Prayer of Rest and paradoxically Unceasing Prayer
Story: A business manager went on holiday to an island in Greece.
One day, while he was on the beach, he was called up on his mobile phone by his secretary, wanting some help.
He gave her some instructions and told her to call him back when she had finished.
As he was pacing up and down waiting for a return phone call, he came across a fisherman, dozing in the shade of his fishing boat, that had been pulled up on the beach.
As the manager passed, the fisherman woke up and the manager decided to talk to him.
“The weather is great and there’s lots of fish. So how come you are sitting about here - when you could be out there - catching more fish?”
Gently, the fisherman replied:
“Because I caught enough this morning”
“But just imagine” the manager replied “if you went out twice a day, you could bring home twice as much fish.
And do you know what could happen?
Puzzled, the fisherman shook his head.
“Well” the manager continued - waxing lyrical to his theme “you could buy yourself a motorboat.
And then, after say a couple of years you could buy a second one.
Then perhaps after three years you could have a cutter or two.
And just think, one day you might be able to buy a freezing plant.
Then you could go on to get your own helicopter to help you trace shoals of fish for your fishing fleet.
You could then buy your own truck to ship the fish to the capital thereby cutting out the middle man”
“And then what” the fisherman replied.
“And then “ the manager concluded triumphantly “ you wouldn’t have to worry.
You could then sit down calmly on the beach, dozing in the sun and looking at the beautiful ocean.”
“ Well”, replied the fisherman “What do you think I am doing now!”
This is the third study in our series on Prayer
In the first week we looked at
1. Simple Prayer and
2. Praying the Ordinary
And last week we looked at
3. The Prayer of Relinquishment
4. Formation Prayer and
And this week I would like to progress on from formation prayer to a seemingly contrary form of prayer
1. Prayer at Rest and
2. Unceasing Prayer
And the rest of “prayer at rest” is not the sort of rest either the fisherman or the business manager of our story envisage
1. Prayer at rest
This is often also referred as Sabbath prayer.
Sabbath – contrary to popular misconception is not a time when we do nothing.
It is a time when we take time out from our busy regimes
It is a time when I don’t answer the phone call about the size of gravestones or I don’t spend time preparing a talk.
It is a time when I stop thinking of faculties and getting rid of the pews.
But it isn’t doing nothing.
Rest is an activity
1.1 Prayer as Abiding
It is abiding in Christ. (John 15:1)
And our English word abiding sums it up well
We live in a society that runs in the fast lane almost all the time.
The word "Abide" runs counter current to all that.
There is tranquillity about it.
Jesus was busy - much of the time but he did take time off to draw aside and pray in the midst of a heavy schedule.
We read in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, after healing many people in a particular town:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (Mk. 1:35)
Can I give you an illustration about abiding?
Story: In the first year of my curacy, I went off to Oxford - bird watching at Pinkhill Reserve at Farmoor Reservoir.
Now I hasten to add, I hadn’t myself planned to go bird watching.
Maddy and I decided to go down the 25th Wedding Anniversary of good friends of ours from Oxford, Sally and Francis Prittie.
What I didn’t realise was that Francis was an avid bird watcher.
And for part of their silver wedding celebrations, he had organised a group of us to go bird watching.
I spent the week trying to find ANY excuse to get out of bird watching. But I couldn’t find a good excuse - so off bird watching I rather reluctantly went.
However, once we got to the hide on Pinkhill Reserve, I found it fascinating watching the common terns, the teal (small ducks), Canada geese with goslings, Coots and Cormorants.
And after an hour when Francis said,” let’s go” I felt like saying: What do you mean - "I want to stay!!
I wanted to ABIDE in the hide!
And as I thought about it, I realised that my bird watching experience was a parable about abiding in Christ.
If we take time to abide with Christ, we will have time to listen – as the hymn writer John G Whittier put it - to that “still small voice of calm” (in the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” - v. 5).
1.2 Prayer of the Middle Voice
The Prayer of Rest is on the face of it a rather strange form of prayer to follow on from formation prayer with its both active forms and its passive forms
Because the Prayer at Rest is neither!
Eugene Peterson, the author of the Message translation calls it “Prayer that takes place in the middle voice”
Let me explain: In grammar the active voice is when we take action and the passive voice is where we are acted upon. However the middle voice is where we are both active and acted upon.
I like calling it the prayer of the middle voice.
Because rest is both active and passive
Story: the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom tells the story of an elderly lady who had been working at prayer with all her might but without sensing God’’ s presence.
Wisely the Archbishop encouraged the old woman to go into her room each day and “for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”
The woman received that advice and at first her only thought was; “Oh how nice. I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without feeling guilty.”
In time, however she began to enter the silence created by her knitting.
Soon, she said “I perceived this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but the silence had a substance. It was not the absence of something but the presence of something”
As she continued her daily knitting, she discovered that “at the heart of the silence there was he who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.
She had to let go of her tight fisted efforts to discover God’s presence.
Prayer at rest is not doing nothing – but it is allowing the sense and feeling the presence of God with you.
There are three classical practices to lead us into this extraordinary Prayer of Rest.
1. Solitude, which of course we came across in Formation prayer.
Do you recall some words from the opening Chapter of St Mark’s Gospel
After healing many people in a particular town:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (Mk. 1:35)
The Greek word for rest is Hes’ychia and hes’y’chasm refers to the spirituality of the desert fathers.
These were people who would go out into the desert and live in caves – totally dedicating their lives to prayer.
Story: When Maddy and I were out in Israel we climbed up to one of these caves – and it was a small cave about the size of a kitchen – if even that.
And there was a special tranquillity there even though the caves had not be inhabited for over 1800 years
And there is something about the Judean desert that makes resting and solitude really refreshing.
Again I noticed it on the two trips we made with Wycliffe .
Like the time at the Pinkhill reserve I wanted to have more time just to “abide”
2. The second time honoured practice of experiencing resting in Christ is silencio
It is what Richard Foster refers to as the “stilling of all creaturely activity”. It means not so much silence of words as a silence of our grasping, manipulative control of people and situations.
Francis Fenelon, the 17th Century French mystic wrote: We must silence every creature, we must silence ourselves, to hear the deep hush of the whole soul, the ineffable voice of the spouse. We must bend the ear, because it is a gentle and delicate voice, only heard by those who no longer hear anything else.”
When we step back – and listen FOR God’s voice
Richard Foster third classical method for entering the Prayer of Rest what is called “Recollection”
It means letting go of all competing activity.
The old Quakers called it “centering down”.
Sue Monk Kidd calls it the Prayer of the Presence
It means tranquillity of mind, heart and spirit
One approach to recollection is by seating yourself in a room comfortably and then slowly and deliberately letting all tension and anxiety drop away.
Some people find it helpful to picture Jesus
sitting opposite you in a chair – because he is
If turmoil and distractions come – just give it into his hands (see p. 171 and 172 Richard Foster on Prayer)
Richard Foster puts it well when he says: We allow inner distractions and frustrations to melt away before him as snow in the sun
I like the story Foster tells of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities.
He cups his hands and says: “Suppose I have a wounded bird in my hands, what would happen if I closed my hands completely. The response is then immediate: “Why the bird will be crushed and die”
Well then what would happen if I opened my hands completely?”
“Oh no, then the bird will try to fly away and fall and die.
Vanier smiles and says;” The right place is like my cupped hands, neither totally open or totally closed. It is the space where growth can take place.
Foster concludes: For us too, the hands of God are cupped lightly. We have enough freedom so we can stretch and grow but also we have enough protection so that we will not be injured – and so we can be healed.
This is Prayer at Rest
The second form of prayer I’d like to look at this evening is a seeming contrast
2. Unceasing Prayer
Having been speaking about Prayer at Rest our next subject Unceasing Prayer may seem a bit of a paradox
Let me introduce this with a quote from one of the early Father, Isaac the Syrian
When the Spirit has come to reside in someone, that person cannot stop praying; for the Spirit prays without ceasing in him. No matter if he is asleep or awake, prayer is going on in his heart all the time. He may be eating or drinking, he may be resting or working – the incense of prayer will ascend spontaneously from his heart. The slightest stirring of his heart is like a voice which sings in silence and in secret to the Invisible
And if I can earth this in Scripture too, I would offer you a rather unusual verse from the book of Revelation.
In Revelation 5 we get a glimpse into the Throne room of God and this is what John sees:
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
7 He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.
8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
9 And they sang a new song:
"You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth."
Did you notice that what the four creatures and 24 elders were holding : golden bowls full of …the prayers of the saints. That’s you and me – our prayers!
For some reason God values our prayers – far more than our activities!!
The key to unceasing prayer is “living always in God’s presence.”
And you don’t have to be a super saint to live in
God’s presence. I think our friend Mary (who I mentioned last week) did to some extent.
Brother Lawrence said: There is no mode of life in the world more pleasing and more full of delight than continual conversation with God.
Mother Julian of Norwich said: Prayer unites the soul to God.”
And it was said of St Francis of Assisi that he “seemed not so much a man praying as prayer itself made man”
I am sorry but I am not even in that league!
But is this yet “another religious duty” that will burden us down – give us more guilt feeling of not coming up to the mark?
Richard Foster is very encouraging when he says this:
God does not expect you to dive into the ocean of constant communion and swim from one continent to the other. We move into this way through a process of practised living that is both understandable and practical.
And while this “practice of the presence of God” is strenuous, everything else ceases to be”
So how do we go about this?
Firstly we need to develop “holy habits” – we need to get into prayer training
Story: With Wimbledon just round the corner – do you think anyone will win it who simply practises tennis now and again - from time to time (however good they might be)
The winner of Wimbledon this year I guarantee is someone who is fanatical about his tennis. It will be someone with a strict training regime.
If they do that for a sport like tennis – why don’t we do that as committed Christians?
St Paul in 1 Thess 5:17 says: Pray without ceasing!”
Paul in almost all his epistles urges the church to pray unceasingly
Rom 12:12 Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer
Eph 6:18: Pray in the spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
Col 4:2 Continue steadfastly I prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
Phil 4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”
The writer of the book of Hebrews urges us to
” continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that confess his name”
And so the list goes on.
Interestingly we use the picture of Abiding in Christ for the Prayer of Rest and Richard Foster uses the same concept of Abiding in Christ here – but with a different emphasis.
Richard Foster says this: “When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him – like a branch abides in the vine, they instantly understood what he meant, for they had watched for years his abiding in the Father (Jn 15:1-11)”
The Consuming Passion
When I was running a refugee church in Basle, I was in a broader relationship of ministers under the late Robert Ewing and Danny Moser
And I remember recalling not only the faithfulness of some of the older ministers but their passion for the Lord.
Nowadays we live in the fast track – and thoughts dart in and out of our minds and we can’t focus on things like our parents and grandparents used to do.
Perhaps that is for me one of the downsides of running seventeen parishes – you are often on the run doing things that you don’t have time to stop and think and pray.
When I was down on Romney Marsh, one of my colleagues Rod Whateley said to me: “Slow down, we don’t want to attend your funeral – take time off!” And he is right
Unceasing Prayer has as Richard Foster puts it “a way of speaking peace into the chaos”
Unceasing prayer only comes when WE WANT IT with a consuming passion
Do you have a longing – a yearning for God’s PRESENCE in your life – or is it simply a religious duty?
I’m sure you are here this evening because you want MORE.
Richard Foster tells us that Christians over the centuries have sought to follow the biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing”
And to do that they have developed two fundamental expressions of prayer.
The first is what is known as breath prayer. The idea finds it roots in the Psalms where a repeated phrase reminds us of the psalm
Take Psalm 139 “O Lord you have searched me and known me”
It can be said in a single breath
Another of these “breath prayers" is what is known as the Jesus Prayer. I have it on my mobile:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner”
It originated in the sixth century and was revived in the Eastern Church in the 14th Century.
If we want to discover breath prayer – Richard Foster suggests this
Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and sit in silence being held in God’s loving presence.
After a few minutes allow God to call you by name
Then allow the question to surface “Lord what do you want?”
Then perhaps a word might come to you – peace, faith strength or a phrase like “understand truth, feel your love”
Then connect it with the phrase you are most comfortable in addressing God with – like Heavenly Father, Abba, Lord…
Finally you will be able to write out your breath prayer staying within what is comfortable in one breath.
Richard Foster gives a useful; example of how your breath prayer might develop.
He writes this: Over the next few days allow God to adjust your breath prayer ever so slightly.
You may have written down “Help me understand your truth Lord.
But after a day or two you might find that what you really need is not so much to understand God’s truth but to love God’s truth.
Hence you begin praying “Help me to live your truth Lord.”
2. Practising the presence of God
The second fundamental expression of unceasing Prayer is the practice of the presence of God.
This is done by going through the activities of the day (as Richard Foster puts it) in joyful awareness of God’s presence, with whispered prayers of adoration flowing continuously from the heart
Brother Lawrence suggests we make inward prayer the last act of the evening and the first act of the morning.
The Christian philosopher Thomas Kelly wrote this:
There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once.
On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.
But deep within, behind the scenes, at profounder level we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.
Steps into Unceasing Prayer
Foster warns us however that we “do not leap into the dizzy heights of constant communication with God in a single bound.”
The First step
So we start with simple – even artificial things.
A school teacher might use the ringing of the school bell to remind them to lift their breath prayer into the arms of God.
Others might use the ring of the telephone to do the same
The bank teller might use the presence of each new customer walking to her till.
Or even when we wash the dishes or make the beds.
Frank Laubach, the missionary to Mindanao in the Philippines in the 1930 and who wrote the book “Letters of a Modern Mystic” talks of the game we can make turning minutes into “holy communion”
The second step
The second step is to move the prayer into the unconscious mind so we are not aware of having said it.
Inward prayer bubbles forth at the oddest of moments – in traffic, in the bath, out shopping.
We begin to dream our prayer as Richard Foster puts it.
And as we do that we see out behaviour change. We begin to endure petty frustrations better. We learn to listen to others more intently
The third step
The third step occurs when prayer moves towards the heart and we start to think with love.
Our decisions are bathed in loving rationality as Foster says. We feel the hurts and sufferings of others
We sense the sad and lonely when we walk into a room
The Fourth step
The fourth step comes as prayer permeates the whole personality. It becomes like our breath or our blood. Prayer develops a deep rhythm inside us.
Madame Guyon wrote that all our prayers and mediations are mere preparations for the deeper work. “They are not the end, they are a way to the end. The end is union with God.”
A couple of final comments.
Unceasing prayer is not the “vain repetition” that Jesus condemned Why - because Jesus was condemning a specific practice of his day – that of Pharisees parading their piety by praying in public
Unceasing prayer is hidden prayer, prayer if you like in the closet.
The other comment that Foster raises is this.
What happens when I am feeling spiritually down and can’t pray other than desperation prayers?
Foster suggests asking God for “time out” when that happens from unceasing prayer
Personally when I have had those times, I pray in tongues – a private prayer language of the Spirit that bypasses my mind and my spirit speaks to the Holy Spirit.
I just don’t know what else to do and I find healing for my soul
Some questions for discussion for the Address Prayer at Rest and Unceasing Prayer
1. Prayer at rest (taking time to abide in God’s presence) and Unceasing Prayer (when the Spirit resides in someone, that person cannot stop praying) seem at first blush to contradict. Are they are different sides of the same coin. Discuss
2. What did you feel when I told you the story of ++ Anthony Bloom’s forbidding an elderly lady (who had been working at prayer with all her might but without sensing God’s presence) to pray during the 15 mins he allotted for her to “knit before the face of God”. Was he right?
3. Should we start a regular prayer group to run on after this end of this Lent course. Please give reasons for “yes” or “no”
4. How can we find time to rest in prayer in our busy lives?
5. How can recollection (or centering down) that is allowing all tension and anxiety to drop away improve your spiritual life.
6. What holy habits can we develop to improve our prayer time?
7. What did you make of breath prayers (that is sentences that can be said in one breath. The most famous of these is Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner