Letter 14: Prayer according to Cassian

John Main found his way of meditation confirmed in John Cassian’s writings on prayer in Chapter 9 and 10 of the Conferences. Cassian brings out the Desert hermits’ insistence on the repetition of one particular phrase to aid ‘continual prayer’: “Every monk who longs for the continual awareness of God should be in the habit of meditating on [this formula] ceaselessly in his heart, after having driven out every kind of thought, because he will be unable to hold fast to it in any other way than by being freed from all bodily cares and concerns.”

The ‘formula’ he recommends is from psalm 69, a phrase known to every monk because of the daily singing of the psalms: “O God, incline unto my aid; O lord, make haste to help me.” This is mainly seen as an aid to deal with distracting thoughts at the time of prayer, but he goes even further: “You should, I say, meditate constantly on this verse in your heart…You should not stop repeating it when you are doing any kind of work or performing some service or are on a journey. Meditate on it while sleeping and eating and attending to the least needs of nature.”

Cassian sees this repetition of a prayer phrase as an important preparatory stage, a way of training the mind to achieve single minded effortless attention. He follows Evagrius’ emphasis: “When attention seeks prayer, it finds it.” It was a way of achieving “constant and uninterrupted perseverance in prayer.”

It is a defence against distractions of any kind: “wandering thoughts”, demons such as “sadness” or “acedia”, sensations and images. He calls it “an impenetrable breastplate”, a “very strong shield”. Like St Antony he recommends combining this with work as the best defence: “He prays unceasingly who combines prayer with necessary duties and duties with prayer.”

He sees this one pointed focus, “an unchanging and continual tranquillity of mind”, as essential to ‘pure’ prayer. He holds up Mary as the great example of what is needed in prayer: namely the quality of fixing the heart and mind on God in single minded loving attention. (Luke 10, 38-42).

Moreover, he describes it as a way of achieving “poverty of spirit”, knowing your need of God: “Let the mind hold ceaselessly to this formula…until it renounces and rejects the whole abundance of thought…Thus straitened by the poverty of this verse, it will very easily attain to that gospel beatitude which holds the first place among the other beatitudes...Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Although he lays emphasis on this way of prayer, he explains in ‘Conference IX’ that all types of prayer, supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving are valid, helpful and necessary at one time or another. But to him the highest form of prayer is “fiery”, “wordless” prayer, when the mind “pours out to God wordless prayers of the purest vigour.” To substantiate this he quotes St Antony: “The monk who knows he is praying is not praying, but the monk who does not know he is praying is praying.”

This interior prayer is to him the essence of prayer as described in his interpretation of the teaching in Matt 6,6: “We pray in our room when we withdraw our hearts completely from the clatter of every thought and concern and disclose our prayers to the Lord in secret and, as it were intimately….We pray with the door shut, when with closed lips and in total silence we pray to the searcher not of voices but of hearts.”

Although Cassian recommends the repetition of a particular phrase in prayer, we must not underestimate the importance of Scripture to him. He, like the Desert hermits, committed passages of Scripture to memory to allow Scripture to speak to him in a meaningful way: “As we strive with constant repetition to commit these readings to memory, we have no time to understand them because our minds have been occupied. But later when we are free from the attractions of all that we do and see and, especially, when we are quietly meditating during the hours of darkness, we think them over and understand them more clearly.” (Conference 14.10) This is pure lectio divina.

John Main in Word into Silencesays the following about ‘the formula’, the mantra, which Cassian would wholeheartedly agree with: “There is no doubt of the absolute demand of the mantra. In essence it is our acceptance of the absoluteness of God’s love flooding our heart through the Spirit of the risen Jesus. Our death [leaving self/the ego behind] consists in the relentless simplicity of the mantra and the absolute renunciation of thought and language at the time of our meditation.”

It is quite clear therefore, how John Main, Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers all share the essentials of contemplative prayer: attention and detachment, silence and solitude, unceasing prayer; “perseverance in prayer …as much as human frailty allows”, imageless prayer; all leading to ‘purity of heart’ and ‘poverty of spirit’.

Kim Nataraja

Adapted from Kim’s chapter on Cassian in Journey to the Heart