The second disposition or manner in which we are to pray, which Father Gabriel (Bunge) addresses in this third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, is Jesus’ instruction to “pray at all times” or Saint Paul’s exhortation to “pray constantly.” This would seem to contradict the way in which prayer is limited in time and therefore simply to mean to pray frequently, or very frequently. However, the early monastic Fathers did understand such exhortations literally although it was not always apparent how this was to be done.
“At all times” and “praying constantly” therefore means nothing less than praying always and everywhere, and that not as something done besides other activities, but rather at the same time with them! (106)
The later hesychastic tradition developed various specialised methods regarding breath and posture. However, these are intended for monks living in seclusion and should only be practised under the guidance of an experienced teacher, making them accessible to only a few.
In contrast, what we know of the practices of the early Fathers is, in its simplicity, attainable by a greater number. (107)
Father Gabriel then points out how the Egyptian Desert Fathers integrated prayer and manual labour as we see in the words of John of Gaza:
When you sit down to your handwork, you should learn by heart or recite psalms. At the end of each psalm you should pray sitting: “O God, have mercy on me a miserable man.” When you are troubled by thoughts, then add: “O God, you see my affliction, come to my aid.”
Once you have made three rows of the net, then stand up to pray, and when you have bent the knee and likewise when you stand up again, pray the prayer just mentioned. (108-109)
Father Gabriel comments:
The “method”, then, is simple enough to be feasible. It consists of interrupting one’s work, in this case making nets, at determined “short intervals”, so as to rise for prayer and the prostration that goes along with it. …
During the work the mind was not idle, either, but occupied itself with “meditation”, that is, the contemplative repetition of Scripture verses, very often psalms, which were learned by heart for precisely this purpose. Each “meditation” of this sort was followed by very short ejaculatory prayers, that could be prayed sitting. Their content was not fixed and, once a particular “formula” was adopted it could be modified at will. Neither the “prayers” mentioned above nor these ejaculations were particularly long, and they did not need to be either. (109)
This presents a framework which those who want to “pray in truth” can use to develop their own personal methods that fit with their own circumstances and their own work.
For upon closer inspection one sees that these Desert Fathers were not conducting a life of prayer alongside the rest of their life, but rather worked, like any other man, so as to make a living, and also took six hours of rest at night. Their prayer life is identical with their daily life, permeates it completely, and ultimately leads to the point at which the spirit “is at prayer throughout the whole day”. External circumstances and “disturbances” such as conversations, for example, no longer make any difference. (110)
While this ideal of continual prayer might seem typically monastic to us today, it is older than monasticism and belongs to those “unwritten traditions” that the Fathers traced back to the apostles themselves.
The early monks did nothing more than give to this ideal a definite form, which in its simplicity is accessible to anyone who seriously wants it. For every soul is by its very nature inclined “to praise the Lord”. (112)