Sunday, 1 August 2010
Learning to pray at all times
"In his youth John Cassian (c360-433) had experience of monastic life in Palestine and Egypt. After spending some time in Constantinople and Rome, he moved to Gaul and began founding monasteries in 415 AD. In order to instruct the new members of his communities he gave a number of conferences on the spirituality of the desert fathers. In one of these, Conference Ten on Prayer he tackled the question “how does one pray without ceasing, as the New Testament encourages us to do?”. This particular conference was very influential. Apparently it was read in the refectories of religious houses for hundreds of years afterwards. When I taught spirituality courses in All Hallows College I can remember devoting two sessions to what Cassian had to say. Whereas I expected the students to be uninterested, in fact they were fascinated and I realized that his teaching still has relevance today. O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me (Ps 70.1)
John Cassian said that in the East the monks had discovered an effective way of praying always. They had a prayer formula or mantra which “was given to us by a few of the oldest fathers.....They did not communicate it except to a few who were thirsty for the true way.” Apparently, the older monks thought that the entire spirituality of the bible, whether that of the Old or New Testament, could be encapsulated in one verse. “To maintain unceasing awareness of God” says John, “keep this verse ever in mind: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me” (Ps 70:1). This verse has rightly been selected from the whole bible for this purpose. It fits every mood, every temptation, every circumstance. It contains a call for divine help, a humble confession of faith, a meditation upon human weakness, a confidence in God’s answer, an assurance of his on-going support.” It strikes me that Ps 70:1 expresses poverty of spirit and complete, trusting dependence on the person and providence of God not only for salvation but also for all one’s other needs.
Cassian then goes on to show by a series of practical examples how this verse can be invoked at different times e.g. when you can’t sleep during the night; when you can’t keep awake during prayer; when you are troubled by impure thoughts; when you are feeling conceited about some success; when you are worried about some future event etc. He says that prayerful repetition of the verse “will be a saving formula in your heart, will guard you from the attack of demons, will cleanse you of the stains of earthly life, lead you to contemplate the unseen things of heaven and carry you up to the highest forms of prayer which very few have experienced.”
Conceptual and Non-conceptual Prayer
Surprisingly, Cassian says that it is better not to think about the verse or ponder its meaning. If perchance the mind wanders - as it often will - it is important to gently bring it back to the reverent recitation of the verse. “This formula,” he says, “the mind should go on grasping until it can cast away the wealth and multiplicity of other thoughts and restrict itself to the poverty of this single verse.” In this way one becomes poor in spirit. “Such a one truly confesses himself the beggar of the Lord, like the psalmist who said, “I am a beggar and a poor man: God himself helps me” Ps 40:17.” If one invokes the verse hundreds of times during the day, it seems to penetrate the unconscious mind so that it becomes second nature to recite it. In that sense one is praying ceaselessly even when engaged with practical, everyday tasks. Although Cassian favours a conceptless, imageless relationship with the incomprehensible mystery of God, he does encourage people to engage in scriptural prayer of a conceptual kind. He says that the faithful recitation of Ps 70:1, prepares the mind to penetrate the spiritual meaning of scripture. As a result: “There are times when a person understands God’s scriptures with the clarity with which a surgeon understands the body when he opens up the marrow and the veins. These are the times when our experience seems to reveal the meaning before we understand it intellectually.” Then he goes on to say that the verse, “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me” sums up whatever insight one might have gleaned as a result.
Sometime later he asserts that as a result of this kind of prayer, “The mind shall attain that purest of pure prayers; the prayer which looks to see no visual image, uses no concepts or words.....the mind is rapt upward; and devoid of the aid of the senses or of anything visible or material, pours forth its prayer to God with groanings and sighs that cannot be uttered. This explains the system of spiritual discipline,” he concludes, “there can be nothing more sublime than to fold the recollection of God into the little space of meditation upon a single verse, to summarize all the prayerful feelings in one sentence.”
A One Word Mantra
The prayer of recollection which was introduced to the West by Cassian, has been maintained and developed throughout European history. For example, Walter Hilton, who may have written The Cloud of Unknowing, advocated the use of a one word mantra. “If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat off the cloud of darkness above you and to subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. Should some thought go on annoying you demanding to know what you are doing, answer with the one word alone. If your mind begins to intellectualize over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. Why? Because you have refused to develop them with arguing.” As a person gets to be proficient in this form of prayer the chosen word, which encapsulates all one feels and knows about God, will begin to pray itself within the person’s spirit in an unceasing way.
The Spirit will never stop praying inside him
Isaac of Nineveh wrote in the seventh century: “Once the Spirit comes to dwell in someone, the latter will not be able to stop praying, for the Spirit will never stop praying inside him. Thus, whether he sleeps or wakes, prayer will never be absent from the person’s soul. Whether she is eating or drinking, or sleeping or working, the sweet fragrance of prayer will effortlessly breathe in his heart. Henceforth he no longer prays at fixed times, but continuously.” John Cassian and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing have shown us a simple way of fulfilling Paul’s advice in Eph 5:20: “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
Fr Pat Collins CM is a popular author, speaker and retreat leader who is based at St Peter’s Church in Dublin.