taking part of that burden upon their shoulders. An entire community of priests and brothers were assisting me in my efforts at personal holiness, interceding for me through their daily prayers, giving an added catalyst to my spiritual life—and all certainly without merit on my part. Like grace, and indeed as a grace, the monks’ prayers, wisdom and guidance were freely available, as abundant as water in Oregon, to whomever might wish to take them.
Now, when I hear bells, they are not alarms ringing in my head, but more often the St. Joseph bell of the Abbey’s new tower, calling me to Mass. I have a long way to go in my quest for holiness, and I am fairly certain that without a significant miracle, it will be nearly impossible to achieve. But a miracle like that is nothing other than the definition of grace.
In the struggle for that grace, as a Catholic, I have been blessed with the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit to protect me.
And as an Oblate of St. Benedict, I have the powerful daily intercession of a community of holy monks on the hill, to help keep my spiritual weapons sharp as I enter into battle.