Henri Nouwen: How to (actually) pray without ceasing
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Aug. 5, 1978, issue of America under the title “Unceasing Prayer.” Henri Nouwen would have turned 90 years old today, Jan. 24, 2022.
When we think about prayer, we usually regard it as one of the many things we do to live a full and mature Christian life. We say to ourselves or to each other: “We should not forget to pray because prayer is important: without it, our life becomes shallow. We need to give our time not only to people, but to God as well.” If we are fervent in our conviction that prayer is important, we might even be willing to give a whole hour to prayer each day, or a whole day every month, or a whole week every year. Thus, prayer becomes a part, indeed a very important part, of our life.
But when the apostle Paul speaks about prayer, he uses a very different language. He does not speak about prayer as a part of life, but says it is all of life. He does not mention prayer as something we should not forget, but claims it is our ongoing concern. He does not exhort his readers to pray once in a while, regularly or often, but without hesitation admonishes them to pray constantly, unceasingly, without interruption. Paul does not ask us to spend some of every day in prayer. No, Paul is much more radical. He asks us to pray day and night, in joy and in sorrow, at work and at play, without intermission or breaks. For Paul, praying is like breathing. It cannot be interrupted without mortal danger.
To the Christians in Thessalonica, Paul writes: “Pray constantly, and for all things give thanks to God, because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5: 17-18). Paul not only demands unceasing prayer, but also practices it. “We constantly thank God for you” (1 Thess. 2:13), he says to his community in Greece. “We feel we must be continually thanking God for you” (2 Thess. 1 :3). “We pray continually that our God will make you worthy of His call” (2 Thess. 1: 11). To the Romans, he writes: “I never fail to mention you in my prayers” (Rom. 1:9), and he comforts his friend Timothy with the words: “Always I remember you in my prayers” (2 Tim. l :3).
Paul does not ask us to spend some of every day in prayer. No, he asks us to pray day and night, in joy and in sorrow, at work and at play, without intermission or breaks.
The two Greek terms that appear repeatedly in Paul’s letters are pantote and adialeiptos, which mean “always” and “without interruption.” These words make it clear that for Paul, prayer is not a part of living, but all of living, not a part of his thought, but all of his thought, not a part of his emotions and feelings, but all of them. Paul’s fervor allows no place for partial commitments, piecemeal giving or hesitant generosity. He gives all and asks all.
This radicalism obviously raises some difficult questions. What does it mean to pray without ceasing? How can we live our life, with its many demands and obligations, as an uninterrupted prayer? What about the endless row of distractions that intrude on us day after day? Moreover, how can our sleep, our needed moments of diversion and the few hours in which we try to escape from the tensions and conflicts of life be lifted up into unceasing prayer? These questions are real, and have puzzled many Christians who wanted to take seriously Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing.
One of the best-known examples of this search is the 19th-century Russian peasant who desired so much to be obedient to Paul’s call for uninterrupted prayer that he went from staretz to staretz looking for an answer, until he finally found a holy man who taught him the Jesus Prayer. He told the peasant to say thousands of times each day: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” In this way, the Jesus Prayer slowly became united with his breathing and heartbeat so that he could travel through Russia carrying in his knapsack the Bible, the Philokalia, some bread and salt, and living a life of unceasing prayer (The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. R. M. French. Seabury Press, 1965). Although we are not 19th-century Russian peasants with a similar “wanderlust,” we still share the question of this simple peasant: How do we pray without ceasing?
I would like to respond to this question not in the context of the wide, silent Russian prairies of the 19th century, but in the context of the restlessness of our contemporary Western society. I propose to look at unceasing prayer as the conversion of our unceasing thought processes. My central question, therefore, is: “How can we turn our perpetual mental activities into perpetual prayer?” Or, to put it more simply: “How can thinking become praying?”
First, I want to discuss how our unceasing thinking is the source of our joy as well as our pain. Then I want to show how this unceasing thinking can be turned into an uninterrupted conversation with God. Finally, I would like to explore how we can develop a discipline that will promote this ongoing conversion from thought to prayer. In this way, I hope that unceasing prayer can be removed from the sphere of romantic sentimentalism and become a realistic possibility for our demanding lives in the 20th century.
Lately I have been wondering if we ever do not think. It seems to me that we are always involved in some kind of thought process and that being without thoughts is not a real human option. When Blaise Pascal calls a human being a “roseau pensant,” a thinking reed, he indicates that our ability to think constitutes our humanity and that it is our thinking that sets us apart from all other created beings. All our emotions, passions and feelings are intimately connected with our thoughts. We could even say that our thoughts form the cradle in which our joys as well as our sorrows are born. The words “thoughts” and “thinking” are obviously used here in a very broad sense and include different mental processes. When we look at these different mental processes, it would appear that whether we like it or not, we are involved in, or subjected to, unceasing thoughts.
One of the forms of thinking with which we are most familiar, but which represents only a small part of our mental processes, is reflective thinking. Reflection is a consciously bending back over events or the ideas, images or emotions connected with these events. It requires the application of our willpower in a concentrated effort; it calls for discipline, endurance, patience and much mental energy. Those who study a great deal know how hard systematic reflection is and how it can tire us and even exhaust us. Reflection is real work and does not come easily.
Those who study a great deal know how hard systematic reflection is and how it can tire us and even exhaust us.
But not reflecting does not mean not thinking. In fact, we quite often find ourselves thinking without even realizing it. Suddenly we become aware of the fact that our minds have drifted off into thoughts about family, friends, future ambitions or past failures. We neither desired nor planned to think about these things, but simply discover ourselves being led into a complex network of ideas, images and feelings.
This passive, nonreflective thinking is often disturbing and can make us anxious or even apprehensive. We realize that our mind thinks things that we cannot control, that sneak up on us and interfere with our best intentions. During the most solemn moments, we may find ourselves thinking the most banal thoughts. While listening to a sermon about God’s love, we find ourselves wondering about the haircut of the preacher. While reading a spiritual book, we suddenly realize that our mind is busy with the question of how much peanut butter and how much jam to put on our next sandwich. While watching a beautiful ceremony at St. Peter’s, we notice ourselves trying to figure out where in the Vatican the laundromat is located, in which those thousands of surplices will be cleaned after the service. Indeed, not infrequently we catch ourselves thinking very low things during very high moments. The problem, however, is that we cannot think about nothing. We have to think and we often feel betrayed by our own uncontrolled or uncontrollable thoughts.
Our thought processes reach even deeper than our reflective moments and our uncontrolled mental wanderings. They also reach into our sleeping hours. We might wake up in the middle of the night and find ourselves part of a frightening car race, a delicious banquet or a heavenly choir. Sometimes we are able to give a detailed account of all the things that happened to us in our dreams. Sometimes we remember only the final moment of our dream and sometimes we are left with only a vague fear or an undefined joy. We know that much is going on during our sleep and that occasionally we catch only bits and pieces of it. Careful encephalographic studies have shown that our mind is always active during sleep; we are always dreaming even when we have no recollection of its occurrence or its content. And although we might tend to discard our thought processes during our night’s sleep as insignificant in comparison with our reflections or our undirected mental wanderings, we should not forget that for many people, dreams proved to be the main source of knowing. The patriarch Jacob heard God’s call when he saw angels going up and down a ladder. The first Joseph was deported to Egypt because he irritated his brothers with his visions of sheaves, sun, moon and stars bowing to him, and the second Joseph fled to Egypt after he had seen an angel warning him of Herod. And in our century, apparently so far from biblical times, we find Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung informing us that our dreams will tell us the truth.
This unceasing thinking, which lies at the core of our humanity, needs to be converted slowly but persistently into unceasing prayer.
Thus, we are indeed involved in unceasing thought day and night, willingly or unwillingly, during our most alert moments and during our deepest sleep, while working and while resting. This is our human predicament, a predicament that causes us great joy as well as immense pain. Our ceaseless thought is our burden as well as our gift. We wish that we could stop thinking for a while. Perhaps then we would not be haunted by the memories of lost friends, by the awareness of past sins, by the knowledge of hunger and oppression in our world.
These thoughts can impose themselves on us at the most unwelcome hours or keep us awake when we are most in need of sleep. So we wish that we could just be without thoughts, that we could simply erase this disturbing graffiti of the mind. But then, without thought there can be no smile, no laughter, no quiet joy. How can we be glad to see friends again when we are unable to think of them? How can we celebrate a birthday, a national holiday or a great religious feast if our mind is not aware of the meaning of the event? How can we be grateful if we cannot remember the gifts we have received? How can we lift up our heart and sing and dance without the thousands of thoughts that nurture our mind constantly?
Our thoughts are indeed the cradle where sorrow and joy are born. With an empty mind our heart cannot mourn or feast, our eyes cannot cry or laugh, our hands cannot wring or clap, our tongue cannot curse or praise. Thus, as “thinking reeds,” we are able to feel deeply and experience life to the full with all its sorrows and joys. This unceasing thinking, which lies at the core of our humanity, needs to be converted slowly but persistently into unceasing prayer.
To pray unceasingly, as Paul asks us to do, would be completely impossible if it would mean to think constantly about God. Not only for people who have many different concerns to occupy their minds, but also for monks who spend many hours a day in prayer, thinking about God all the time is an unrealistic goal, which, if sought too vigorously, could lead to a mental breakdown.
To pray, I think, does not primarily mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God instead of spending time with other people. Rather, it means to think and live in the presence of God. As soon as we begin to divide our thoughts into thoughts about God and thoughts about people and events, we remove God from our daily life and put Him in a pious little niche where we can think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings. Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can eventually become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts beautiful and ugly, high and low, prideful and shameful, sorrowful and joyful can he thought in the presence of God. What I mean is that we convert our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer when we move from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue. This requires that we turn all our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts.
It is not hard to see how a real change takes place in our daily life when we find the courage to keep our thoughts to ourselves no longer, to speak out, confess them, share them, bring them into conversation. As soon as an embarrassing or exhilarating idea is taken out of its isolation and brought into a relationship with someone, something totally new happens. This obviously requires much courage and trust, precisely because we are not always sure how our thoughts will be received. But as soon as we have taken the risk and experienced acceptance, our thoughts themselves receive a new quality.
To pray unceasingly is to lead all our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God.
To pray unceasingly is to lead all our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God. Jesus’ life was a life lived in the presence of God His Father. He kept nothing, absolutely nothing, hidden from His face. His joys, His fears, His hopes and His despairs were always shared with His Father. Therefore, He could indeed say to His disciples: “ ... you will be scattered ... leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (Jn. 16:32). Thus, prayer asks us to break out of our monologue with ourselves and to follow Jesus by turning our life into an unceasing conversation with our heavenly father.
Prayer, therefore, is not introspection. Introspection means to look inward, to enter into the complex network of our mental processes in search of some inner logic or some elucidating connections. Introspection results from the desire to know ourselves better and to become more familiar with our own interiority. Although introspection has a positive role in our thought processes, the danger is that it can entangle us in the labyrinth of our own ideas, feelings and emotions, and lead us to an increasing self-preoccupation. Introspection can cause paralyzing worries or unproductive self-gratification. Introspection can also create “moodiness.” This “moodiness’’ is a very widespread phenomenon in our society. It reveals our great concern with ourselves and our undue sensitivity to how we feel or think. It makes us experience life as a constant fluctuation between “feeling high” and “feeling low,” between “bad days” and “good days,” and thus becomes a form of narcissism.
Prayer is not introspection. It does not look inward but outward. It is not a scrupulous analysis of our own thoughts and feelings, but a careful attentiveness to Him who invites us to an unceasing conversation. Prayer is the presentation of all thoughts—our intentional thoughts as well as our day and night dreams—to our loving Father so that He can see them and respond to them with His divine compassion. Prayer is the joyful affirmation of Psalm 139 that God knows our mind and heart and that nothing is hidden from Him:
You know me through and through from having watched my bones take shape
when I was being formed in secret
knitted together in the limbo of the womb (14-15).
God, examine me and know my heart, probe me and know my thoughts, make sure I do not follow pernicious ways
and guide me in the way that is everlasting (23-24).
Prayer indeed is a radical conversion of all our mental processes because in prayer we move away from ourselves—our worries, preoccupations and self-gratifications—by directing all that we recognize as ours to God in the simple trust that through His love all will be made new.
But this conversion from unceasing thought to unceasing prayer is far from easy. There is a deep resistance to making ourselves so vulnerable, so naked, so totally unprotected. Naturally, we want to love God and worship Him, but we also want to keep a little corner of our inner life for ourselves, where we can hide and think our own secret thoughts, dream our own dreams and play with our own mental fabrications. We are always tempted to select carefully the thoughts that we bring into our conversation with God.
What makes us so stingy? Maybe we wonder if God can take all that goes on in our mind and heart. Can He accept our hateful thoughts, our cruel fantasies and our bizarre dreams? Can He handle our primitive urges, our inflated illusions and our exotic mental castles? Or maybe we simply want to hold on to our own pleasurable imaginings and stimulating reveries, afraid that in showing them to our Lord, we may have to give them up. Thus, we are constantly tempted to fall back into introspection out of fear or out of greed, and to keep from our God what often is most in need of His healing touch.
Unceasing prayer is extremely difficult, then, precisely because we like to keep parts of ourselves to ourselves.
This withholding from God of a large number of our thoughts leads us onto a road that we probably would never consciously want to take. lt is the road of idolatry. Idolatry means to worship false images, and that is precisely what happens when we keep our fantasies, worries and joys to ourselves and do not present them to Him who is our Lord. By refusing to share these thoughts, we limit His lordship and erect little altars to the mental images that we do not want to submit to a divine conversation.
I remember how I once visited a psychiatrist complaining of my difficulty in controlling my fantasy life. I told him that disturbing images kept coming up and that I found it hard to detach myself from them. When he had listened to my story, he smiled and said: “Well, Father, as a priest you should know that this is idolatry, because your God is saying that you should not worship false images.” Only then did I realize fully what it means to confess having sinned not only in word and action, but also in thought. It is to confess idolatry, one of the oldest and most pervasive temptations.
Unceasing prayer is extremely difficult, then, precisely because we like to keep parts of ourselves to ourselves and experience real resistance to subjecting all that we are to God’s lordship. Unceasing prayer is indeed an ongoing struggle against idolatry. When all our thoughts, those of our days as well as those of our nights, have been brought into a loving conversation with God, then we can speak about obedience in the full sense. Since this is obviously never a task that is completed, we need to raise the question of discipline. What disciplines are there to help us in becoming disciples of Christ and living in obedience to our heavenly Father?
Since there are so many resistances to the conversion of our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer, we need discipline. Without discipline, unceasing prayer remains a vague ideal, something that has a certain romantic appeal but which is not very realistic in our contemporary world. Discipline means that something specific and concrete needs to be done to create the context in which a life of uninterrupted prayer can develop. Unceasing prayer requires the discipline of prayer exercises. Those who do not set aside a certain place and time each day to do nothing else but pray can never expect their unceasing thought to become unceasing prayer. Why is this planned prayer practice so important? It is important because through this practice God can become fully present to us as a real partner in our conversation.
This discipline of prayer embraces many forms of prayer—communal as well as individual prayer, oral as well as mental prayer. It is of first importance that we strive for prayer with the understanding that it is an explicit way of being with God. We often say: “All of life should be lived in gratitude,” but this is only possible if at certain times we give thanks in a very concrete and visible way. We often say: “All our days should be lived for the glory of God,’’ but this is only possible if a day is regularly set apart to give glory to God. We often say: “We should love one another always,” but this is only a possibility when we regularly perform concrete and unambiguous acts of love. It is likewise true that we can only say: “All our thoughts should be prayer,’’ if there are times in which we make God our only thought.
Common to all disciplined prayer, whether it be liturgical, devotional or contemplative, is that in it we try to direct all our attention to God and God alone. With this in mind, I would like to discuss in some detail the importance of the discipline of contemplation as one of the roads to unceasing prayer. Although many good things have been written about contemplation and contemplative prayer, many people still have the impression that contemplative prayer is something very special, very “high” or very difficult, and really not for ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary problems. This is unfortunate, because the discipline of contemplative prayer is particularly valuable for those who have so much on their minds that they suffer from fragmentation. If it is true that all Christians are called to bring all their thoughts into an ongoing conversation with their Lord, then contemplative prayer can be a discipline that is especially important for those who are deeply involved in the many affairs of this world.
Without discipline, unceasing prayer remains a vague ideal, something that has a certain romantic appeal but which is not very realistic in our contemporary world.
Contemplative prayer is prayer in which we attentively look at God. How is this possible, since nobody can see God and live? The mystery of the Incarnation is that it has become possible to see God in and through Jesus Christ. Christ is the image of God. In and through Christ, we know that God is a loving Father whom we can see by looking at His Son. When Jesus spoke to His disciples about His Father, Philip said impatiently: “Lord, let us see the Father, and then we shall be satisfied.” Then Jesus answered: “To have seen me is to have seen the Father, so how can you say, ‘Let us see the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?’’ (Jn. 14:8-10). Contemplative prayer, therefore, means to see Christ as the image of God the Father. All the images consciously or unconsciously created by our mind should be made subject to Him who is the only image of God. Contemplative prayer can be described as an act of seeing Christ in the imagination, of letting Him enter fully into our consciousness so that He becomes the icon always present in our inner room. By looking at Christ with loving attention, we learn with our mind and heart what it means to say that lie is the way to the Father. Jesus is the only one who has seen the Father. He says: “Not that anybody has seen the Father, except the one who comes from God” (Jn. 6:46). Jesus’ entire being is a perpetual seeing of the Father. His life and works are an uninterrupted contemplation of His Father. For us, therefore, contemplation means an always increasing imaginative vision of Jesus, so that in, through and with Him, we can see the Father and live in His presence.
How, then, do we imagine Christ so that we can indeed enter into dialogue with Him and allow our unceasing thought to be transformed into unceasing prayer? There is no single answer to this question, because every Christian must develop a personal discipline according to his or her task in life, work schedule, cultural heritage and personality. It belongs to the nature of a discipline that it conforms to the needs of the individual man or woman who wants to have a life with Christ. Therefore, rather than present a general account of contemplative prayer, l will describe one example of a contemplative discipline in the hope that it might suggest different ways of prayer to different people.
This very simple discipline for contemplative prayer is to read, every evening before going to sleep, the readings of the next day’s Eucharist with special attention to the Gospel. It is often helpful to take one sentence or word that offers special comfort and repeat it a few times so that with that sentence or word, the whole content can be brought to mind and allowed slowly to descend from the mind into the heart.
I have found this practice to be a powerful support in times of crisis. lt is especially helpful during the night, when worries or anxieties may keep me awake and seduce me into idolatry. By remembering the Gospel story or any of the sayings of the Old or New Testament authors, I can create a safe mental home into which I can lead all my preoccupations and let them be transformed into quiet prayer.
For me, this discipline of having an “empty time” to be with Christ has proved very powerful.
During the following day, a certain time must be set apart for explicit contemplation. This is a time in which to look at Christ as He appears in the reading. Obviously, the best way to do this is to reread the Gospel of the day and to imagine the Lord as He speaks or acts with His people. In this hour, we can see Him, hear Him, touch Him and make Him present to our whole being. We can see Christ as our healer, our teacher and our guide. We can see Him in His indignation, His compassion, His suffering and His glory. We can look at Him, listen to Him and enter into conversation with Him. Often, the other readings from the Old and New Testaments help to intensify our image of Christ, because, as Vincent van Gogh once said, the Gospels are the top of the mountain of which the other biblical writings form the slopes.
For me, this discipline of having an “empty time” to be with Christ as He speaks to me in the readings of the day has proved very powerful. I found that wherever I was or whatever I did during the rest of the day, the image of Christ that I had contemplated during that “empty time” stayed with me as a beautiful icon. Sometimes it was the conscious center of all my thoughts, but more often it was a quiet presence of which I was only indirectly aware. In the beginning, I hardly noticed the difference. Slowly, however, I realized that I could indeed carry Christ, the image of God, with me and let Him affect not only my reflective thoughts but my daydreams as well. I am convinced that this simple form of daily contemplation will eventually steal my dreams out of the hands of the Evil One and allow them once more to be gateways of God’s ongoing revelation.
Finally, this discipline puts the celebration of the Eucharist into a totally new perspective. Especially when it is celebrated in the evening, the Eucharist becomes a real climax in which the Lord, with whom we have journeyed during the day, speaks to us again in the context of the whole community and invites us with our friends to the intimacy of His table. It is there that the transformation of all images into the image of Christ finds its fullest realization. It is there that the unity with Christ experienced through contemplation finds its perfection. Daily contemplation makes the daily Eucharist a transforming celebration. When we live the whole day with Christ in mind and heart, the Eucharist can never be merely a routine or an obligation. Instead, it becomes the center of daily life toward which everything else is directed.
This simple discipline of prayer can do much to provide a strong framework in which our unceasing thought can become unceasing prayer. In contemplative prayer, Christ cannot remain a stranger who lived long ago in a foreign world. Rather, He becomes a living presence with whom we can enter into dialogue here and now.
The contemplative practice I have described is only one of many possible examples, and I offer it merely as a suggestion that points in the direction of a disciplined prayer life. The important thing is not that we use this or that prayer technique, but that we realize that the Christian ideal of making all our life into prayer remains nothing but an ideal unless we are willing to discipline our body, mind and heart with a daily practice of entering directly, consciously and explicitly into the presence of our loving Father through His Son Jesus Christ.
I have tried to show that unceasing prayer is not the unusual feat of simple Russian peasants but a realistic vocation for all Christians. It certainly is not a way of living that comes either automatically by simply desiring it or easily by just praying once in a while. But when we give it serious attention and develop an appropriate discipline, we will see a real transformation in our life that will lead us closer and closer to God. Unceasing prayer as a permanent state of mind obviously will never be reached. It will always require our attention and discipline. Nevertheless, we will discover that many of the disturbing thoughts that seemed to distract us are being transformed into the ongoing praise of God. When we see with increasing clarity the beauty of the Father through His Son, we will discover that created things no longer distract us. On the contrary, they will speak in many ways about Him. Then we will realize that prayer is neither more nor less than the constant practice of attending to God’s presence at all times and in all places.
Paul’s words to the Christians of Thessalonica about unceasing prayer might at first have seemed demanding and unrealistic. Perhaps, we can now see that they can be the source of an ever increasing joy. After all, it is not just a man, but God Himself, who invites us to let our whole lives be transformed. That is why Paul could write: “Pray constantly and for all things give thanks to God, because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5: 17).