The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN and ABBA ISAAC - The Four Kinds of Prayer: Part I

We will continue our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian. Although we have looked at selections from this phenomenal collection of ancient desert wisdom before, it is a work of such magnitude and such a breadth of spiritual teachings that it is worth returning to again and again and its teachings cover many topics relevant to all of us today. Today's topic, in particular, is critical to the spiritual life and John Cassian's work speaks to it as few others do.

St. John Cassian lived from about 360 to 430 and joined a monastery in Bethlehem early in his adulthood. With his companion, Germanus, St. John Cassian made several trips from Palestine to the deserts of Egypt where they studied the monastic life from the great desert fathers of their time. "The Conferences" records their twenty-four dialogues with fifteen abbas. Cassian then arranged these dialogues collected over a period of years into a monastic "primer" that has been studied ever since by generations of the faithful seeking to advance in spiritual wisdom. As such, this spiritual treasure is not just for monks, but for everyone seeking spiritual growth.

In today's reading, we will look at several conferences on the general subject of prayer. Unlike the previous conversations we studied between Germanus and Abba Joseph, today's reading is from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Isaac. This Isaac, incidentally, was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, and is apparently the first of two "Isaacs" mentioned in "Paradise of the Fathers." Today's topic is the four kinds of prayer.



VII.1 GERMANUS: "If only we were able to enjoy uninterruptedly these spiritual thoughts in the same way and with the same ease that we usually conceive their beginnings. For when they have been conceived in our heart through the recollection of Scripture or through recalling some spiritual deeds or, even more, through a glimpse of the heavenly mysteries, they immediately vanish, having as it were imperceptibly taken flight.

2. "And when our mind finds further occasions for spiritual thoughts, others creep back in and those that had been laid hold of slip rapidly away. Thus the mind has no constancy of its own, nor does it possess of its own power any immutability with regard to holy thoughts even when it seems somehow or other to hold on to them, and it can be believed that it has conceived them by chance and not by its own effort. For how can anyone think that their origin is to be ascribed to our own doing when persevering in them is beyond us?

3. "But let us not, while pursuing this issue, digress any further from the discourse that we began and put off any longer the proposed explanation regarding the nature of prayer. We shall keep this other matter for its own time. Right now we want to be informed about the character of prayer, especially since the Apostle tells us never to cease from it when he says: 'Pray without ceasing.'

4. "Therefore we want to learn about it character first -- that is, about what sort of prayer should always be said -- and then abut how we can possess this very thing, whatever it is, and practice it without ceasing. For daily experience and the words of your holiness, according to which you declared that the end of the monk and the summit of all perfection consisted in perfect prayer, demonstrate that this can be achieved with no small effort of the heart."


VIII.1 ISAAC: "I do not think that all the different kinds of prayer can be grasped without great purity of heart and soul and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. For as many characteristics can be produced as there are conditions in one soul and, indeed, in all souls.

2. "Therefore, although we know that we cannot ascertain all the different kinds of prayer because of our dullness of heart, nonetheless we shall try to analyze them somehow to the extent that our limited experience permits us to do so. According to the degree of purity to which each mind has attained, and according to the nature of the condition either to which it has declined because of what has happened to it or to which it has renewed itself by its own efforts, these change at every moment. Therefore it is absolutely certain that no one's prayers can be uniform.

3. "For a person prays one way when he is happy and another way when he is burdened by a weight of sadness or despair; one way when he is enjoying spiritual successes and another way when he is oppressed by numerous attacks; one way when he is begging pardon for sins and another way when he is asking for grace or some virtue or, of course, for the annihilation of some vice; one way when he is struck with compunction by reflecting on Gehenna and by fear of future judgment and another way when he is inflamed by the hope and desire for future goods; one way when he is needy and in danger and another way he is safe and at peace; one way when he is enlightened by revelations of heavenly mysteries and another way when he is fettered by sterility of virtue and dryness of thought.


IX.1 "Therefore once these aspects of the character of prayer have been analyzed -- although not as much as the breadth of the material demands but as much as a brief space of time permits and our feeble intelligence and dull heart can grasp hold of -- there remains to us a still greater difficulty: We must explain one by one the different kinds of prayer that the Apostle [note: "the Apostle," when used by the Desert Fathers, refers to St. Paul] divided in fourfold fashion when he said: 'I urge first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made.' There is not the least doubt that the Apostle established these distinctions in this way for a good reason.

2. "First we must find out what is meant by supplication, what is meant by prayer, what is meant by intercession, and what is meant by thanksgiving. Then we must investigate whether these four kinds are to be used simultaneously by the person praying - - that is whether they should all be joined together in a single act of prayer -- or whether they should be offered one after the other and individually, so that, for example, at one time supplications should be made, at another prayers, at another intercessions or thanksgivings; and whether one person should offer God supplications, another prayers, another intercessions, and another thanksgivings, depending on the maturity to which each mind is progressing according to the intensity of its effort.


X.1 "First, therefore, the very properties of the names and words should be dealt with and the difference between prayer, supplication, and intercession analyzed. Then, in similar fashion, an investigation must be made as to whether they are to be offered separately or together. Third, we must look into whether the very order that was laid down on the authority of the Apostle has deeper implications for the hearer or whether these distinctions should simply be accepted and be considered to have been drawn up by him in an inconsequential manner.

2. "This last suggestion seems quite absurd to me. For it ought not to be believed that the Holy Spirit would have said something through the Apostle in passing and for no reason. And therefore let us treat of them again individually in the same order in which we began, as the Lord permits." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 334 - 337