“I am called to enter into the inner sanctuary of my own being where God has chosen to dwell. The only way to that place is prayer, unceasing prayer. Many struggles and much pain can clear the way, but I am certain that only unceasing prayer can let me enter it.”
My bottom was already numb, and my skinny shoulder blades ached against the hard wooden pew where weekly as a child I sat obediently a few rows back on the left-hand side of the church with my family. Mostly I spent a lot of time staring at the stack of big black hymn numbers on the hanging board beside the choir, and a favorite pastime was adding up its digits and checking if that number was divisible by three. So adding “475” (4+7+5) and “438” (4+3+8) and “1,” (which I knew by heart to be “Victory in Jesus” and “He Lives” and “Holy, Holy, Holy,”), was 32, and 3+2 adds up to 5, so not divisible by three this time.
But one particular Sunday a strange minister got up, strange because I’d never seen him before, and said something that landed in my soul like a glowing ember.
His message was simple, nothing like the usual shouting by “suck-back” preachers (after one of these, a white-haired woman sitting in front of me turned to her friend and remarked admiringly: “I don’t know what he said, but it sure was good”). Screaming in the pulpit — like the wind, earthquake, and fire Elijah witnessed — never gave me what I needed. I needed to hear God’s “still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-13)
This preacher delivered that in his teaching on 1 Thessalonians 5:17. “Praying without ceasing” is vital, he said, because this verb commands cultivating an ordinary habit of prayer that changes the person doing it. He added that the Greek adverb adialeiptôs for “without ceasing”was also used to describe the frequency of a hacking cough, how it persists in returning, not unlike how we learn to come back again and again to praying.
Once these three powerful words took up residence in my soul, they never left. I recognized in them the ultimate homework assignment, an impossibility-only-God-can-make-happen.
At first, however, I was regularly tempted to quit talking with God. I’d get so angry I’d turn from him. But eventually I learned that I got lonesome doing that, and looking back I started seeing that even when I’d been unable to feel God’s presence, he’d always been there. We developed more and more trust between us.
I became aware how eloquently God spoke with my teenaged heart when the weather of my house, stormy with abuse, frequently pushed me out the door blind with hot tears catching the wind and cooling. I took long walks. Trees became friends. I started listening to the Silence while tramping through pastures and woods belonging to our neighbors.
I saw that, even when zapped by painful emotions, if I would say the tiniest God? inside, no matter how puny, he would do the rest. It took only the weakest Please, God, on my part. Such petite prayers kept me connected when sorrow gave my soul years of sightlessness.
Learning to pray without ceasing is also connected to my love for the Bible and for meditating on individual verses which has helped my mind even during dark days. Overwhelmed by depression during my PhD studies, I walked the campus with verses typed on 3 x 5 cards, feeding my hungry, hurting soul. Meditating on God’s word is always prayer.
Starting in my twenties, I found great comfort at certain times of my life practicing the formal-but-peripatetic Jesus Prayer, which my octogenarian friend “Mother Buschbeck” introduced me to when I was a student in Germany. A Lutheran minister’s wife who survived World War II while raising eight children, Frau Sophie Buschbeck lived up to her first name, wisdom.
For over four decades, I’ve oriented my forever chaotic life around asking, What does “pray without ceasing” mean? No definition has emerged, but I do know that the Mystery inherent in the asking has become larger and larger and more and more my Friend.
I’ve come to trust that because I’ve wanted very much to learn how to pray without ceasing, God has honored that desire. I’ve also learned that feeling “successful” at praying has nothing to do with really praying. Praying is all about a desire to know God better.
Conversely, I’ve learned that — like most relationships on earth — mine with Jesus will always have much informality and mess, so directing my thoughts towards my Friend by simply saying, “Thanks, God!” for a good meal or “Help me!” when I’m stressed are very good prayers. So is, “WHAT THE HECK AM I SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?” which I pray often. I’ve learned the astonishing truth that I can say anything to God and feel better when I do.
I’m very thankful for that minster’s sermon because paying attention to the teaching “pray without ceasing” has blessed my up-and-down life with God’s reliable, loving Friendship; it has changed and is still changing me. Best of all, this challenge is a certain path for anyone wanting the personal truth of John 15:15: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants because a servant doesn’t know his master’s business. Instead, I’ve called you friends.’” 
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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