Is there a specific way to aim at unceasing prayer? Ought we to aim consciously for that, make it our goal, or ought we to just pray? Probably better for when you’re beginning to just pray and not to be too preoccupied with the objectives of prayer. The objective of the Jesus prayer is the Lord Jesus himself; it’s the Person of the Lord. If we are in communion with him, we’re home. You can’t produce a better objective than that; it doesn’t get any better. And yet we may not be in a state of ceaseless prayer, and it may take many, many years before we feel that.
Ceaseless prayer even in holy people can be interrupted, and some very holy people have left us their memoirs and have talked about the pain that they felt when they had that experience of ceaseless prayer and something happened. Usually someone speaks to them—in the case I’m thinking of, another Christian, another monk—and it’s gone; it’s gone. It doesn’t mean God is gone. It means that that particular state has gone. Well, God knows best. If he sees that we get very attached to that state and that there’s any risk of any arrogance associated with it, it can disappear very quickly indeed, as a sign of love, God’s love toward us.
So this is the problem. If we have that experience and it disappears, we’re not well-placed to say why. And it would be risky to jump to some kind of conclusion, either that God is absent or “I did something wrong” or “I need a new prayer rope” or whatever the conclusion might be that someone might draw, we pray. As in any relationship, we can’t predict the future. Relationships are dynamic. We know that from human relationships. Do we set objectives? I suppose some people do—on their marriages: here’s where it’s going to be in five years, the five-year plan. Then there’s the “visualize the marriage in ten years,” so on and so forth. Or do we love each other and stay in the relationship and grow? Where can we actually see where it’s going to go? What our feelings and experiences are going to be? In prayer, we know that God will not abandon us, but he may allow certain experiences to be taken from us. We can’t predict that, and we shouldn’t become anxious about it. God is always there; that’s the important point.
So what could we do to move towards ceaseless prayer? Well, the average North American is not going to like the answer to this, which is why unleashing on the average North American the whole pile of books about the Jesus prayer that we have wasn’t entirely fair. If you want to move towards ceaseless prayer, you have to obey the commandments of Christ out of love all the time. You have to live an ascetic life—sane asceticism, but an ascetic life, a life of spiritual discipline, to put that in simple language. You have to learn to become ruthless with your thoughts, especially the ones that you especially like; ruthless with them. These are not answers that are going to appeal to a large group of people in our society, where people are encouraged to become prisoners to their thoughts, particularly bad ones, to try to tell them that you should take every single thought captive and be careful about every thought.
I realize this is a hard answer, but, you know, it makes a big difference. If a person has a thought life where he or she is gullible and open to every thought, that person will probably not reach a point of pure prayer, of constant, ceaseless prayer; probably not. How would it be possible? There are far too many distractions. So the thing is that we can talk about all these beautiful things, but if we want to really get somewhere with them in the long-term, there’s a price. There’s a price to be paid. It’s not a price in terms of we have to buy it from God. Not that kind of price; these things are not for sale in that respect. The price is in terms of things that you and I have to give up.
It’s true in every relationship. If you want to have a good relationship, a good friendship, a good marriage, you have to give up self-centered behaviors. You have to! This, of course, is something that every priest knows when he’s talking with people, talking with couples. Certain behaviors ruin marriages, period; they just do! Many of them are connected to self-centered, egocentric thought activity. If we are living at a time when we cannot take seriously our response as Christians to our thought worlds, we will pray, but we will remain beginners for our whole lives. We won’t go any more than that. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t save us, but it does mean that our own experience of prayer is going to be limited, and you and I, if we don’t take seriously what we do with our thoughts, will only read about the people who had prayers lives; we’ll never know that.
If you want to make a good beginning, in addition to practicing the Jesus prayer for five minutes, obey the commandments of Christ. They are directly connected to your prayer life. And look at every thought that comes your way. You are not responsible for generating the thought, but you are responsible for what you do with it. You don’t have to accept every thought that comes your way. And if you learn that you don’t have to accept it, that feeling of saying no, what it’s like to say no to yourself, will really be enormously useful, and it will propel your prayer life forward, push you forward, a lot. You can’t expect that you can think anything you want during the day and turn prayer on like a machine with a switch at night or in the morning.
If you want to have a rich prayer life, make your whole life your prayer life.