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Our discussion of Cassian's magnificent conference on prayer came to a close with Germanus asking how, now that they have learned of this formula for unceasing prayer, they can hold fast to the verse that Abba Isaac had given them.  How were they to keep their thoughts from flitting between scripture passage to scripture passage and remaining mere touchers and tasters of spiritual meanings and not possessors and begettors of them?  Abba Isaac's response is brief and to the point: they must simply remain steadfast in the practice of the prayer and stabilize their minds through vigils, meditation and prayer.  Beyond this they are to allow the life of the cenobium to do its work: leading them to renounce their attachment to everything in order to be fully committed to praying without ceasing. They cannot restrict their time of prayer to when they have bended knees but they must seek to live in a constant state of recollection and avoidance of distraction throughout the day.  In short, they must allow themselves to embrace the poverty of this prayer, of setting aside all thoughts but God through it, in order to also experience its true blessing and the perfection it leads to in the spiritual life.  No one is ever excluded from the perfection of heart because of illiteracy or simplicity.  

It is to perfection that Cassian will turn in the Eleventh Conference which includes fostering three things that forestall vicious behavior; namely, fear of punishment, hope of reward, and love.  Ultimately is is the love of virtue for its own sake that is most important as well as what Cassian describes as an attitude of loving fear: a reluctance to hurt a person whom one loves.  Are only fear and anxiety in this world should be wounding the loving heart of God who has given us so much.
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After having considered the formula that the mind is to hold to ceaselessly, "O God, incline unto my aid, O Lord, make haste to help me", the group listened to Abba Issac describe the fruits that such a practice produces in the soul.  Chief among them is poverty of spirit: nothing can be holier than that of one who realizes that he has no protection and no strength and who seeks daily help from God's bounty and who understands that his life and property are sustained at each and every moment by divine assistance.  Such a person becomes the "Lord's beggar."  

With this comes the fruit of discretion, that allows one to penetrate the most sublime mysteries.  The very dispositions of the psalms are taken into oneself, so that they arise from the heart not as another's words but as one's own.  The meaning of the words come not through exegesis but through proof; that is, when our experience not only perceives but anticipates its thought.  It will be as if we have become the author, grasping in anticipation the meaning of scripture; having received in power the Word rather than the simply the knowledge of it.
Once the mind's attentiveness has been set ablaze, prayer pours forth in unspeakable ecstasy to God with unutterable groans and sighs. 
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We found ourselves quite suddenly at the denouement of Cassian's Conferences - Abba Isaac's beautiful description of how to engage in unceasing prayer and the formula to be used.  However, this seemed less like a spiritual discourse and more like a privileged view of the heart and experience of the old man seasoned in the practice of prayer.  The very reading of it was a prayer - which Abba Isaac acknowledges that Germanus and Cassian were only able to receive because the ground of their hearts had been prepared through long years of discipline and fidelity to the spiritual life.  The shape of the prayer is the uninterrupted and repeated saying of Psalm 70:1, "O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me."  Abba Isaac reveals how it adjusts itself to every condition and affliction and protects every virtue.  Yet, it does far more than that: Abba Isaac states that "straitened by the poverty of this verse (having forgone any thought but that of God), the soul will very easily attain to that gospel beatitude which holds the first place among the other beatitudes.  For it says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Through it one professes oneself to be the Lord's beggar.

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The group began Conference Ten, the high point of Cassian teaching on imageless and unceasing prayer.  Cassian sets the stage by seeking to put the notion of imageless prayer in highest possible relief through giving an account of the monk Serapion's fall into the anthropromorphite heresy.   Serapion's mind becomes cluttered with the erroneous and deadly image of a God with human contours; unable to let go of the confines of what the imagination and intellect can construct to be drawn by faith into the intimacy and mystery of the Triune God.  It is through the pathos of this story that Cassian brings his readers to see the beauty of pure prayer and the unbroken communion with God it promises. When such prayer is attained, everything a person does is God.  And this, which is the end of all perfection, is equivalent to transforming one's whole life into a single and continuous prayer. 

A lengthy discussion then ensued regarding the simplicity of life that must be fostered in order for the silence of solitude to emerge in which such unceasing prayer can take place.  The group considered the types of pseudo contemplation that have arisen in the modern culture that sadly make genuine prayer more and more unlikely.
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Along with Cassian and Germanus, we came to the end of the first conference on prayer with Abba Issac, where discussion focussed on the different origins of tears (consciousness of one's own sins, fear of Gehenna, the sins of others, and the hardships of this life in the face of a deep longing for heaven).  Tears are to be fostered as a part of compunction, but never forced once one has reached deeper level of prayer, so as not to focus on things of lesser importance.  

Prayers are heard or not heard for various reasons.  Our hearts must be filled with a kind of urgency that gives rise to persistence in prayer and we must not doubt that God will hear and answer our prayers in due course, so long as like our Lord we seek only the will of God and what is for our salvation.
Prayer is to be engaged in silently; not only so as not to disturb others but in order not to reveal to demons the more intimate aspects of our relationship with God.  Some things are only to be shared between the soul and the Heavenly Bridegroom.
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Continuing our discussion of Conference Nine, we picked up with Abba Isaac's exposition of the final petitions of the Our Father: "And subject us not to the trial . . . but deliver us from evil."  Trial is an inevitable part of the human condition and the spiritual life, but we seek in such trials the protection of God and the grace of perseverance and long-suffering so as not to succumb to the evil of the loss of our faith or to act in a way contrary to God's will.  We ask not to be tried beyond our capacity.

When praying, care must be given not to seek those things that our transitory in nature and nothing base or temporal. To do so is to offer great injury to God's largesse and grandeur with the paltriness of our prayer.
Abba Isaac then moves on to discuss the more sublime character of "wordless prayer" that transcends understanding and to which few are called.  It is a infusion of divine light through which God can in a brief moment fill the mind and heart.  The precondition of this prayer is the breaking and humbling of the heart which is expressed through compunction and the overflow of tears that purify the heart.
A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the potential enigma of philokalic spirituality to the Western mind - the setting aside of imagination and the focus on taking every thought captive so as to eventually be brought to unceasing prayer.  
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The group continued to discuss Abba Isaac's breathtaking exposition of the "Our Father"; considering the third, fourth and fifth petitions. The beauty of his words are only equaled by their challenge.  We are called to desire above all to live the "angelic" life (to be wrapped in our desire to fulfill God's will in every aspect of our lives), to seek to nourish ourselves upon His Word (discerning the gift that we receive daily and receiving it with reverence and awe), and to cry out for God's forgiveness (understanding that the mercy we receive depends on the mercy we offer to others).  

Lengthy discussion ensued regarding the secularism and worldliness that has colored many people's experience of the faith and what it means to pray the "Our Father" and to receive the Holy Eucharist.  
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Germanus, Cassian's traveling companion, begins this section by talking about the mind's inconstancy and seeming inability to hold on to holy thoughts.  He presses Abba Issac to move ahead with a discussion on how to pray without ceasing.  But Abba Issac knows that there is work that must first be done in understanding the various aspects of prayer as outlined by the Apostle Paul and to see an example of the forms of prayer expressed perfectly and in unison by Jesus in the Our Father.  No person's prayers are uniform and each is affected by their level of purity of heart.

A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the struggle with secularism and worldliness that impedes the freedom and simplicity necessary to allow prayer to become the focus and center of one's life.  
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Picking up with Cassian's Conference 9 on Prayer, we continue to focus on the necessary dispositions for unceasing and pure prayer.  We must not let anything, worldly vices or concerns, weigh us down; nor can we underestimate the impact of the actions and thoughts we may consider beneficial or of little significance hinder us.  In fact, it is often that which appears good or innocent that is most destructive to our spiritual life because we pay it no attention and so don't struggle to overcome it.  Sometimes we have hidden anxieties about worldly things and seek to find our identity in them or a sense of self worth and value in the eyes of others.  

The simplicity of life and detachment that allows for true prayer often eludes us and we have to struggle as did the fathers to allow God to show us the depth of prayer He is calling us to in His wisdom.
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Prayer is the subject of conferences 9 and 10 and its importance is underlined at the very beginning of the 9th: "The end of every monk and the perfection of his heart incline him to constant and uninterrupted perseverance in prayer." But this constant prayer demands, in turn, perfection of heart and the virtues that go with it.  This ninth conference serves as a kind of preliminary, among other things establishing the conditions for prayer and the different possible characteristics of prayer.  

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