Pray without Ceasing: The Way of Invocation in World Religions
Edited by Patrick Laude
Publisher: World Wisdom Books, 2006.
This book, edited by Patrick Laude, is an anthology of writings from many religious traditions on “ceaseless prayer.” Laude explains ceaseless prayer as “the methodical, trusting, and virtually – or actually permanent invocation of a divine name or a sacred formula.” The expression “to pray without ceasing” comes from the writings of Eastern Orthodox Christian mystics in The Philokalia. This practice is known in other traditions by various names, including japa (repetition), dhikr (mention, remembrance), invocation, and centering prayer.
By presenting writings from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism Native American and other traditions, Laude shows the universality of ceaseless prayer. The selections range from excerpts from ancient scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita, to passages by medieval Kabbalists and modern spiritual leaders.
Therefore, at all times
Meditate on Me (or: Remember Me)
With your mind and intellect
Fixed on Me.
In this way, you shall surely come
Remember God and God’s love constantly. Let your thought not be separated from God … so that by means of such continuous contemplation you attain incessantly the world that is coming, and so that God be with you always, in this life and the next.
Rabbi Isaac of Akko (1250-1350)
Each repetition carries you nearer and nearer to God. This is a concrete fact and I may tell you that you are talking to no theorist, but to one who has experienced what he says every minute of his life, so much so that it is easier for the life to stop than for this incessant process to stop.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
The writings come from East and West. They range from scholarly essays to ecstatic personal testimonies. Laude, in his introduction, draws out some of the common threads found in these varied sources. For example, he notes that “the methodical practice of the invocation normally requires an authorization in the form of an induction or initiation into a spiritual rule or contemplative order under the guidance of a spiritual instructor.” He therefore cautions against undertaking this practice on one’s own.
Pray Without Ceasing is divided into three parts. Part One,“Foundational Texts”, provides a sampling of eighteen texts considered by Laude to be classics “that have nourished the spiritual life of generations of faithful.” Here we read the wise counsel of Saint Symeon (949-1022) in The Philokalia, who writes, “To those who have no knowledge of this practice, it is oppressive and laborious… To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy.”
Another selection is from The Way of a Pilgrim, by an anonymous Russian pilgrim who practiced the repetition so assiduously that it became impossible for him to stop. “I grew so used to my prayer that when I stopped for a single moment, I felt, so to speak, as though something were missing, as though I had lost something.” This sense of missing something drew him back to his repetition. “Early one morning the Prayer woke me up as it were.… My whole desire was fixed upon one thing only – to say the Prayer of Jesus, and as soon as I went on with it I was filled with joy and relief.” A Muslim Sufi, Ibn ‘Ata Allah Al-Iskandari (1259-1309), states that invocation “is a cure for the invoker from every malady and symptom… [It] strengthens the heart and the body, puts inner and outer affairs in order, gladdens the heart and face.” The Indian mystic Kabir celebrates the pain that forces the practitioner to return to the prayer: “All praises to pain: that moment by moment compels us to repeat the Name. The True Name is the only thing to repeat. It is the best gift to make.” Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534) speaks of the same pain: “O Lord! Without Thee, a moment of separation hangs upon me like countless ages and my eyes shed tears incessantly while the whole world appears to be a veritable desert, O Govinda.”
Part Two, “Contemporary Doctrinal Essays,” consists of writings by scholars describing the principles underlying invocation. For example, Titus Burckhardt (1908-1984), author of works on metaphysics, psychology, and art, explains:
The Divine Name … implies a Divine Presence which becomes operative to the extent that the Name takes possession of the mind of him who invokes it. Man cannot concentrate directly on the Infinite, but by concentrating on the symbol of the Infinite attains to the Infinite Itself… Thus union with the Divine Name becomes Union with God Himself.
Marco Pallis (1895-1989) expresses in Buddhist terms the transformation of consciousness that results from invocation: “Where that remembrance has been raised to its highest power, there is to be found the Pure Land.” Lev Gillet (1893-1980), who often wrote under the pseudonym “a monk of the Eastern Church,” calls for “loving adoration” while practicing repetition: “Having begun to pronounce the name with loving adoration, all that we have to do is to attach ourselves to it, cling to it, and to repeat it slowly, gently, and quietly.” But, he counsels, “let us not think that an hour during which we have invoked the name without ‘feeling’ anything … has been wasted and unfruitful.” Mir Valiuddin, a professor at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India and author of works on Sufism, emphasizes “alertness of the heart” during the practice of dhikr.
Part Three is “Contemporary Testimonies.” These selections, as Laude explains, “suggest the relevance, actuality, and accessibility of this way in the modern world.” Thomas Yellowtail (1903-1993), a priest of the Native American Crow tribe, writes, “I am always praying and thinking of God. I am so used to it that I just can’t stop, and I think that it is the best thing a person can do.” Vandana Mataji – a nun, head of a Christian ashram in Rishikesh, India and the author of Nama Japa – says, “In this age of modernity in everything and weakness of will, generally speaking, japa or the constant taking of the Divine Name may be regarded as the best and perhaps the only means of maintaining a spiritual awareness in one’s daily life.” The Hindu mystic Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) extols japa or repetition: “Japa uttered even once has its own good effect, whether the individual is aware or not… If you are not aware of the ajapa (unspoken chant) which is eternally going on, you should take to japa. Japa is made with an effort.”
This book offers encouragement to seekers of all backgrounds who want to develop a practice of ceaseless remembrance or prayer. Some of the writings may be unfamiliar, dense or challenging, but most are accessible and inspiring. They all point to a mystery: that the invocation of an “utterable” word or expression can, with due guidance, lead to realization of an “unutterable” transcendent reality. Laude concludes that ceaseless prayer “tends to be understood, at its summit, as the very end and essence of the spiritual path, all other practices converging into its synthetic, unifying, and interiorizing power.”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.