“Pray Without Ceasing:” An Impossible Dream?

“Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing. In everything, give thanks…”

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18


These words of Saint Paul seem like an unattainable command. It’s hard enough to remember to pray before dinner. But praying without ceasing? Impossible. And yet, if we are bold enough to aspire to sainthood, it must be possible. Unceasing prayer is the powerful message of the saints, and ultimately, it is the end we all hope for: to dwell in the house of the Lord and behold Him face to face.


That all sounds very pleasant, but the idea of unceasing prayer still seems dismally unreachable.


A Simple Path

Last year my husband and I read a book called The Way of a Pilgrim. The book was written by an anonymous Russian peasant in the nineteenth century. It chronicles the peasant’s journey to discover the meaning of Saint Paul’s words. There were many moments of great insight in this book, but one thing that struck me most was the prayer the peasant said throughout his journey. It is a simple prayer, short enough for a child to remember and recite: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” That’s it! The peasant begins his journey simply by attempting to always keep this prayer at the front of his mind. He doesn’t always succeed, but the attempt creates a momentum that leads him deeper and deeper into the meaning of prayer.


Catholics are well known for their long prayers. The Rosary said in its original form, with all five decades of all Mysteries recited, has to be one of the longest prayers on record. Don’t get me wrong – the Rosary and other long prayers are great treasures of the Faith. But as a wise priest once said to me, something is better than nothing when it comes to prayer. I don’t think I’m the only one who has resolved to say a daily Rosary, only to be discouraged when I struggle to complete two decades.


And so, with the New Year upon us, I thought this was a good time to reflect on some spiritual baby steps we can all take to make our prayer lives better this year. With the pandemic still making headline-news daily, there’s no better time to focus on the inner life and daily prayer. The Way of a Pilgrim presents a great solution: pray shorter. Take the minimalist approach that has been so successful with closets, playrooms, and kitchen cabinets, and apply that to your prayer life this year.


The Beauty of Aspirations

Since reading the book and researching more about traditional Catholic prayers, I discovered a name for these short prayers: aspirations. The word “aspiration” comes from the Latin word “aspirare,” which means “to breathe into.” These prayers are literally meant to be breathed as they are prayed. For example, the Jesus prayer can be combined with breath by inhaling on the words, “Lord, Jesus Christ,” and exhaling on the words, “have mercy on me.” This allows the person praying to more fully enter into the words each time they are repeated.


As I learned about aspirations, I was reminded of when I used to work as a birth doula. I was always struck by the power of words for a laboring woman. So many of my clients would cling to small phrases, or even single words, muttering (or sometimes yelling) to themselves things like, “Be strong.” “Keep going.” “It’s okay.” “Breathe.” “God, help me.” The simplicity of those small phrases helped them move through the intensity of labor.


As with birth, so with death. We read the lives of the saints and hear the simplicity of their final words as they took their last breath and passed from this life, from Saint Joan of Arc (“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”), to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (“Jesus, I love you!”), to the otherwise prolific St. John Chrysostom (“Glory to God for all things!”) And, of course, we have the words of Christ Himself – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”


(There are a few exceptions. Saint Francis of Assisi apparently recited Psalm 141 in its entirety. But that’s a bit beside the point.)


Small phrases and simple words can open our hearts and bring us into dialogue with God when stressed, afraid, overwhelmed, or even full of joy.


Here is a list of 20 short but sweet traditional Catholic aspirations inspired by Scripture, the Saints’ own lives, and Tradition. Take one, and pray it whenever you remember. You’ll be amazed at how much these small words can transform your relationship with Christ and with others.


20 Aspirations to Pray This New Year

1. The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

2. “Come Holy Spirit.”

3. “Glory be to God.”

4. “Lord, make me holy.”

5. “Jesus, I trust in You.”

6. “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like Yours.”

7. “Deliver us from evil.”

8. “My Queen! My Mother!”

9. “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

10. “My God and my all.”

11. “Lord, teach me to pray.”

12. “Come, Lord Jesus!”

13. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

14. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph.”

15. “Mother of God, remember me.”

16. “Blessed be the name of Jesus.”

17. “Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on me.”

18. “Oh good Jesus, within thy wounds hide me.”

19. “My God, I love Thee.”

20. “Assist me, Oh God!”


The peasant in Way of a Pilgrim eventually comes to a deeper understanding of the meaning of what he calls “true prayer” and its conditions: “[True prayer] is to be offered with a pure mind and heart, with ardent zeal, with undivided attention, with reverence and deepest humility.” These small aspirations provide the perfect opportunity to achieve “true prayer” and deepen our spiritual life in a simple, meaningful, manageable way.


More Aspirations to Pray Every Day:


1) Prayers, Novenas & Hymns (Aspirations/Short Prayers)

2) Aspirations - Ejaculatory prayers

3) Aspirations Rising Up Like Incense to God

4) Our Catholic Prayers - Aspirations

Nicole lives in Maryland with her husband and five (soon to be six!) children. She spends most of her time homeschooling her very energetic kids. Although "Mom" is her full-time title right now, she has also worked as a freelance writer and editor, birth and postpartum doula, and prenatal fitness specialist. She is an Ave Maria University alumna and received her MA in Philosophy at the University of Leuven, Belgium.

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