From “Mental Prayer,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 7 (1829)
There are two modes of praying mentioned in Scripture; the one is prayer at set times and places, and in set forms; the other is what the text speaks of: continual or habitual prayer…
At first sight, it may be difficult to some persons to understand what is meant by praying always. Now consider it as a natural duty, that is, a duty taught us by natural reason and religious feeling, and you will soon see what it consists in.
What does nature teach us about ourselves, even before opening the Bible?—that we are creatures of the great God, the maker of heaven and earth; and that, as his creatures, we are bound to serve him and give him our hearts; in a word, to be religious beings. And next, what is religion but a habit? and what is a habit but a state of mind which is always upon us, as a sort of ordinary dress or inseparable garment of the soul?…
To be religious is, in other words, to have the habit of prayer, or to pray always. This is what Scripture means by doing all things to God’s glory; that is, so placing God’s presence and will before us, and so consistently acting with a reference to Him, that all we do becomes one body and course of obedience, witnessing without ceasing to Him who made us, and whose servants we are… Thus religious obedience is, as it were, a spirit dwelling in us, extending its influence to every motion of the soul… living in God’s sight, or, in the words of the same Apostle in the text, live in ceaseless prayer.
If it be said that no man on earth does this continually and perfectly, this we all know too well! This is only saying that none of us has reached perfection. We know, alas, that in many things all of us offend. But I am speaking not of what we do, but of what we ought to do, and must aim at doing, of our duty; and, for the sake of impressing our duty on our hearts, it is of use to draw the picture of a man perfectly obedient, as a pattern for us to aim at. In proportion as we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Savior, so shall we approximate to him in obedience, who is our great example, and who alone of all the sons of Adam lived in the perfection of unceasing prayer. Thus the meaning and reasonableness of the command in the text is shown by considering it as a natural duty, religion being no accident which comes and goes by fits and starts, but a certain spirit or life…
How is religious obedience described in Scripture?… If left to ourselves we would grow up to be haters of God, and tend nearer and nearer, the longer we had existence, to utter spiritual death; that inward fire of hell torments, maturing in evil through a long eternity. Such is the course we are beginning to run when born into the world; and were it not for the gospel promise, what a miserable event would the birth of children be! Who could take pleasure at the sight of such poor beings, unconscious as yet of their wretchedness, but containing in their hearts that fearful root of sin which is sure in the event of reigning and triumphing unto everlasting woe?
But God has given us all, even the little children, a good promise through Christ; and our prospects are changed. And he has given not only a promise of future happiness, but through his Holy Spirit, he implants here and at once a new principle within us, a new spiritual life.... Prayer is to spiritual life what the beating of the pulse and the drawing of the breath are to the life of the body. It would be as absurd to suppose that life could last when the body was cold and motionless and senseless, as to call a soul alive which does not pray. The state or habit of spiritual life exerts itself, consists, in the continual activity of prayer...
St. Paul says to the Galatians, “The life which I now live in the flesh” (i.e. the new and spiritual life), “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me,” Gal. 2:20. For what, I say, is faith, but the looking to God and thinking of him continually, holding habitual fellowship with him, that is, speaking to him in our hearts all through the day, praying without ceasing? Afterwards, in the same Epistle, Paul tells us first that nothing avails but faith working by love; but soon after, he calls this same availing principle a new creature, so that the new birth and a living faith are inseparable.
Never, indeed, must it be supposed, as we may suppose, that the gift of grace which we receive at baptism is a mere outward privilege, a mere outward pardon, in which the heart is not concerned; or as if it were some mere mark put on the soul, distinguishing it indeed from souls unregenerate, as if by a color or seal, but not connected with the thoughts, mind, and heart of a Christian. This would be a gross and false view of the nature of God’s mercy given us in Christ. For the new birth of the Holy Spirit sets the soul in motion toward God: it gives us good thoughts and desires, enlightens and purifies us, and prompts us to seek God. In a word (as I have said), it gives a spiritual life; it opens the eyes of our mind, so that we begin to see God in all things by faith, and hold continual intercourse with him by prayer; and if we cherish these gracious influences, we shall become holier and wiser and more heavenly, year by year, our hearts being ever in a course of change from darkness to light, from the ways and works of Satan to the perfection of Divine obedience.
These considerations may serve to impress upon our minds the meaning of the precept in the text, and others like it which are found in St. Paul’s Epistles. For instance, he enjoins the Ephesians to “pray always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,“ Eph. 6:18. To the Philippians he says, “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known unto God,” Phil. 4:6. To the Colossians, he says, “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving,“ Col. 4:2. To the Romans, Paul writes, “Continue instant in prayer,” Rom. 12:12.
Thus the true Christian pierces through the veil of this world and sees the next. He holds intercourse with the world to come; he addresses God, as a child might address his parent, with as clear a view of him, and with as unmixed a confidence in him; with deep reverence indeed, and godly fear and awe, but still with certainty and exactness: as St. Paul says, “I know whom I have believed,” 2 Tim. 1:12, with the prospect of judgment to come to sober him, and the assurance of present grace to cheer him.
If what I have said is true, surely it is well worth thinking about. Most men indeed, I fear, neither pray at fixed times, nor do they cultivate a habitual communion with Almighty God. Indeed, it is too plain how most men pray. They pray now and then, when they feel particular need of God’s assistance; when they are in trouble or in apprehension of danger; or when their feelings are unusually excited. They do not know what it is either to be habitually religious, or to devote a certain number of minutes at fixed times to the thought of God. No, the very best Christian, how lamentably deficient is he in the spirit of prayer! Let any man compare in his mind how many times he has prayed when in trouble, with how seldom he has returned thanks when his prayers have been granted; or the earnestness with which he prays against expected suffering, with the languor and unconcern of his thanksgivings afterwards, and he will soon see how little he has of the real habit of prayer, and how much his religion depends on accidental excitement, which is no test of a religious heart. Or supposing he has to repeat the same prayer for a month or two, the cause of using it continuing, let him compare the earnestness with which he first said it, and tried to enter into it, with the coldness with which he at length uses it. Why is this, except that his perception of the unseen world is not the true view which faith gives (else it would last as that world itself lasts), but a mere dream, which endures for a night, and is succeeded by a hard worldly joy in the morning?
Is God habitually in our thoughts? Do we think of him, and of his son our savior, through the day? When we eat and drink, do we thank him, not as a mere matter of form, but in spirit? When we do things in themselves right, do we lift up our minds to him, and desire to promote his glory? When we are in the exercise of our callings, do we still think of him, acting ever conscientiously, desiring to know his will more exactly than we do at present, and aiming at fulfilling it more completely and abundantly? Do we wait on his grace to enlighten, renew, strengthen us?
I do not ask whether we use many words about religion. There is no need to do this: no, we should avoid a boastful display of our better feelings and practices, silently serving God without human praise, and hiding our conscientiousness except when it would dishonor God to do so. There are times, indeed, when, in the presence of a holy man, to confess is a benefit, and there are times when, in the presence of worldly men, to confess becomes a duty; but these seasons, whether of privilege or of duty, are comparatively rare. But we are always with ourselves and our God; and that silent inward confession in his presence may be sustained and will end in durable fruit.
But if those persons come short of their duty who make religion a matter of impulse and mere feeling, what shall be said to those who have no feeling or thought of religion at all? What shall be said of the multitude of young people who ridicule seriousness, and deliberately give themselves up to vain thoughts? Alas! my brethren, you do not even observe or recognize the foolish empty thoughts which pass through your minds; you are not distressed even at those of them you recollect; but what will you say at the last day, when, instead of the true and holy visions in which consists divine communion, you find recorded against you in God’s book an innumerable multitude of the idlest, silliest imaginings… and worse of the wickedest, which ever disgraced an immortal being?… May God save us all from such willful sin, old as well as young, and enlighten us one and all in his saving knowledge, and give us the will and the power to serve him!
John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was among the most widely influential English theologians of the nineteenth century. One of the principal leaders of Anglicanism’s Catholic revival at Oxford in the 1830’s, he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was an Oratorian for the remainder of his life. He was made a cardinal shortly before his death and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. His Parochial and Plain Sermons, first published in 1834, were written in his years as an Anglican priest, while serving as vicar of Oxford’s Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. He is commemorated on August 11 on the calendars of several Anglican churches and on October 9 by the Roman Catholic Church.