“Pray constantly,” St. Paul commands us (1 Thess 5:17). St. John Chrysostom writes, “It is impossible, utterly impossible, for the man who prays eagerly and invokes God ceaselessly ever to sin (De Anna 4, 5). How can we practice ceaseless prayer?
Frequently when I write or interact with others concerning the importance of mental prayer, someone comments, “I try to pray throughout the day and make my work a prayer.” This is a laudable goal, one we should all aspire to. Sometimes, however, the person sees praying throughout the day as an alternative to mental prayer. This is misguided.
The Catechism states, “[W]e cannot pray ‘at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it” (2697). In context, this statement refers to the Liturgy of the Hours, special times set aside to join our voices to the prayer of the Church. It could just as easily apply to mental prayer, however. If we do not withdraw from our work (or leisure) to focus exclusively on God, we will not be able to pray always.
In mental prayer, we take our thoughts “captive” to God (see 2 Cor 10:5). We set aside, as far as we are able, everything that is purely secular. As we ponder the Scriptures and converse with God about them, we begin falling in love with Jesus. This love urges us to stay close to him.
A man in love does not need to compel himself to stay close to his beloved. He can’t get enough of her. He so longs to be with her, that he eventually proposes a lifetime together. This is how it should be with us as Christians. When we truly fall in love with Jesus, we begin to look for him everywhere, think about him constantly, talk to him about everything.
What if this same man, once married, only conversed with his wife while he was doing other things? Would that be sufficient to sustain their relationship? Wouldn’t his wife get frustrated if he proclaimed he was too busy to spend exclusive time with her? Our souls are meant to be wed to Christ. St. Paul counseled married couples to keep abstinence rare and short-lived (1 Cor 7:5). Likewise, we might experience days when we truly cannot take time for mental prayer, but this should not be the norm. We need communion with our beloved — sacred, secret time alone with him — to make the fire of our love burn stronger.
We humans are weak. We can’t easily focus on more than one thing at a time. For all the good intentions a person may have who sets out to pray while he works, good intentions may be as far as he gets. It’s difficult enough to keep our minds on God when we are alone and doing nothing else. The difficulty is compounded when we are busy with other tasks and surrounded by other people. Only those who have conquered their wills through the discipline of daily mental prayer will have the strength to stay near God amid distractions.
God desires for us to live in constant communion and conversation with him. The more we devote ourselves to mental prayer, the more companionship with him becomes our way of life. Prayer is a matter of love, and love cannot contain itself. It will overflow into everything we do and are. Praying always begins with praying daily.
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