Praying Without Ceasing? (1 Thessalonians 5:15-22)

Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:15-22, famously says,

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. (New Revised Standard Version)

This is the closing exhortation of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and it is I think a wonderful recipe for a spiritual life. Whether or not “God in Christ Jesus” or “Spirit” are concepts that work for you, the overall program is sound.

The first element of the program is the great spiritual law of reciprocity. As Jesus said, “What you measure shall be measured out to you.” The Buddhist concept of Karma operates in the same way: Do good and you will get good. Or, as the Beatles put it, “And in the end, the love you take will be equal to the love you make.” The wisdom of the ages teaches that kindness is always the best policy.

The second element in the spiritual program is staying positive and joyful, no matter what the circumstances. No, I don’t think Paul was into the Power of Positive Thinking. Those programs carry the idea too far. Paul knew there were bullets—or at least stones and whips—in reality. Still, Paul and Epictetus and many of the great prophetic women and men agree: “People are not disturbed by things, but the view they take of things.” Or, back to Julian of Norwich: “All will be well.”

Paul’s final admonition has to do with staying skeptical:

Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

Many Unitarian Universalists find it difficult not to “despise the words of the prophets,” since it appears that religions create so much ignorance, divisiveness, and violence in our world. Yet we do well to remember that religions have also established universal principles and ideals in our world. It is that element of religion we must “hold fast to” as we “abstain from every form of evil.”

Many Christian mystics have taken Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing as the key to spiritual practice. The great Quaker mystic Thomas R. Kelly said:

Such practice of inward orientation, of inward worship and listening, is no mere counsel for special religious groups, for small religious orders, for special “interior souls,” for monks retired in cloisters.  This practice is the heart of religion.  It is the secret, I am persuaded, of the inner life of the Master of Galilee.  He expected this secret to be freshly discovered in everyone who would be his follower.  It creates an amazing fellowship, the church catholic and invisible, and institutes group living at a new level, a society grounded in reverence, history rooted in eternity, colonies of heaven.  (A Testament of Devotion  32-33)

Thomas R. Kelly practiced what is known as “The Jesus Prayer,” which goes like this:

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

In the practice, this prayer becomes a continuous mantra. Every time the practitioner realizes she or he isn’t saying it, the idea is to start saying it again. Eventually, claim the adherents to this practice, the mind is always saying this prayer, consciously or unconsciously.

This practice occurs in many world religions. Roman Catholicism has the practice of saying the Rosary. Pure Land Buddhism encourages the chanting—aloud or in the mind—of “Namo Amidabha Buddha” to the same effect. The same effect can also be achieved by chanting the Hindu mantra “om.” Followers of Krishna are encouraged to chant “hare Krishna.” Sufis chant variations of  “Allāhu, Allāhu, Allāhu.” In the Baha’i faith adherents are encouraged to repeat “alla u abha” ninety-five times per day, keeping track with prayer beads. In the Christian practice of Centering Prayer practitioners repeat silently, over and over, one word that they find holy. The Tibetan Buddhist Trungpa Rinpoche once quipped that the most appropriate mantra is, “Om Grow Up Svaha.”

These practices are designed to take the mind off autopilot and thereby increase serenity and trust.

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