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)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

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

We will continue our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian. Last week, we began a study on prayer which we will continue today. Next week we will study the Lord's Prayer. As we approach the Christmas season and prepare to celebrate our Lord' birth, this is a good time to study once again the ever- important issue of prayer and how to pray. First, though, a bit of St. John Cassian's biography.

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 newsletter, we will continue our study 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." In the interest of completeness (and for the benefit of new subscribers!), the last portion of last week's reading will be repeated here. Now, on to "The Four Kinds of Prayer."



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."


XI. "'I urge first of all that supplications be made.' A supplication is an imploring or a petition concerning sins, by which a person who has been struck by compunction begs for pardon for his present or past misdeeds.


XII.1. "Prayers are those acts by which we offer or vow something to God . . . that is, a vow. . . . According to the nature of the word this can be expressed as follows: I will make my prayers to the Lord. And what we read in Ecclesiastes: 'If you vow a vow to God, do not delay to pay it,' is written similarly in Greek: . . . that is, "If you make a prayer to the Lord, do not delay to pay it. [NOTE: the missing phrases refer to Greek words and phrases that cannot be typed here]

2. "This will be fulfilled by each one of us in this way. We pray when we renounce this world and pledge that, dead to every earthly deed and to an earthly way of life, we will serve the Lord with utter earnestness of heart. We pray when we promise that, disdaining worldly honor and spurning earthly riches, we will cling to the Lord in complete contrition of heart and poverty of spirit. We pray when we promise that we will always keep the most pure chastity of body and unwavering patience, and when we vow that we will utterly eliminate from our heart the roots of death dealing anger and sadness. When we have been weakened by sloth and are returning to our former vices and are not doing these things, we shall bear guilt for our prayers and vows and it will be said of us: 'It is better not to vow than to vow and not to pay.' According to the Greed this can be said: It is better for you not to pray than to pray and not to pay.


XIII. "In the third place there are intercessions, which we are also accustomed to make for others when our spirits are fervent, beseeching on behalf of our dear ones and for the peace of the whole world, praying (as I would say in the words of the Apostle himself) 'for kings and for all who are in authority.'


XIV. "Finally, in the fourth place there are thanksgivings, which the mind, whether recalling God's past benefits, contemplating his present ones, or foreseeing what great things God has prepared for those who love him, offers to the Lord in unspeakable ecstasies. And with this intensity, too, more copious prayers are sometimes made, when our spirit gazes with most pure eyes upon the rewards of the holy ones that are stored up for the future and is moved to pour out wordless thanks to God with a boundless joy.


XV.1. "These four kinds sometimes offer opportunities for richer prayers, for from the class of supplication which is born of compunction for sin, and from the state of prayer which flows from faithfulness in our offerings and the keeping of our vows because of a pure conscience, and from intercession which proceeds from fervent charity, and from thanksgiving which is begotten from considering God's benefits and His greatness and lovingkindness, we know that frequently very fervent and fiery prayers arise. This it is clear that all these kinds which we have spoken about appear helpful and necessary to everyone, so that in one and the same man a changing disposition will send forth pure and fervent prayers of supplication at one time, prayer at another, and intercession at another.

"Nonetheless the first kind seems to pertain more especially to beginners who are still being harassed by the stings and by the memory of their vices; the second to those who already occupy a certain elevated position of mind with regard to spiritual progress and virtuous disposition; the third to those who, fulfilling their vows completely by their deeds, are moved to intercede for others also in consideration of their frailty and out of zeal for charity; the fourth to those who, having already torn from their hearts the penal thorn of conscience, now, free from care, consider with a most pure mind the kindnesses and mercies of the Lord that he has bestowed In the past, gives in the present, and prepares for the future, and are rapt by their fervent heart to that fiery prayer which can be neither seized nor expressed by the mouth of man.

2. "Yet sometimes the mind which advances to that true disposition of purity and has already begun to be rooted in it, conceiving all of these at one and the same time and rushing through them all like a kind of ungraspable and devouring flame, pours out to God wordless prayers of the purest vigor. These the Spirit itself makes to God as it intervenes with unutterable groans, unbeknownst to us, conceiving at that moment and pouring forth in wordless prayer such great things that they are not only -- I would say -- cannot pass through the mouth but are unable even to be remembered by the mind later on.

3. "Hence, in whatever state a person is, he sometimes finds himself making pure and intense prayers. For even from that first and lowest sort, which has to do with recalling the future judgment, the one who is still subject to the punishment of terror and the fear of judgment is occasionally so struck with compunction that he is filled with no less joy of spirit from the richness of his supplication than the one who, examining the kindnesses of God and going over them in the purity of his heart, dissolves into unspeakable gladness and delight. For, according to the words of the Lord, the one who realizes that more has been forgiven him begins to love more.


XVI. "Yet, as we advance in life and grow perfect in virtue, we should by preference pursue the kinds of prayer that are poured out as a result of contemplating future goods or from an ardent charity, or at least -- to speak in lowly fashion and in conformity with a beginner's standard -- that are produced for the sake of acquiring some virtue or destroying some vice. For we shall be utterly unable to attain to the more sublime types of prayer about which we have spoken if our mind has not been slowly and gradually brought forward through the series of those intercessions." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 337 - 339