By: K.M. Cameron
“Pray always,” Scripture says (1 Thes 5:17). We say, “Yes, but how?” The desert Fathers tell us how by pointing to a particular verse of the Psalms.
John Cassian is best known as the fourth-century monk who wandered about conducting meetings with desert hermits. Each meeting was a mix between an interview, a dialogue, and a lesson with a solitary yet reputable “Abba.” Afterwards, Cassian gathered his records of the meetings into one volume. This huge volume, called simply The Conferences, is one of the foundational texts for western monasticism. It served as the personal daily spiritual reading for many mediaeval saints. We have our daily devotional books. The mediaeval saints had The Conferences.
Two conferences are devoted to prayer. Now, the abbas have much to say about prayer, but they especially have something to say about how prayer can become “permanent.” For if ever anyone tried to live in a state of permanent prayer, it was these desert solitaries. Their advice on the matter, therefore, is expert indeed.
In the second of the two conferences on prayer, we find Abba Isaac in conversation with two young men aspiring to find deep and abiding prayer. Abba Isaac tells them that perfection consists in so purifying and elevating the mind that “one’s whole way of life and all the yearnings of one’s heart become a single and continuous prayer” (Conferences, X, 7.3). At these words, the two young men come close to despair.
For they admit to having no idea where even to begin the quest for such a lofty state of perfection. Further, they recount to Abba Isaac their difficulties in prayer: distractions, mood swings, a wandering imagination, inconstancy, instability, and fatigue. For all these reasons, their hopes for arriving at the heights of perfection seem dashed. So they urge Abba Isaac to explain what this state of permanent prayer is like. Being somewhat naÃ¯ve, they expect to be able to put on permanent prayer by choice, and to come back to it by choice when they catch themselves drifting because of distractions. Abba Isaac, too realistic to be caught up in their impulsiveness, gives them a different cause for hope.
Abba Isaac points to a single verse from the Psalms and says “every monk who longs for the continual awareness of God should be in the habit of meditating on [this verse] ceaselessly in his heart…” (Conferences, X, 9.2). And when he says ceaselessly, hemeans ceaselessly. “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” (Conferences, X, 10.14).
For All Circumstances
In effect, Abba Isaac gives the two young men a western version of what eastern Christianity calls the “prayer of the heart” or the “practice of the presence of God.” Among eastern Christians, it is common for people to pray continuously the words Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner (often called the “Jesus Prayer”). By saying the Jesus prayer repeatedly, it sinks into the heart. Its meaning becomes one’s life. Few people know that the western Church has had its own, slightly different, prayer of the heart.
And that prayer, Abba Isaac tells them, is found in the words of Psalm 70:1: “Incline unto my aid, O God; O Lord make haste to help me.”
In another translation: “O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.”
Abba Isaac explains that out of all the verses in the Psalms, this verse in particular has been selected and handed down through generations of desert solitaries as being theverse for continuous and ceaseless prayer and meditation. Why this verse in particular?
Basically, Abba Isaac says, because it fits all circumstances. And fitting all circumstances is just what one wants in a prayer meant to be prayed in all circumstances. Here is a modern rendition of how he illustrates his point to the two young men.
We can imagine Abba Isaac saying to us, Are you a mother busy struggling with four crying children in the supermarket? Say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me. Are you a college student surrounded by terrible temptations? Say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me. Are you a middle-aged businessman wondering whether his work really makes any difference in the world? Say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me. Are you in the middle of debilitating sickness, or in the middle of rush-hour gridlock, or in the middle of workplace strife? Say within your heart,Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me. Are you worried about bills, worried about a sick child, or worried about what the in-laws are saying? Are you doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, fixing the car, feeling a rush of anger toward the neighbors, or wondering when the errands will ever end? Whether it is the quiet hours of the morning, the middle of the noisy day, or the exhausted hours of the evening, you can always say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me.
And the verse is not only for the hard moments in life. It is for the good moments too — precisely because in the good moments one hazards losing sight of one’s need for God.
Have you just received notice that someone has left you a large bit of money? Say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me. Have you just received a major promotion at work? Say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me. Have you just received your newborn infant into your arms? Say within your heart, Incline unto my aid O God; O Lord make haste to help me.
It Sinks Deep into the Heart
When prayer itself becomes dry, distracted, or difficult, in that moment too the verse fits perfectly. And when prayer becomes sweet, consoling, and abounding in a sense of the divine presence, even then it makes sense to say the verse — as a way of begging God to go higher still in prayer.
Abba Isaac even tells the young men that when they are praying the other Psalms, they should begin by reciting this verse in particular. And thanks to Cassian’s widespread influence on Western monks, he exercised a strong influence on the development of the Western Liturgy of the Hours. That is why to this day all the hours of the Divine Office in the West begin with this verse.
When this verse has become the last thought before going to bed, and the first thought upon rising, it sinks deep into the heart. And thus the one who prays it continuously becomes the only thing worth being: an empty-handed beggar standing before the divine Self-Gift.
That is how one’s “whole way of life and all the yearnings of one’s heart become a single and continuous prayer.”
That is one way to “pray always.”
Credit to KM Cameron of CatholicExchange.