On Unceasing Prayer

St. Gregory Palamas:

On Unceasing Prayer

(From the Life of St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica
by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, editor of The Philokalia)

Let no one think, my fellow Christians, that only the clergy and the
monks are obliged to pray unceasingly and at all times, and not also the
laity. Oh, no! All of us Christians are obliged to pray always, as well.
To demonstrate this, Philotheos, that most-holy Patriarch of
Constantinople, writes the following, in his biography of St. Gregory
Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica.

The divine Gregory had a beloved friend named Job, a very simple man of
great virtue. Once when they were conversing, Gregory told him about
prayer, that each Christian individually ought always to make an effort
to pray, and to pray unceasingly, as the Apostle Paul exhorts all
Christians in common, “Pray without ceasing”(1 Thess. 5:17), and as the
Prophet David says, even though he was king and had all those cares of
ruling his kingdom, “I behold the Lord before me always”; that is,
noetically, by means of prayer, I see the Lord in front of me all the
time. And Gregory the Theologian teaches all Christians, that we should
remember the name of God in prayer more often than we breathe. Having
said all this and more to his friend Job, the Saint added that we ought
to obey the injunctions of the saints, and that we ourselves should not
only always pray, but we should instruct also everyone else to do the
same: monks and lay people, educated or not, men, women, and children;
and should encourage them to pray unceasingly.

When the elder Job heard this, it seemed to him that it was an
innovation, and he began to argue, and to say to Gregory that to pray
always was only for the ascetics and the monks living away from the
world and its distractions, and not for lay people who have jobs and so
many cares. The saint responded with more examples and irrefutable
proof, but the elder Job was not convinced. So, wishing to avoid
talkativeness and argument, Gregory held his tongue, and each went to
his cell.

Later, as Job was alone praying in his cell, an angel appeared before
him, sent from God Who desires the salvation of all men. The Angel
sternly rebuked him for arguing with Gregory, and for opposing what was
obvious, and that clearly effects the salvation of Christians. He
admonished him on behalf of God to be careful from now on, and to beware
never again to say something against such a soul-edifying work, for in
so doing he would be opposing the will of God. Not even mentally should
he ever again dare to harbor any thought contrary to this, or think
otherwise than the divine Gregory had told him.

Then that most simple elder went at once to Gregory and, falling at his
feet, begged forgiveness for contradicting and arguing; and he revealed
to him all that the angel of the Lord had said to him.

Do you see, my brethren, how all Christians, small and great, should
always pray, using the noetic prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me”; and how their mind and heart should become accustomed
to saying it always? Just think how pleasing this is to God, and how
much good comes from it, that out of His extreme love for mankind He
even sent a heavenly angel to reveal it to us, so that we should no
longer have any doubt about it.

But what do lay people say? “We are involved in so many matters and
cares of the world. How can we possibly pray without ceasing?”

My answer to them is that God has not commanded us to do anything
impossible; but He has commanded us to do all those things that we are
able to do. Therefore this too can be accomplished by anyone who
diligently seeks the salvation of his soul. For if it were impossible,
it would be so for all lay people, and there would never have been so
many in the world who did accomplish it. As an example of someone like
this, let us take St. Gregory’s father, that amazing Constantine Palamas.

This man was an official of the imperial court, and was called the
father and teacher of the Emperor Andronikos. He was daily occupied with
imperial affairs, in addition to those his own house, since he was very
wealthy and owned a large estate and servants, and has a wife and
children. Nevertheless, he was so inseparable from God and so given to
unceasing noetic prayer, that most of the time he would forget what it
was the Emperor and the officials of the palace were discussing with him
about imperial matters, and he would ask about the same things several
times. Often the other officials, , not knowing the reason for this,
would become agitated and reproach him forgetting so quickly, and for
disturbing the Emperor with his repeated questions. But the Emperor, who
knew the cause, would defend him, saying, “Lucky Constantine has his own
concerns, and they do not permit him to pay attention to what we are
saying on matters temporal and vain. But the nous of this blessed man is
fixed on what is true and heavenly, and thus he forgets what is mundane.
All of his attention is focused on the prayer and on God.”

Thus, as the most holy Patriarch Philotheos relates, Constantine was
admired and loved by the Emperor and all the magnates and officials of
the Empire. Likewise, he was loved by God, and the venerable one was
even counted worthy to perform miracles. The holy Philotheos tells us in
his biography of St. Gregory (Constantine’s son), that he took his whole
family once on a boat to a place to a place above Galatas, to pay a
visit to a hermit who lived in stillness there, and get his blessing. On
the way, he asked his servants if they had any food to take to that
Abba, so that they might eat with him. The servants said that in the
rush they had forgotten to bring any. The blessed man was saddened a
bit, but said nothing. As they continued on in the boat, he simply put
his hand into the sea, and with silent and noetic prayer he asked God,
the Master of the sea, to let him catch something. After a short time
(how wonderful are your works, O Christ King, by which you marvelously
glorify Your servants!), he brought up his hand from the sea holding a
large bass-fish. Tossing it into the boat in front of his servants, he
said, “Look here how our Lord provided for his servant the Abba and has
sent him something to eat.” Do you see, my brethren, with what sort of
glory Jesus Christ glorifies those servants who are always with Him and
who constantly invoke His sweetest name?

Then there was that righteous and holy Evdokimos. Wasn’t he also in
Constantinople, and in the imperial court and involved in state affairs?
Didn’t he keep company with the Emperor and the palace officials, with
so many cares and distractions? And for all that, noetic prayer was
always inseparable from him, as related in his biography by St. Symeon
the Translator. Thus, even though this thrice-blessed man dwelt in the
world among worldly things, he nevertheless lived an angelic,
supermundane life. And God, who gives the rewards, counted him worthy to
have a blessed and divine end. There were also many, countless others
who were in the world and yet were given entirely to this noetic and
saving prayer, as we read in the histories.

So, my dear fellow Christians, I beg you, as did once the divine
Chrysostom, for the sake of the salvation of your souls, do not neglect
this important work of prayer. Imitate those whom we mentioned, and
follow their example as far as possible. And though it seem difficult in
the beginning, be certain and assured, as if from the person of God
Almighty, that this very name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, when we invoke
it constantly every day, will make all the difficulties easier. And in
the course of time, once we are accustomed to it and it is sweet to say,
the we will know from experience that it is not impossible nor
difficult, but possible and easy.

That is why the divine Apostle Paul, knowing better than we do the great
benefit of prayer, commanded us to pray unceasingly. He would never have
advised us to do something too difficult or impossible; for if we were
incapable, it follows that we would necessarily appear to be disobedient
and transgressors of his commandment, and thus we would be condemned.
But what the Apostle meant in saying, “Pray without ceasing,” was that
we should pray with our nous, which we can always do. For whether we are
working with our hands, or walking, or sitting, or eating and drinking,
we can always pray with our mind and do noetic prayer that is pleasing
to God and true. We can work with our body and pray with our soul. The
outer man performs all bodily functions, and the inner man is entirely
devoted to the worship of God, and never ceases from this spiritual work
of noetic prayer.

Our divine-human Lord Jesus Himself so commands us in the holy Gospel,
saying, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray
to your Father Who is in secret”(Mt. 6:6). The room of the soul is the
body; the doors are our five senses. The soul enters its room when the
mind does not wander to and fro among worldly things, but remains within
our heart. And our senses close and remain closed when we do not allow
them to cling to outward sensible things. In this way our mind remains
free from every worldly attachment; and through secret noetic prayer,
you are united with God your Father. And then, as He says, “your Father
Who sees you in secret will reward you openly”. God, Who knows what is
secret, sees your noetic prayer and rewards it with great and manifest
gifts; for this prayer is true and perfect prayer, and it fills the soul
with divine grace and spiritual gifts. It is like perfume: the tighter
you stop the vessel, the more fragrant the vessel becomes. So too with
prayer: the more you confine it within your heart, the more it fills you
with divine grace.

Blessed and lucky are they who accustom themselves to this heavenly
work, for they overcome every temptation of the wicked demons by it,
like David prevailed over the proud Goliath; they put out the inordinate
desires of the flesh by it, as the three youths put out the flame of the
furnace. By this noetic work of prayer, they calm the passions, like
Daniel tamed the wild lions; by it they bring down into their hearts the
dew of the Holy Spirit, like Elias brought down the rain on Mount
Carmel. It is this noetic prayer the rises to the throne of God and is
kept in the golden bowls, so that the Lord can be incensed with it, like
John the Theologian says in Revelation, “and the twenty-four elders fell
down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of
incense, which are the prayers of the saints”(Rev. 5:8). This noetic
prayer is a light that ever illumines a man’s soul and ignites his heart
with the flames of the love of God. It is a chain that keeps God united
with a man and joined together.

O incomparable grace of noetic prayer! This is what makes a man always
talk with God. O truly marvelous and extraordinary phenomenon! You are
physically with other people and noetically with God. Angels have no
audible voice, but they noetically they offer unceasing adoration to
God. In this consists all their activity and to this their whole life is
consecrated. So too you, brother, when you enter your room and shut the
door, i.e. when your mind does not scatter here and there but enters
into your heart, and your senses are shut and not attached to the things
of this world, and you always pray like this with your nous, then you
become like the holy angels, and your Father, who sees the secret prayer
that you offer him in the depths of your heart, will openly give you
great spiritual gifts in return. What could you want that is more or
greater than this, when, like I said, you are noetically always with God
and constantly talking with Him; Him without Whom no none can ever be
happy, neither here nor in the next life?

And finally, brother, whoever you may be, when you get a hold of this
and read it, I fervently entreat you, also remember to pray to God and
say a “Lord have mercy” for the sinful soul of the man who labored over
this writing, and the one who paid for it to be published, for they are
in great need of prayer, so that they may obtain God’s mercy on their
souls, and you on yours. So be it. So be it.