Do you have a hard time main­tain­ing your con­cen­tra­tion in prayer? Do you get dis­tract­ed eas­i­ly? Have you ever felt when you begin to pray that, as Hen­ri Nouwen puts it, your mind is like a banana tree filled with mon­keys?” Some­times, I have strug­gled with this very thing. Thank good­ness, this prob­lem is noth­ing new. Hap­pi­ly, the church fathers offer great advice in deal­ing with dis­trac­tion and oth­er strug­gles in prayer we occa­sion­al­ly experience.

Ancient Chris­tians’ thoughts on dis­trac­tion are often linked to anoth­er puz­zling aspect of prayer, Paul’s words in 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 5:17 to pray con­tin­u­al­ly,” or as the King James Ver­sion express­es, pray with­out ceasing.” 

The fathers, in part because of their pro­found respect and rev­er­ence for Scrip­ture, took Paul’s words very seri­ous­ly. If Paul exhort­ed Chris­tians to pray with­out ceas­ing, the fathers rea­soned, there must be a way to do so. But how? How can one pray con­tin­u­al­ly while engaged in the busy activ­i­ties each day presents? How can one pray with­out ceas­ing when the human mind so often acts like a flighty, wild bird, always ready to fly away at the least provo­ca­tion or distraction? 

Abba Agath­on, an Egypt­ian monk, was well-aware of the prob­lem of dis­trac­tions and links them the pos­si­bil­i­ty of demon­ic resis­tance and inter­fer­ence to our desire to pray: For every time some­one wants to pray, his ene­mies, the demons, want to pre­vent them, for they know that it is only by turn­ing him from prayer that they can hin­der his journey.” 

John Cass­ian, a fifth-cen­tu­ry monk, combed the deserts and wilder­ness­es of Syr­ia, Pales­tine, and Egypt, seek­ing advice from well-known abbas” or fathers” (some­times the heads of monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties or well-known monas­tic sages) on the spir­i­tu­al life and espe­cial­ly on prayer. His talks with these monas­tic wise men are col­lect­ed in a series of con­fer­ences” or inter­views. In con­fer­ences 9 – 10 Cass­ian, through an inter­locu­tor named Ger­manus, engages in an extend­ed dis­cus­sion on prayer with an abba named Isaac. 

Abba Isaac was per­son­al­ly acquaint­ed with the great Antony of the desert and pro­vides us with a vivid exam­ple of prayer prac­tices in the Egypt­ian desert. Abba Isaac’s advice on prayer is wise and helpful. 

(I do want to note that there were wise ammas” in the desert — strong and wise women who led large monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties of women. In Cassian’s inter­view with Isaac, though, we don’t find him dis­cussing them.)

The Ninth Con­fer­ence or inter­view begins with Isaac teach­ing that the end of every monk and the per­fec­tion of his heart direct him to con­stant and unin­ter­rupt­ed per­se­ver­ance in prayer; and, as much as human frailty allows, it strives after an unchang­ing and con­tin­u­al tran­quil­i­ty of mind and per­pet­u­al purity.” 

Here Abba Isaac is empha­siz­ing a theme we have explored togeth­er in past blogs. If a Chris­t­ian is to learn how to pray and grow in prayer, cer­tain char­ac­ter virtues and dis­po­si­tions are essen­tial. The dis­po­si­tion we need to cul­ti­vate, even when care weighs heav­i­est, is that of remem­ber­ing that God exists and loves us; that we are not alone, lost, ridicu­lous in the pres­ence of noth­ing­ness or hor­ror; that there is Anoth­er, whom we may approach in union with Christ, in him, in the depths of our being.” 

Next week we’ll begin to explore more deeply Cassian’s descrip­tion of Isaac’s teach­ing on prayer, dis­trac­tion, and oth­er impor­tant mat­ters, issues he dis­cuss­es with Isaac in a very strange envi­ron­ment — the bar­ren desert of Egypt. 

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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