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Archive for March 2015

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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