Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

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John_Cassian-webAfter almost 1600 years, John Cassian's instructions for meditative prayer remain as relevant -- and useful -- as ever.

 "God, come to my assistance."
"Lord, make haste to help me."

Several times today, throughout the world, monks, nuns, clergy and laypersons of the Christian faith, across several denominations, will pray these words, usually at the beginning of a set of seven daily prayer services known as the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours. By doing so, these Christians will be participating in a tradition that can be traced back at least to the early fifth century. And this particular prayer—originally from the Psalms, but immortalized by Saint John Cassian, whose Orthodox feast day is February 29 -- is important not only because of its content, or because it remains in use by those who pray the Divine Office, but especially because of how it has inspired generations of Christian contemplatives.

Cassian lived from about 360 to 435 CE. He was born in modern-day Romania, spent much of his young adult life among the desert dwellers of Egypt and Palestine, before travelling to Gaul (France) to establish what were probably the first Christian monasteries in Europe. St. Benedict recommended Cassian's writings to his monks, and they have remained classics of monastic literature ever since. In our day, as more and more laypersons turn to monastic wisdom to deepen their spiritual lives, Cassian's insight into the nature and practice of prayer, meditation and contemplation are probably more widely read than ever, even if most Christians have never heard of him.

When Cassian and his companion Germanus traveled to Palestine as young men, perhaps they had no idea that they would spend well over a decade studying with the holy men and women who had abandoned urban life in the fourth century to seek union with God in the austere landscape of the desert. Fortunately for us, Cassian understood that his lengthy pilgrimage was in fact a journey into the heart of wisdom—the wisdom of the earliest mystics and saints of the Christian contemplative tradition.

He recorded his adventures (and the lessons he learned) in two collections of writings, The Conferences and The Institutes. For those interested in contemplation and the spirituality of silence, the ninth and tenth conferences particularly recount the teachings of the desert dwellers in regard to the practice of prayer. And while Cassian is never as explicit as his mentor Evagrius Ponticus in affirming interior silence as the heart of prayer, he did bequeath one absolutely essential gift to western contemplation: the use of a sacred phrase as a "prayer word" for focusing one's attention while learning to pray through the splendor of the silence that exists "between the words" of our thinking minds.

Cassian very specifically promoted a specific Bible verse as the best short prayer to memorize and repeat: "God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me." It comes from the Psalms (70:1), and Cassian calls it a "model" for teaching the art of prayer, much like children are given toy blocks with letters on them, to model the alphabet for them to learn. Cassian instructs his readers to keep this model "constantly" within their spiritual sight, turning it "over and over" in their spirit, so that "as you use it and meditate upon it, you lift yourself upward to the most sublime sights."

In essence, Cassian is saying, pray this verse, beseeching the help and assistance of God, over and over again. Do it until you experience an inner spiritual transformation, marked by the "sublime sights" of God's presence in your life. In short, Cassian is instructing his readers to use this verse as their focus of meditation.

He may have been the first important Christian writer to advocate prayer in this fashion, but he certainly wasn't the last. The Cloud of Unknowing in the fourteenth century and the Centering Prayer movement in our time are both based on Cassian's approach to prayer. Perhaps even more significant is how this method of prayer developed among Eastern Orthodox Christians, where it eventually took on a more familiar (but still Biblically based) formula: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me." This is the Jesus Prayer, or prayer of the heart, as made famous by the Russian novel The Way of a Pilgrim and the twentieth-century fiction of J.D. Salinger.

God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me. Assist me in my quest to find you, God, in the midst of the noisiness of life. Make haste to help me find silence, Lord, so that, like Elijah on the mountain, I may discern your still small voice therein.

Carl McColman

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