Habitual prayer and habitual action


By Lisa Powell

“I am praying again, Awesome One” begins a poem in Rilke’s “Book of Hours.” It comes to mind as I too “am praying again,” a particular type of prayer dating to the third-century desert monastics and, in my own life, to college. It’s revived because I’m not sleeping well. At night, once the kids are in bed, I catch up on the news and day’s events. This ruins me for sleep. I wake up in stress over the state of the country, of the emboldened behavior of white supremacists, mortified that I ever believed these ideas belonged primarily to fringe extremists. (What a privilege, to only now in my 40s lose sleep over racism and injustice.) When better to pray than in the silence of sleepless nights. And I don’t know what else to pray but “Jesus” and “Help us” and “Have mercy.”

These prayers stem from a tradition seeking to cultivate a constant awareness of God’s presence, or to follow Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). The prayer, in its most basic form, is simply an invocation to Jesus, part of a spiritual tradition devoted to the “Holy Name.” Fifth-century ascetic Diadochus, for example, instructs that there are occasions when what is needed is “nothing but the prayer Lord Jesus.” The most famous is the “Jesus Prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” You may recite this prayer along with your breath, to become a rhythm, so that it repeats in your mind like waves against the shore. Eventually it becomes a habit and, with less effort, the recollection flows through your consciousness: the focus on the prayer recedes as you direct attention to the duties of life but remains there, pulsing. Over time you may just say the name “Jesus” and this whole history of presence comes rushing back, and then ebbs. This becomes the background rhythm of your day.

The words I pray mirror the repetition of my early 20s, but the experience is different. Two decades ago it primarily provided a sense that I was communing with God as I went about my day. However, now it doesn’t usher in a cuddly Jesus, chillin’ with me during my daily activities. In this regard it may be closer to the prayer of the desert ascetics, whose extreme penitence seems akin to the desperation of these fretful nights.


When I cry out “Jesus help us,” it evokes a particular history — mine, the tradition, the millions who have prayed this prayer, and also the specific history of Jesus of Nazareth, who taught, for example, that those who visit the prisoner, feed the hungry and welcome the stranger participate in the reign of God, and those who don’t, do not know God. The prayer invokes the God who became poor and weak, who suffered rejection, ridicule, torture and death. It is a plea to the God committed to the outcast, disenfranchised and vulnerable. To invoke “Jesus” is to address this specific God, with this particular history and character. This is a God who takes sides, and the side God takes is clear. The name invokes this God to enter our present and begs the Spirit of this Christ to bend the hearts of those who claim him as “Lord.”

Ada María Isasi-Díaz says “To struggle for social justice is to pray,” (Luchar por la Justicia es Rezar); thus she subverts a long tradition that distinguishes the active life from the contemplative, a division that has contributed to the critique against liberation theology. Opponents claim that the emphasis on “orthopraxis” or “right action” rather than “orthodoxy” leaves Christian movements for social change without a spiritual foundation. The implicit suggestion that those fighting for justice lack spiritual depth disparages their faith, and distracts from their righteous focus on Jesus’ ministry, the heart of the prophets and the history of God’s activity with the decedents of Abraham. The divide itself is false: to struggle for justice is prayer.

Most responsible texts on contemplation warn the reader of the effort required: at first your mind resists; it is hard to focus; thoughts grow restless. Similarly, acting in defense of what is right takes courage, energy and discipline, but like habitual prayer, it is a practice that becomes a way of life, second nature, organic to one’s being; it becomes an instinctual reaction in the face of injustice. It, too, requires cultivation, daily focus and action. And so this prayer is not only a cry to God for help, but also a call to the one praying: a charge to move a will to action that is frozen and too easily overwhelmed. The waves of invocation to Jesus are a perpetual call to “stay sober and be vigilant” (1 Pet 5:8). Or like the expression used in the black community to express the need to be informed, aware and active in the struggle: “Get woke!” or “Stay woke!” which mirror’s God’s charge to the church at Sardis: “Wake up!” No wonder I can’t sleep.

(Lisa Powell, PhD., teaches Christian theology and courses in Women and Gender Studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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