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Prayer Spirituality

Unceasing Prayer

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

About this contentWhat follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”.  With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have  a sincere longing for God. 


What is Unceasing or Continuous Prayer?

Continuous prayer is doing things to the glory of God and trying to live in God’s presence.

  • Ultimately prayer transforms suffering into life.
  • Ultimately prayer tramples down death by death as the Lord Jesus Christ did.
    • How? When we die to ourselves and put ourselves into the hands of God [through faith and prayer].
  • We are called to be constant and unceasing in prayer, regardless of how we feel.
  • Using the Lord’s prayer throughout the day (7x) can also be unceasing prayer. (Psalm 119:164)
  • The Jesus Prayer is another form of unceasing prayer.
  • The following will provide the best way to have continuous prayer or attentiveness to God:
    1. Regularly participate in the Divine Liturgy.
    2. Have a regular private prayer rule.
    3. At all other times of the day and week, have a short prayer that is being repeated.
  • Whenever the mind is not occupied, repeat a small prayer to God.
  • The purpose of the short prayer keeps one alive to the presence of God.
  • If the short prayer is inspired by the Spirit of God, it makes one realized as a temple of God, because then God’s presence is in us.
  • The short prayer will aid in keeping us from sinning.
  • Words of the short prayer are not to be formulaic, but they must be Orthodox and glorifying to Jesus.
  • The short prayer should always be in conformance with the Lord’s Prayer even if the words vary.

A Brief History of Unceasing Prayer

  • “Pray without ceasing” is a command to all Christians, not just monks. (1 Thess 5:17)
  • Saint Gregory Palamas said continuous prayer:
    • …is not just for monks, but it is for all Christians, including lay people.
    • …is a heavenly habit used to overcome temptation.
    • …is constantly conversing with God.
  • The first type of continuous prayer in the Tradition is found in Saint John Cassian writing about the practice of using a Psalm as perpetual recollection of God.
    • In the Second Conference on Abbot Isaac, Chapter 10, Saint John Cassian reports of this ancient tradition.


“Oh God make speed to save, O Lord make haste to help me.”

Psalm 69/70:1

  • Why these words?
    • They embrace all feelings and apply to all conditions in life and therefore can be used at any and all times.
  • In the 4th century the Jesus Prayer becomes the standard short prayer used, as seen in works like The Ladder by Saint John Climacus and afterwards.
  • The Jesus Prayer is not exclusively used in the hesychast method.
  • The hesychast method is peculiar to the monastic community under specific guidance.
  • The Jesus Prayer is used outside of the hesychast method just as well, and is just as Orthodox.
  • Over time, the Jesus prayer became the de-facto standard for continuous prayer.

A Few Words of Caution

  • Be careful.
    • The name of Jesus itself cannot simply be used in a formulaic, “magical” way.
    • Like all authentic prayer, the Jesus prayer must be said with faith and humility.
  • Be careful.
    • A 6th century heresy claimed unceasing prayer was the exclusive call of monks, not to do good works, etc.
    • These were known as the “pray-ers”.
    • Unceasing prayer is not mutually exclusive from good works.
    • Charitable acts cry out to God for you, hence almsgiving is part of praying without ceasing.

The purpose of life and prayer is communion with God and prayer can be made an idol, and has been. Always keep in mind nothing is consecrated in itself, what is important is the heart and attitude before God.

  • Be careful.
    • Prayer and communing in the Divine Liturgy are unto judgment and condemnation if we are not:
      • praying with faith
      • believing and trusting God
      • putting our life in the hands of God in order to:
        • Know God and in order to do God’s will
        • Love others with the love of God in Christ

Why the Jesus Prayer?

  • “Lord have mercy” is the most normal summary of the Lord’s prayer.
  • The supplications in the Lord’s prayer are met and summarized in the mercy of God.
  • “Lord have mercy” means be to us what You [already] are.
  • We don’t cry for mercy from a justice standpoint in the Jesus prayer, because the Lord is already merciful.
  • The Lord is merciful to us because God is merciful – not because we ask Him to be.
  • All people everywhere have Divine mercy.
  • The key to life is wanting God’s mercy, otherwise to have Divine mercy and not want it is hell.
  • The mercy of God is most clearly shown in John 3:16-17

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

– John 3:16-17

  • All essential facts are mentioned in the Jesus Prayer.
  • Anything more becomes superfluous.
  • Anything more becomes hard to handle in a rhythmic way.
  • Anything less might not be enough dogmatically, but there are variations with less words:
    • “Lord have mercy!”
    • “Have mercy!”
  • Words need to be fitting, but most important is the intention of the heart.

Lord Jesus Christ,…

  • “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” is the whole Christian Creed.
  • No one can call Jesus Christ Lord without the Holy Spirit (with genuine faith and humility of course, not through blasphemy).

…Son of God,”

  • “Abba” father is the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer indicating Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
  • “Abba” father requires the Holy Spirit to say it with meaning.
  • “Jesus Christ, Son of God” adds the main Christian creedal statement(s):
    • Jesus is the Christ
    • Jesus is the Son of God
  • The faith of the Church is built on the rock of the statement uttered by the Holy Apostle Peter – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. (Matthew 16:16)

…have mercy on me, a sinner.

  • The “prayer of the Publican” is the root for the Jesus prayer – “Lord have mercy!” (Luke 18:9-14)
  • To say “sinner”, means only God is without sin and to admit one’s own sinful condition before God.

A final word of caution…

The Jesus prayer can be dangerous to use if faith, love and humility are absent and it is being used for ungodly reasons.

If misused, both the Divine Liturgy and the Jesus prayer can be cause for condemnation, therefore be careful.

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