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 31, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Lord's Prayer: Part II

In this issue we will complete our two-part study of the greatest prayer of all -- The Lord's Prayer.

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.

Unlike some of the earlier conversations we studied were between Germanus and Abba Joseph; the subject of prayer, however, 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."



XXI.1 "Then: 'Give us this day our "supersubstantial bread," [NOTE: Cassian uses a Greek word here] which another evangelist has referred to as 'daily.' The former indicates the noble quality of this substance, which places it above all other substances and which, in the sublimity of its magnificence and power to sanctify, surpasses every creature, whereas the latter expresses the nature of its use and its goodness. For when it says 'daily' it shows that we are unable to attain the spiritual life on a day without it.

2. When it says 'this day' it shows that it must be taken daily and that yesterday's supply of it is not enough if we have not been given of it today as well. Our daily need for it warns us that we should pour out this prayer constantly, because there is no day on which it is not necessary for us to strengthen the heart of our inner man by eating and receiving this. But the expression 'this day' can also be understood with reference to the present life -- namely: Give us this bread as long as we dwell in this world. For we know that it will also be given in the world to come to those who have deserved it from you, but we beg you to give it to us this day, because unless a person deserves to receive it in this life he will be unable to partake of it in that life.


XXII.1. "'And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Oh, the unspeakable mercy of God! It has not merely given us a form of prayer and taught us how to act in a manner acceptable to him, uprooting both anger and sadness through the requirements of the formula that he gave, by which he ordered that we should always pray it. It has also conferred on those who pray an opportunity by disclosing to them the way that they may bring upon themselves the merciful and kind judgment of God, and it has conferred a certain power by which we can moderate the sentence of our Judge, persuading him to pardon our sins by the example of our own forgiveness, when we tell him: 'Forgive us as we forgive.'

2. "And so, securely confident in this prayer, a person who has been forgiving to his own debtors and not to his Lord's will ask pardon for his offenses. For some of us -- which is bad -- are accustomed to show ourselves mild and very merciful with respect to things that are committed to God's disadvantage, although they may be great crimes, but to be very harsh and inexorable exactors with respect to the debts of even the slightest offenses committed against ourselves.

3. Whoever, then, does not from his heart forgive the brother who has offended him will, by this entreaty, be asking not for pardon but for condemnation for himself, and by his own say-so he will be requesting a harsher judgment for himself when he says: Forgive me as I also have forgiven. And when he has been dealt with according to his own petition, what else will the consequence be that that, following his own example, he will be punished with an implacable anger and an irremissible condemnation? Therefore, if we wish to be judged mercifully, we must ourselves be merciful toward those who have offended us. For we shall be forgiven to the degree that we have forgiven those who have injured us by any wrongdoing whatsoever.

4. "Some people fear this, and when this prayer is recited together in church by the whole congregation they pass over this line in silence, lest by their own words they obligate rather than excuse themselves. They do not understand that it is in vain that they contrive to quibble in this way with the Judge of all, who wished to show beforehand how he would judge his suppliants. For since he does not wish to be harsh and inexorable toward them, he indicated the form that his judgment would take. Thus, just as we want to be judged by him, so also we should judge our brothers if they have offended us in anything, 'because there is judgment without mercy for the one who has not acted mercifully.'


XXIII.1. "Next there follows: 'And subject us not to the trial. In this regard there arises a question of no small importance. For if we pray not to be allowed to be tried, how will the strength of our steadfastness be tested, according to the words: 'Whoever has not been tried has not been proven?' And again: 'Blessed is the man who undergoes trial?' Therefore, the words 'Subject us not to the trial' do not mean: Do not allow us ever to be tried, but rather: Do not allow us to be overcome when we are tried.

2. For Job was tried, but he was not subjected to the trial. For he did not ascribe folly to God, nor did he as a blasphemer, with wicked tongue, accede to the will of the one trying him, to which he was being drawn. Abraham was tried and Joseph was tried, but neither of them was subjected to the trial, for neither of them consented to the one trying them.

"Then there follows: 'But deliver us from evil.' This means: Do not allow us to be tried by the devil 'beyond our capacity, but with the trial also provide a way out, so that we may be able to endure.'


XXIV "You see, then, what sort of measure and form for prayer have been proposed to us by the Judge who is to be prayed to by it. In it there is contained no request for riches, no allusion to honors, no demand for power and strength, no mention of bodily health or of temporal existence. For the Creator of eternal things wishes nothing transitory, nothing base, nothing temporal to be asked for from himself. And so, whoever neglects these sempiternal petitions and chooses to ask for something transitory and passing from him does very great injury to his grandeur and largesse, and he offends rather than propitiates his Judge with the paltriness of his prayer. END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 343 - 345