Work is prayer

So I’m working on a sermon about ceaseless prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17: ‘pray without ceasing’). And I had this thought that the ancients never came up with any cop-outs for ceaseless prayer. You know, ‘St Paul means pray regularly’ or something. Or ‘ceaseless in Greek doesn’t mean the same thing when put in context.’

However, Origen almost does, as I learned doing my research for the sermon:

He prays without ceasing who joins prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer. It is only in this way that we can understand the injunction, pray without ceasing, as something that we can carry out; that is to say, if we regard the whole life of the saint as one great continuous prayer. What is usually termed “prayer” is but a part of this prayer, and it should be performed not less than three times each day. … –On Prayer, 12.2, trans. John J. O’Meara (Ancient Christian Writers 19; pp. 46-47)

Perhaps, however, this is not a cop-out. When you read the Philokalia, fifth-century writers like Hesychios the Priest of Diadochus of Photike talk about constant vigilance and ceaseless prayer, and how stopping praying can harm your progress toward holiness and hesychia (silence/stillness).

It’s a grand ideal.

But I still have to make breakfast for myself and my sons, eat said breakfast, take a shower, “go to work”, change diapers, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, maintain a healthy and human relationship with my wife and any other people I see during the day, buy groceries, help cook supper and lunch at times, bathe my sons, brush my teeth, and so forth.

Some of these acts I can pray during. Others I cannot, for they require my attention for one reason or another.

Origen’s approach, then, is to turn these non-prayer-acts into prayers. Work is prayer.

This is, in fact, an idea I found once in a book about Benedictines (possibly Esther de Waal, Seeking God?), that our work, especially in service to others, is itself prayer. As I empty the dishwasher, I often say to myself, ‘Work is prayer. Prayer is work. Service is love.’

Furthermore, if we commit ourselves more fully to undivided prayer when we do set aside times for seeking the face of God, prayer will begin to imbue our lives, and we will become a living prayer. At least, that’s what they say…

‘Daily devotions’ in ancient Christianity (more on the Apostolic Tradition)

Someday I hope to be able to write a book about spiritual practices of the ancient church, so I’ve been in contact with people I know to see what they would like to see in such a book. One question that arose was: Did they have daily devotions? What would this look like?

A starting point: The sort of standard evangelical version today consists of daily prayer and Scripture reading and the reading of other Christian books along the way, whether labelled ‘devotional’ or simply theology or biblical commentary or the like. The shape of prayer, determination of readings, and relationship of the two to our Christian books vary from person to person and tradition to tradition.

The catechists, presbyters, bishops, monks, and learned believers who left us our vast body of ancient Christian literature expect a pattern of personal, daily prayer from the ancient Christians. Many of them give great advice about how to pray. The third-century Apostolic Tradition attributed to St Hippolytus gives us a daily round for the members of the ecclesial community that consists of these times for prayer:

  • Third hour (9:00 AMish)
  • Sixth hour (Noonish)
  • Ninth hour (3:00 PMish)
  • Bed-time
  • Midnight
  • Cock-crow (hopefully dawn, although roosters crow whenever they please, in my experience)

A little moment of liturgical history: The canonical hours of prayer clearly pre-date monasticism. These were handed down to the author of the Apostolic Tradition through tradition itself, so they are undoubtedly older even than the third century. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) in On Prayer 25 recommends the same round of prayer. I might even argue, if I were more acquainted with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, that the communal service of lamplighting gives us seven hours for prayer, which matches the monastic pattern of later centuries, but I do not know for certain that the service of lamplighting was daily or not.

The first three hours listed above are set aside because of their association with Christ’s passion, an association they will maintain throughout tradition. When we combine them with the Apostolic Tradition‘s teaching on the sign of the cross, we see regular, daily devotion to Jesus and the salvation wrought for us by his precious death and glorious resurrection.

The Apostolic Tradition also encourages the ordinary Christian to attend teaching in the morning if there is any. If not, then the believer is encouraged to spend time in personal study of a book.

There is no mention of the private, personal reading Scripture, although it is definitely part of the teaching and worship of the corporate church.

The only other personal devotional practice I have noted in this text is fasting, which people are encouraged to engage in at any time. One text may mean fasting before Holy Communion, but may actually mean having Communion before the love-feast (see Stewart-Sykes, 2nd ed., pp. 191-192).

These are the non-corporate devotions of the Apostolic Tradition. Can we live up to them or adapt them as we progress in piety?