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The Rev. Dr. Edward S. Gleason The Rev. Dr. Edward S. Gleason

The Rev. Dr. Edward S. Gleason is the retired executive director and editor for Forward Movement Publications and the author of numerous books and articles.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

The Episcopal Church


Pray Without Ceasing

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

3rd Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2005

Twenty-five years ago I began to turn my daily clock around, to go to bed earlier and earlier, then to rise to use the early morning dark to work more productively than in the late evening hours. The initial demand was to read and grade students' papers, not easily done at 10:30 in the evening after a long day. I was far more efficient at 4:30 a.m. Then came the need to walk four miles each day. I began to awaken earlier and earlier and to set the tone of the day in prayer, remembering that Saint Paul suggested in his First Letter to the Thessalonians: "Pray without ceasing."

My life of prayer begins this way, every day, day after day, day by day. Before I am awake, prior to consciousness, I am struck by fear. At least that's what it feels like. The fear is angst, the deep-seated anxiety common to being human, a force with an identity and a power all its own.

It arrives each day, before the beginning of the day, unassigned, free-floating, searching to attach itself to a specific concern particular to this day, this early morning hour. It may come from a dream or from a specific worry that consumed me as I fell asleep, a special challenge that awaits me in the coming day or some combination of all three. Whatever the specific, angst is rooted in the fear we all hold in common: fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of the future. Angst is as reliable as the light of day and arrives to mark the day's beginning.

Fortunately, this is not all. Before I am really awake, I become aware that I am locked in an embrace with the one other person with whom I have shared absolutely everything for 50 years-Anne. The angst does not go away, but I am struck-overwhelmed-with the reality of human love. Profoundly and uncontrollably in love, I say so right out loud. "I love you." Why? Miracle of miracles, she loves me and has and will.

Is that a question? Yes, it is. That word, "will." The word implies a future, and that is the question. Will there be a future? The question announces the return of fear. Will? Until . . . until we are parted by death. Death. And, then, there is angst.

At this point I remember that it was Saint Paul who said: "Pray without ceasing."

I begin to pray and for a long time, I am so Anglican, so conditioned by The Book of Common Prayer, that I pray with words long and well known, words that have marked my life, words taught to me and learned through time. I pick or, more accurately, I am picked by one set of words. I start to pray them:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

I say them over and over and over, again and again, until these words wrap and enfold me, become me, and lead me. I never know where.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Why do I do this? Why repeat the Lord's Prayer over and over again? Why is this effective or important?

Turn to the first lines of Chapter 11 of the Gospel according to Luke, one of the passages in which Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, by saying, "When you pray, say…," and then he teaches them the words of the Lord's Prayer.

Once Jesus has done so, he says:

"Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.'"

"I tell you," Jesus goes on to say, "even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs."

Jesus means for us to understand that prayer is a matter of persistence. Prayer requires repetition, constant reiteration and restatement.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

In another version of the same story, the petitioner is an insistent and persistent widow, whose appeal is made to a judge, again in bed, upstairs, who grants the widow's request because, as the text says, of her "importunity." The story is sometimes titled, "The Importunate Widow." She is unrelenting, constant, and repetitious. She will not go away, but continues and continues and continues to say the same thing.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

One gets the idea, hears the obvious demand, that if and when one is to pray, one is to be repetitious, insistent, constant, importunate. Therefore, once the prayer has been stated for the very first time, it should then be repeated, again and again.

The Lord's Prayer, its author and giver, Jesus, is providing for us the way, the means, the pathway, to prayer. It is both a road through the wilderness as well as through well-known terrain. It offers familiar, well known, comfortable tracks to follow, again and again, time after time, until we know, as if for the first time, to pray without ceasing.

These words of The Lord's Prayer are time-honored, sacred words that describe the pathway to and from God. These words are the pathway itself, laid down for us to follow, again and again.

When one repeats these words over and over again, the words take over, assume a life and power of their own beyond your creation. It is then that you become part of them, defined by them, caught up in them, carried along with them, to some other place, a place where you know not nor how you arrived.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

As one prays, the time comes when new words appear, words that choose me, words from the past, perhaps long ago, words that now become the fabric of my life, sewn into my very being, defining me anew, providing comfort and strength for this moment.

Sometimes, often, they are these words from the familiar hymn:

Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.

At first they are merely words, but with each restatement, I am emptied into them, defined by them, until they describe me, become me.

Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.

The words invite, create, surround, describe the presence of God in that moment, a presence that speaks and responds to whatever the deep-seated, wordless fear that has invaded the moment. There is an answer. It comes in words I know are there, inside my head, but these are not the words that had defined this particular moment. They just appear.

Dear God, I give myself to these this day, thine only, thine ever to be. Amen.

I say them over and over again, until I believe they mark and define my life.

Dear God, I give myself to these this day, thine only, thine ever to be. Amen.

Dear God, I give myself to these this day, thine only, thine ever to be. Amen.

Pray without ceasing. The summer I turned 13, after the Sunday service, a friend of our family, George Paul T. Sargent, rector of St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City, came up to me, put his right hand on my left shoulder, drew me close and whispered, "You should go to seminary."

Dr. Sargent, who was already an important person in our family, now became a central figure for me, and later for Anne and me as a couple. He wrote and talked with me of prayer, especially of what are called arrow prayers, short statements that set a tone, establish a framework and state of mind.

He gave me several. The most important among them:

Dear God, I give myself to thee this day, thine only, thine ever to be. Amen.

It became an essential part of daily life, present always in the early morning, repeated as many as fifty times, until the line where the prayer ends and I begin is non-distinguishable. Where it leads me, what it does to me, words are not able to describe; but it takes me to another place, a place where there is clarity and peace.

Dear God, I give myself to thee this day, thine only, thine ever to be. Amen.

When finally there is peace, the realization brings to mind the words of a hymn, written by John Greenleaf Whittier, written in the place where he spent his summers on Squam Lake, New Hampshire. Here Whittier owned a point of land, where for three summers it was my job to deliver the mail by boat.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard, beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord, Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee! O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease!
Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire.
O still small voice of calm.

Whittier's words raise the question: Am I back on Squam Lake, where so much of my life began? Or am I standing on Mount Horeb with Elijah? Neither. They take me to another place of perspective and understanding.

My father's favorite hymn:

O Master let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free;
Tell me thy secret; help me bear the strain of toil, the fret of care.

Help me the slow of heart to move by some clear, winning word of love;
Teach me the wayward feet to stay, and guide me in the homeward way.

Teach me thy patience: still with thee in closer, dearer company,
In work that keeps faith sweet and strong, in trust that triumphs over wrong.

In hope that sends a shining ray far down the future's broadening way,
In peace that only thou canst give, with thee, O Master, let me live.

Pray without ceasing. The promise of prayer is always, everywhere, possible though Him who gave his life that we may live. It is He through whom we pray, Jesus. When I remember this, it causes me to turn to the Jesus Prayer. Different from the resources of the Book of Common Prayer and the hymnal, the Jesus Prayer is twelve ancient words, repeated timelessly and endlessly for more than a millennium by literally millions and millions of people.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Dating from the year 600 and said to be a perfect and complete theological statement, when repeated over and over and over again, it makes you a part of the One in whose name it is spoken. The angst will remain. Prayer is not magic, but as you pray, you realize that you have not been born to deal with life alone. You are not alone. You will never be alone.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Pray without ceasing. Prayer gathers in one time and place, through a succession of words the essence and totality of your whole life. Through words familiar to many and words familiar to me, unselfconsciously I have gathered together first fragments and then the totality of life as I know it. It all takes place in one moment and a series of moments. To undertake prayer means to gather together all you are, to bring together through words and intention all you have been and will be.

The possibility of prayer is always present. God is present. He was present in the person of Jesus when he first gave to us the words of the Lord's Prayer. The same God will be present, his presence unfolding and surrounding us once again, as we use His words.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.

Let us pray.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. And because we are sorely hindered by our sins that your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honor and glory now and forever. Amen.


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