“pray without ceasing” ~ Paul, ca. AD 55
In what is probably the earliest authentic letter we have from the Apostle Paul, he urges his nascent Christ community in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing”. The Primitive Christian ekklesia took that charge very seriously. Contemplative prayer became ingrained in the lives of many of the early saints, providing a constant subtle presence or leitmotif; a divine music infused throughout their entire being, creating the themes, rhythm, tempo, melody, tone, and mood of a sanctified life.
The institutional church, especially after becoming part of the Imperial infrastructure of the Roman Empire beginning in AD 313, naturally began to become more concerned with that which concerns empire; power, prestige, and possessions. As a result, the concept of prayer began to get “dumbed down” to a level that the institutional church could define and control. Hence, we have the five basic kinds of prayer we are familiar with today; Blessing and Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, and Praise. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these types of prayer; Jesus and Paul used all of them. These prayers are good, powerful, and edify the body of Christ. My point is that they constitute a very small subset of the much larger contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition. As evidence, I again cite John Cassian (ca. AD 400) who tells us, “The various kinds of prayer [petition, promise, intercession, pure praise] are followed by a higher state still… it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love.” It is to this “higher state” of prayer that all Christians are called to aspire.
Many serious God-seekers, repulsed by the questionable antics and priorities of the early institutional Imperial Church, started fleeing to the isolation of deserts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the AD 300’s. There they were free to continue to practice and develop their contemplative Primitive Christian prayer tradition; praying in the tradition of Jesus and Paul. These were the famed Desert Fathers and Mothers. This was the beginning of monasticism. Contemplative prayer pretty much remained isolated to the monks and nuns of the sketes and monasteries from that point on; somewhat removed from the institutional “church” structure, or, as I refer to it in its current incarnation, “Jesus, Inc.”.