At least two developments have marked American spirituality during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first is a greater openness to discussing spiritual matters. The second is a preoccupation with spiritual “damage control,” represented by a vast corpus of blog posts, pamphlets, and articles scrambling to treat the spiritual crisis that corresponds to the medical one. The view is short-term: The goal is to “get us through this.” Sometimes excellent, this sort of literature is necessary. When there is a storm, the immediate concern is how to weather it. But what to do when the storm ends? Do we imagine we will pick up where we left off, business as usual? This seems to be the expectation, but is that what we want?
The pandemic creates a dilemma: prayer is in higher demand, but it is also more difficult to come by. Social distancing is referred to as “compulsory monasticism” so frequently I don’t know who to blame for coining the term or what it might mean, but if prayer is the activity that truly defines monastic life, then social distancing is anything but. While we are at home and seemingly free of regular tasks, our undistracted time is nearly extinct. This is especially the case for parents, but pastors and spiritual directors also have a shrinking bandwidth. A cell, a closet, a room of one’s own in which to withdraw and linger without interruption: the preconditions for prayer evade us. “The spirit is willing . . .”
The general attitude seems to be that our spiritual progress is somehow “on hold” until churches reopen. The commission to be like Christ, however, does not wait for fairer conditions. Crises like plagues are features, not setbacks, in our journey to holiness. We are told to expect “afflictions which mightily befall us. Therefore shall we not fear when the earth be shaken” (Psalm 45:1–2 LXX). In our current trial, we will benefit from the “long view,” and a long view can look backward as well as forward. In the memory of Christianity, we find matter for impressing ancient patterns of prayer on our lives today that will carry us through this plague and, as Guite suggests above, bring us “home at dusk a different way,” and indeed, as a different, more prayerful people.
Owning no chair or furniture of any kind, I sat on the floor. My room was too small to stand in, anyhow. It was a storage closet emptied for a new tenant, and I gratefully accepted the low rent. I was not exactly fresh out of undergrad, but I had just completed an internship in Washington, DC, and taken a job as a third-grade teacher at a classical school in downtown Seattle. I was from neither city. I had spent most of my adult life thus far in major urban centers. Once again I found myself in a new city, with a new job, not knowing a soul.
My clothes were neatly folded and stacked against the wall on the floor. Slacks and jackets hung from twine suspended by thumbtacks. Most of my property consisted of books. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some pleasure in my Spartan existence, at first. I liked camping. In fact, even identifying it as “Spartan” helped somewhat: It resolved me against my austerity. Living in such conditions could be something like a training exercise. By car, the school where I taught was twenty minutes away, but I didn’t own a car. Every morning at four, I got up off my futon, prepared for the day, and boarded the bus.
Every seasoned teacher says the first year in the field is the most difficult. The work never left me. My commute, lunch breaks, evenings, and weekends were crammed with planning lessons, conjuring activities, tests, and quizzes, scheduling field trips, grading, and all of it new to me. Today, I say four words to other teachers—“Nine subjects, nine students”—and watch the eyebrows go up. Meanwhile, my students and a few older teachers represented my entire social life. The end of the school year is a blur in my memory; my personality had been chipped down to basic responses; a fatigue crawled in that would require more than a weekend to shake off. I slept Sundays, but never well.
Blunders tallied up as I faded. I missed my transfer. I forgot to iron my shirt. Wear a belt. At twenty-five, my hairline receded. I forgot to eat. I usually forgot to pray, but until I sat on the floor one day in March, it had not occurred to me I might forget how to pray entirely. But there I sat, attempting to recall the act of prayer, much like one casts after a word or the name of an actor. When it didn’t come to me, I couldn’t remember how to grieve the fact. That is the irony of the writer of Psalm 40: God places “a new song” in his mouth because the old song has abandoned him. When he does not know what to pray, the psalmist prays about not knowing what to pray, but even this tactic was unavailable to me, for the question was not what but how. This aporetic scene—me sitting in my closet-room at the end of myself—would replay itself for many weeks.
Some might identify my living conditions in Seattle as monastic, but what kind of monk cannot pray? What confronted me, and what many are experiencing now, is a case study in human frailty. Often confused for human sin, human frailty refers merely to our capacity to change. In short, we are creatures. Our creatureliness makes us more susceptible to temptation, but it also makes possible our progress in holiness. We cannot become Christlike if we cannot change. Human frailty and human sin operate in different economies. The proper response to personal sin is penitence; to frailty, spiritual discipline (askesis). The object of penitence is forgiveness; the object of spiritual discipline such as prayer is the power of the divine life in order to subdue the flesh so we are not “disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27) and do not “fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).
Just as some injured bodies forget how to walk or speak, I had forgotten how to pray—a condition, I am finding, not uncommon. In the weeks since the world shut its doors to the plague, new cases of spiritual amnesia have appeared in my circle. Many are again in the position of “spiritual novices,” as it were. For some, this poverty of spirit is the first they remember. For most, it is the first time they have even bothered with the question how.
How does one pray, exactly? I recall Sunday school lessons on what to pray (e.g., the ACTS model: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) but nothing on how. The method passed down to me is best expressed by paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway’s method for writing novels: There is nothing to prayer. All you do is sit down in a closet and bleed. Prayer was just “talking to God.” You had concerns, worries, sins, whatever, and you brought them forward. Nothing to it. How this was done was of no consequence. This did not prevent us from following certain conventions—eyes closed, hands clasped, head bowed—but nobody seemed to know why we prayed this way instead of some other way.
From the books leering in columns in my closet-room, I plucked out St. Benedict’s Rule and began to read. An impulsive starter of books, I managed to finish this one. I immediately read it a second time, a third, a fourth—each time with greater appetite. The subject of ancient Christian prayer receives so little attention in both academy and seminary that I was forced to go directly to the primary sources to learn about it. (The notable exception is Gabriel Bunge’s Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, a work to which this essay can add nothing.) I devoured the writings of Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. I was in an ideal state to receive instruction. The church fathers taught me how to pray all over again, but I do not pray now as I did before—nor would I want to.
The life of prayer, as it has been described by the unknown writer of The Way of the Pilgrim, is like “a wheel of a machine that has been given a push and then the machine works by itself; then the wheel needs only to be oiled and nudged for the machine to keep working.” The injunction is to begin, and then we will learn to pray by praying. The Spirit will teach us. But the question remains: In our frail condition, how to begin?
The Didache, perhaps the oldest extant nonscriptural text in the Christian tradition, is a manual of church instruction for new converts. Composed before (at least) several New Testament books, the Didache can be read in a single sitting. In addition to moral teachings, it gives practical advice, such as how to manage church funds and recognize false teachers. In the eighth chapter, it covers prayer. There, it copies the Lord’s Prayer in full, with the added doxology, “for thine is the power and the glory forever,” and concludes simply, “Pray thus three times a day.” No further explanation was needed. Most of the new converts would have been Jews, and the practice of praying thrice a day would have been universally recognized. In exile in Babylon, Daniel kneeled to pray three times a day, facing Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10, 13). The Psalms are cluttered with examples alluding to this practice. What we should note is that the Lord’s Prayer was not expected to be prayed three times in rapid succession, but at three different points throughout the day. The preferred times were early morning (Psalms 5:4; 58:17; 87:14; 91:3), noon (Psalm 54:18), and evening (Psalms 54:18; 140:2). Bible readers will note it tended to be around these times when Jesus himself withdrew to pray privately.
The earliest Christians were thus instructed to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, roughly around nine o’clock, twelve, and three. Nearly two centuries later, Origen of Alexandria wrote that the Lord’s Prayer “should not be performed less than three times each day.” Tertullian perceived trinitarian significance in the practice: It is fitting for the soul to pray thrice a day “since he is in debt to the three [divine] Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Catechists were not inclined to give instructions more complex than this. While a deeper prayer life awaited the new Christian, the immediate task at this stage in their spiritual journey was a conversion of life. This was done in part by establishing rhythms of prayer throughout the day.
While the instructions were simple, I found they were not easy to follow. I began by setting alarms for myself at the appointed hours, at which points I would ease out of whatever I was doing and retreat to someplace quiet, where I would attempt to speak the prayer slowly and push out distracting thoughts—that is, to not forget I am praying while praying. I was seldom successful, particularly at first. I often sped through or skipped prayers, but as G.K. Chesterton said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” The irritation and reluctance I would feel was hugely disproportionate to the actual demands of this practice, which required only a few minutes even when I managed to pray slowly. In time, prayer became easier. I even began to anticipate these points in the day. Without my realizing it, my schedule adapted to my prayer life, rather than the other way around.
Despite its wide practice, no church father would suggest that speaking the Lord’s Prayer thrice a day was a binding precept. However, it bestowed, as Tertullian said, a “fixed form” to the spiritual life. Just as the body responds to the cycle of the sun, so the soul finds its own spiritual cycle in the Lord’s Prayer. We must understand that this was thought to be one of the goals of prayer: To order life according to spiritual patterns. The modern practice of a “quiet time” of fifteen-to-thirty minutes of extemporaneous prayer once a day would seem to them wide of the mark. If it came to choices, the Fathers would sooner advise three small prayers over the course of the day than a single hour-long prayer. As St. Benedict says,
We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure (i.e., attentive), unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.
This may offend those from traditions that expect extensive extemporaneous prayer from beginners. The program outlined above may throw up concerns about “vain repetitions” and “empty rituals.” At bottom, this means it may be hard for some to believe that what I’ve described actually counts as prayer. Surely, they think, there is more to it. The best response is, as shown above, that this is the manner in which Jesus, the apostles, and the early Christians learned to pray, but it also bears reminding that attentiveness and regularity are merely the first (if most significant) lessons to master in a more extensive spiritual pedagogy. We begin here; it does not mean we end here. In addition to these lessons, then, a third is prevalent for today’s Christians, which is, as Ignatius Brianchaninov writes, that prayer is extraordinarily simple:
It needs for its acceptance childlike simplicity and faith. But we have become so complicated that it is just this simplicity which is inaccessible, incomprehensible to us. We want to be clever, we want to revive our own ego, we cannot bear self-renunciation or self-denial, we have no desire to live and act by faith. It is for this reason that we need a guide to lead us out of our complexity, out of our cuteness, out of our cunning, out of our vanity and self-confidence, into the breadth and simplicity of faith.
As much as it would please me to think myself a “prayer warrior,” God would prefer I were a child. Long and elaborate prayers may assure me of my advanced spirituality, but God does not hear my bloated words, nor is he impressed by my acumen or originality. There is no shame in praying well and often while praying little. In fact, this is the model prescribed for beginners because it is safest for our souls: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19). So in addition to repetitive and ritualistic, we can add a third “fault” to this mode of prayer: impoverished! But this is a boon, for it is precisely the “poor in spirit” who have the riches of the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Why pray this way, and what is the end, the “final form”? Of all spiritual disciplines in the Christian tradition, such as fasting and almsgiving, prayer alone we are commanded to do “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Once the three-part practice is mastered, it is not abandoned so much as expanded. The three points are like pools, and the next task is to dig channels between them and other points of the day. With practice, our prayers join themselves to everyday tasks and good works. Origen writes,
Since works of virtue and the keeping of the commandments have a part in prayer, the person who prays “ceaselessly” is the one who integrates prayer with good works and noble actions with prayer. For we can only accept the saying “Pray ceaselessly” as realistic if we say that the whole life of the saint is one mighty, integrated prayer.
As Origen argues, the ultimate end of praying three times daily is not to pray more (though that may describe intermediate steps). Instead, our prayer life is simplified even further into a single seamless prayer, converting the whole of human life into a great stream of praise and remembrance of God.
Just as to reflect is the nature of a mirror, so the nature of man is to pray to and praise his Creator, in the Spirit. In this way, no human being prays alone.
Prayer signifies our ontological, not only moral, reliance on God. It is the natural communion that exists between creatures and the Creator, in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and by whom “all things consist” (Colossians 1:17). Of all the fathers before Constantine, Origen is the most explicit on this point. Near the beginning of his treatise, he admits that, “as a man” he does “not claim capacity for prayer.” Rather, “our mind cannot pray unless the Spirit pray first, as it were within earshot.” Here, Origen is explicit that prayer is not an intrinsic human capacity, but a responsive “attuning” to the prayer of the Spirit to the Father. The human being cannot pray to the Father without the Spirit just as a mirror cannot reflect an image unless the archetype enters its plane. By the same token, just as to reflect is the nature of a mirror, so the nature of man is to pray to and praise his Creator, in the Spirit. In this way, no human being prays alone. Origen compares prayer to singing in harmony with the Spirit to the Father, for
just as she [i.e., the soul] cannot sing out with rhythm and melody and tempo and harmony, hymning the Father in Christ, unless the Spirit which searches all things, even the depths of God, first gives praise and hymns him whose depths he has searched out and, as he is able, comprehended.
In this manner, to pray is to participate in the communion of the Trinity, a privilege made possible only by the ascended Christ when we pray in his name, for Christ shares the ontological condition of our creatureliness, and in his radically contingent humanity, prayed while on earth, and in his now-glorified humanity, continues to pray a prayer that is ceaseless. The key point here is that only divine prayer is truly ceaseless, and human prayer is a sort of derivative participation. Prayer is like a great river whose source and end is God, and our prayer life consists of comings and goings to the bank to draw from the endless flow that continues even when we are absent.
The ascension transforms how we pray, for it shows prayer is the activity of glorified humanity. By his ascension, Christ assumes human nature into the trinitarian community. Now when we pray in the name of Christ, Cyprian tells us, it is as though we implore God “in his own words.” Christ elevates prayer as the normative way human beings relate to their God: It replaces the burnt offerings of the law and renders our bodies spiritual offerings by which forgiveness, mercy, and blessedness may be found (Hebrews 13:15). Tertullian suggests that to pray is to do the thing that comes most naturally to us, just as flight comes naturally to birds. Even so, birds must still be taught how to fly by those who already know, they may find the process difficult, and mastery might be slow. Nonetheless, prayer is more vital and basic to our humanity than breathing, and should be just as continuous, if not more so!
The injunction to pray ceaselessly corresponds, not to our human power to fulfill it (we lack this power, as Origen recognizes), but the all-powerful divine desire to commune with us. Christian prayer is the sign of the Christ who says “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). To early Christians, prayer is our reception of God’s continuous love for us: It is not a “work” on our part, but the thing that sanctifies our work. Prayer is thus more than an occasional activity that can be done only when we are not busy with other things. Rather, it underlies the whole of our spiritual journey; it is critical for the total conversion of life. The “end” of prayer is thus prayer itself: Namely, prayer that is ceaseless, so that all we do is prayer.
Since the scene in my closet-room, my life of prayer has been invigorated by a church as well as by marriage to a woman with a prayer life far stronger than mine. She is truly an ally in this regard. The church fathers and mothers (Macrina the Younger, especially) remain my private tutors, and I would sooner direct my reader to them than write a second essay on this subject. They have their own prescriptions on the proper disposition and posture while praying: When possible, stand or kneel (avoid sitting) for you are in the presence of your King; face east in eschatological expectation of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:27); lift up the hands in the form of the cross, for prayer is a sacrificial offering (Proverbs 15:8; Psalm 141:2; Hebrews 13:15); make the abbreviation for Christ’s name, which is also the sign of the cross (Greek chi, χ), on your forehead; and call on the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, for you cannot pray unless the Spirit prays with you: Prayer intersects human frailty with God’s all-powerful desire to save sinners. Adopt these conventions as you please. None are required. They are for you, not for God. The injunction to pray ceaselessly is playful as well as imperative. It requires no preliminary work, no preparation, no temple, no accommodations, and not even guilt over sins. To pray ceaselessly means you may pray anywhere, anytime, as you are able. The difficult part for me was accepting that this is enough.