Desert Wisdom: No Particular Quantity

I grow fonder of the early Christians as I read more about them and read more of their actual writings.  Far from being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good,” they rather reveal an earthiness and a desire to connect their faith to the particular realities going on around them all the time.

So, we should not be surprised when one monk asked Evagrius about “how much” prayer is included in the phrase “pray without ceasing”  (Bunge, p. 106).

Evagrius responded, “No quantity was set…For ‘at all times’ and ‘pray without ceasing’ are not quantifiable.  Indeed, a monk who prays only when he sets out to pray does not really pray at all.”

This is another reinforcement of the idea we looked at last week—that prayer is more a life to be lived than it is a time to be observed.  But because we are unable to be perpetually conscious of our soul’s communion with God, it is pointless to speak of a particular “amount” of prayer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with connecting prayer and the clock, and there are helpful devotional plans that prescribe praying certain ways for particular amounts of time (e.g. “praise God for 5 minutes”).  But…and this is important…these kinds of plans are meant to establish prayer in us, not to be the lifelong pattern for our praying.  To remain confined by any “plan” will eventually bring us to a place where our souls are confined rather than liberated.  At their best, plans can only be starting points for a growing life of prayer.

The aim of prayer is ongoing communion/conversation with God.  A simple, “help, thanks, and wow (as Ann Lamotte has described it) is as much a part of true prayer as more-elaborate liturgical prayers and patterns.

When we enter into this view, we find that a concern for quantification goes away, and in its place is the quality which emerges from a Heart-to-heart exchange.


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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