Praying All the Time?

Who would even think about praying all the time? But brace yourself. That’s not only possible. It can be a blessing.

Over the years I have developed a practice of prayer, which opens up the promise, I believe, of what the Apostle Paul called praying “without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). This way of prayer is patterned after the famous “Jesus Prayer” used by some Orthodox Christians. I have interpreted the prayer that I practice, which I call “the Trinity Prayer,” at some length for professional theologians and pastoral practitioners in my book Before Nature:  A Christian Spirituality (Fortress 2014). I have also narrated how that prayer can help to undergird a life of public discipleship in my book EcoActivist Testament (Cascade 2022, chap. 4).

Here I want to introduce this short prayer and its practice to a wider audience, with the hope that, since it has worked so well for me for so long, still others might want to take it to heart and to practice it also – and to be blessed in the process, as I have been. The season of Lent is a good time to experiment with such spiritual adventures.

I.

A personal note, by way of introduction. I have found that this kind of prayer is especially helpful for persons like myself who, for some reason, aren’t served well by trying to follow the traditional Divine Hours (praying regularly, five times a day) or who haven’t figured out how to practice “daily devotions” in morning or evening or both, the way my father did all his adult life, using a small booklet provided to him by the Church. For me, perhaps against much spiritual common sense, it’s better to try to pray all the time than to depend on scheduled times – except for Table Grace or for the Sunday Liturgy. I don’t begrudge any other regular weekday times for prayer that many in our day have chosen. I just have had to find another way.

A tip right at the start. I wear a sizeable brass pectoral cross around my neck, under my shirt, every day. That cross is a life-saver, as it were, for my prayer life. I feel it against my chest often, from morning to the end of the day, when I take it off. Whenever I sense that cross on my chest, I try to say the Trinity Prayer, aloud if I’m alone, under my breath if I’m out and about. My goal is to say that prayer constantly, at some level of my consciousness; and hopefully, in so doing, to let it dwell, in some manner, in my subconscious, too. My pectoral cross keeps nudging me in that direction.

A warning, too, at the outset. It is called the Trinity Prayer. But don’t let that theme throw you. Don’t start by thinking:  Oh my God, now I’m supposed to understand the Trinity in order to pray without ceasing?! No. I think it’s the other way around. As my sixth grade teacher used to say:  you learn by doing.  There surely is a way to approach the Trinity so that that central mystery of the Church’s faith might more and more self-consciously claim your mind as well as your heart. I write about such things in the books I mentioned above. But here my main purpose is not to help you to understand the Trinity more fully, but to help you to get going in your prayer life or to keep going with even more enthusiasm.

I’m aware, too, that I’m dealing here with a kind of spiritual conundrum. To aspire to pray constantly, on first hearing anyway, doesn’t make a lot of sense. When I invite you to practice the Trinity Prayer in this constant manner, you may feel the way I did as a boy when my father laced up my first pair of ice skates and I was about to launch myself all by myself out on to the frozen pond for the first time. Scared to death, I was. But I hope you will hear my father’s words as meant for you, too, as you consider regularly invoking the Trinity Prayer. “Just do it,” he said affectionately, as he cautiously let go of my then trembling little body.

One last introductory thought.  The patriarchal (male) language of the Trinity will be an obstacle for many. If it isn’t so in your own mind, it should be. I spend a lot of time talking about this existential challenge in one of the books to which I’ve already referred, Before Nature. Here I simply want to affirm that, over the years, I have found it most helpful to think about “God, the Father,” following theologian Juergen Moltmann, as “God, our motherly Father.”

II.

This is the Trinity Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit, come and reign!

I pray each of those lines four times – more about this particular fourfold practice at the end.  Also I am committed to pray the whole prayer as often as I can in any single setting, morning, noon, or night, indoors or outdoors.

But the setting does make a difference. If I’m out in public, I typically won’t have the kind of time I need to ponder the petitions of the Trinity Prayer. But I still will say the prayer within anyway, repeatedly, whenever I can. If I’m riding on the subway, for example, I will simply bow my head a bit and press my pectoral cross against my chest unobtrusively.  Then I will start repeating the Trinity Prayer internally:  and keep saying that threefold prayer in inner silence as the train rumbles noisily along.

If perchance I find myself walking along a forest path, moreover, near my family’s old farm house in rural Maine, I will typically pause along the way to say those petitions out loud likewise, each four times. That pause makes particular sense in the woods, for without it, were I to keep walking, I might trip over a root or be distracted by that possibility (!). In a related setting, behind the same farm house, when I’m scything the back field and when I take a break, sitting on a light plastic chair that I’ve brought with me (!!), I will inhale deeply, contemplate the mountains to the West, and start repeating the Trinity Prayer, out loud.

Or see me sitting in the sixth floor waiting room of my optometrist’s office, blankly staring out the window through increasingly blurred eyes. The waiting-room TV is blaring; so that moment isn’t conducive to much reflective prayer. Hence I try to block out the noise of the TV; and then I press my pectoral cross to my chest, stare out at the blurred horizon far away, and say under my breath, right there in that optometrist’s waiting room:  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…  Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…  Come, Holy Spirit, come and reign!” And I keep saying those words within, without thinking much about it, until the attendant beckons me to come into the next room for my eye exam. I like to think of this kind of public but unobtrusive praying of the Trinity Prayer is an expression of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “the secret discipline of faith.”

But then there’s the visible, albeit secluded, discipline of faith. I claim this energetic experience as often as I can, in settings of solitude.  Imagine me, then, standing before the striking, wood-carved Latin head of Christ in my study, for example, or pausing by myself during a walk in a nearby cemetery, contemplating a huge Celtic cross. If you were with me in either setting, you might see me engaged in ritual acts like these:

  • When I say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” four times, I often make the sign of the Cross on my chest and end by pressing my pectoral cross into my chest.
  • When I say “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” four times, I often lift up my hands, as if greeting the rising sun.
  • When I say “Come Holy Spirit, come and reign” four times, I often keep my hands uplifted and then sway left and right with each utterance, as if I were involved in some kind of ecstatic dance.

As I go through motions like these, I sometimes recall the words of the Apostle Paul:  that we Christians are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice…, which is [our] spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

In solitude, this kind of visible discipline – I sometimes think of this as kind of spiritual calisthenics – often brings with it measured times for reflection, too, as I pray in a more resonant cadence. I go through the motions, for sure, but I also give myself the time to ponder the words of the Trinity Prayer along the way as I say them, often with deeper thoughts, sometimes calling to mind traditional images such as Jesus, the Good Shephard, or the Spirit as the Life-Giver.

III.

Deeper thoughts? Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of reflecting about the words of the Trinity Prayer as you pray. Be patient with yourself. At some point – this has been my experience – you will feel comfortable about pondering the many rich meanings of the Trinity Prayer itself. To recall my father taking me to skate for the first time when I was a boy:  skate through this spiritual experience as best you can, saying the Trinity Prayer in your heart or aloud, as often as you can. No more, for a start. You can add inner spiritual twists and turns later on, as you become more comfortable with this kind of spiritual exercise.

This is how it works for me in settings of solitude, which are, in my experience, the best times for the spiritual ponderings to emerge. When I start the prayer, saying Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me four times, I stand with my hands folded and my torso slightly bowed before the crucifix that typically has claimed my attention. I usually keep my eyes open, focusing on that cross. If I’m in the woods, I can often identify a cross-like pattern in the branches of a nearby tree, to command my attention.

Then, if it is given to me at the moment, as I contemplate the crucifix before me, I begin to meditate briefly, between petitions. Typically, I think first, and many times thereafter, of my own gross inability to pray and my own egregious unworthiness to come into the presence of the crucified and risen Lord. But I come, “just as I am.” Such thoughts then can give way to sweet moments of inner peace, as I contemplate the love of God for me in Christ Jesus, my Good Shepherd, there displayed on the Cross.

Confident then that I have been embraced by the mercy of the living Christ, I begin to say Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, four times.  As I pray these words, as I have already indicated a number of times, I typically stand erect, but now with hands folded on my chest again and with my eyes now closed. Now and again, I will start swaying from left to right and right to left. This swaying helps me put my whole self, body, as well as mind and heart, into this act of praise.

And with those motions of words and body, it is sometimes given to me to ponder the triune God spiritually, as God is in Godself, this ineffable Mystery: (1) as eternal Joy, (2) as overwhelming Power, and (3) as overflowing Love, mysteries whose depths I tentatively explore in Before Nature. Prayer can be that bold:  inspiring you to dream dreams about the riches and the paradoxes of the ineffable, triune God. Don’t try to understand things at this moment (you can’t), but do try to ponder, however briefly, what such divine mysteries might mean.  Let images of the mystery of the Holy Trinity like these flow through your mind and heart.

As I keep swaying from left to right and back again, eyes still closed, when I come to the third petition of the Trinity Prayer, Come Holy Spirit, come and reign, I extend my arms forward and even venture to stretch upwards on my tiptoes, as some early Christians did when they prayed. Along with this, if the solitude is encompassing enough, I allow myself to imagine what some of the Spirit’s works might be, as I keep swaying left and right, right and left.

Inspired by the Spirit, I allow myself to envision, as through a glass darkly, the grand history of God with the whole creation, as that history is shaped by the wisdom and the power of the Spirit, from the creative cosmic Big Bang to the catastrophic cosmic Last Hurrah – and beyond that universal cataclysm into God’s infinitely rich, cosmic Eternity. And I celebrate in mind and heart some of the particular works of the Spirit along the way, calling forth images of the Spirit shaping and guiding and energizing all things.

The Spirit –

  • shaping our infinitely vast multi-galactic universe, more particularly our gloriously blue and green planetary home with all its infinitesimal evolutionary configurations of matter, life, and mind;
  • guiding the chaotic course of human history over the ages on planet Earth, especially lifting up the lowly and liberating the oppressed; and finally
  • energizing the whole history of God’s salvation on planet Earth, culminating in Jesus, the Messiah of biblical Israel’s hopes, continuing with the historic witness of the Church of Christ on planet Earth, and concluding, in God’s good time, with the universal, cosmic dawning of the New Heavens and the New Earth, when all things will be made new and when God will be all in all.

When I’m finished praying for the Spirit to reign, having precariously dreamed such dreams and eagerly seen such visions, I stand in silence with my eyes wide open once more, bowing again before the particular crucifix that commanded my attention at the outset, and I make the sign of the cross one last time on my chest, pushing my pectoral cross hard into my flesh at the very end, sometimes until it hurts. This is one way I try to reclaim Martin Luther’s deep faith that the whole history of God’s self-giving love in creation, redemption, and consummation, is, in addition to everything else, accomplished for my sake – pro me.

Brace yourself one last time now, as I bring these explorations to a close. There’s still more to practicing the Trinity Prayer, if you’re willing to risk it. You can sing the whole Trinity prayer, again and again. Song may be the best way to pray this prayer or any prayer, as a matter of fact. If you’re familiar with old-time hymns, moreover, you won’t have any trouble singing the Trinity Prayer. I list a number of hymn tunes for various seasons of the Church Year in an appendix of my book, Before Nature.

Consider the tune of the “The Doxology,” for example. Many American Christians, especially those who have claimed the traditions of the Protestant Reformation as their own, know this one by heart, “Old Hundreth” (“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow….”). That’s why I suggest getting in the habit of repeating each of the petitions of the Trinity Prayer four times. Old-time hymn tunes like “The Doxology” work well with that fourfold cadence.

Some years ago, during the last decade of my more than forty years in the ministry, at off hours, I sometimes would find my way into the chancel of the large and beautiful neogothic church building where I was then serving. Knowing that I was the only one in the building at such times, I would stand in the chancel all by myself, facing the high altar, and sing the Trinity Prayer at the top of my voice, again and again, in that cavernous holy space, bowing my head, lifting up my hands, swaying to the left and to the right. That’s the kind of resonant spiritual experience that invoking the Trinity Prayer can offer, as you seek to discover what it can mean for you to pray all the time.  I invite you to give it a try.