Let’s con­tin­ue to explore with John Cass­ian the pos­si­bil­i­ty of con­tin­u­al” or unceas­ing” prayer. Cass­ian describes a kind of rec­i­p­ro­cal and insep­a­ra­ble link” between our bod­i­ly behav­ior, the inner state of our soul, and the devel­op­ment of the virtues nec­es­sary for unceas­ing prayer.

Cass­ian teach­es that as we per­se­vere in prayer — an impor­tant theme for all the church fathers — virtues will devel­op that in turn enable and ener­gize con­tin­u­al prayer. For just as the per­pet­u­al and con­stant tran­quil­i­ty of prayer about which we are speak­ing can­not be acquired and per­fect­ed with­out those virtues, nei­ther can these virtues, which lay the foun­da­tion for prayer, achieve com­ple­tion unless we per­se­vere in prayer.” 

In a word, per­se­ver­ance in prayer is the seedbed in which con­tin­u­al or unceas­ing prayer blos­soms. Olivi­er Clement com­ments on the same dynam­ic between prayer and virtues such as per­se­ver­ance: Prayer upholds the virtues and is itself upheld by them.” 

Cass­ian writes that to obtain” con­tin­u­al prayer we must reject cer­tain things and acquire oth­ers. In an ini­tial demo­li­tion project, he urges us to purge our­selves of the vices that are obsta­cles to prayer, the pas­sions” desert monks often described in detail. 

What are the pas­sions?” Per­haps it’s best to under­stand first what ancient writ­ers did not mean by the term. For instance, mod­ern peo­ple often con­nect pas­sion or pas­sions by what Rober­ta Bon­di describes as any strong emo­tion, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. She has a pas­sion­ate desire to serve the poor.’ He was in a real pas­sion when the killed the man.’ She is a pas­sion­ate lover.’ He has a pas­sion for chocolates.’” 

For ear­ly Chris­tians, Bon­di writes, a pas­sion may have a strong emo­tion­al ele­ment or tone, but can just as often refer to a state of mind, or even a habit­u­al action. Anger is usu­al­ly a pas­sion, but some­times for­get­ful­ness is called a pas­sion. Gos­sip and talk­ing too much are also reg­u­lar­ly called pas­sions … Depres­sion, the very oppo­site of a pas­sion as we usu­al­ly use that term in our mod­ern world, is one of the most painful passions.” 

The pas­sions, then, are a con­glom­er­ate of obses­sive emo­tions, atti­tudes, desires, and ways of act­ing … It is these pas­sions that blind us in our deal­ings with our­selves, each oth­er, and the world, and so per­vert per­fect­ly good and use­ful impuls­es which take away our free­dom to love.” 

The logis­moi or dial­o­gis­moi, what one ancient writer describes as mag­got eggs from which evil thoughts, motives, and actions spring, are the seeds of the pas­sions,’ those sug­ges­tions or impuls­es that emerge from the sub­con­scious and soon become obses­sive.” From the per­spec­tive of abbas such as Isaac, the pas­sions are block­ages, usurpa­tions, devi­a­tions … They are forms of idol­a­try, of that self-idol­a­try’ that deflects towards noth­ing­ness our capac­i­ty for transcendence.” 

Cass­ian views cleans­ing from the pas­sions as an indis­pens­able first step toward con­tin­u­al prayer. And once the tot­ter­ing and dead rub­bish of the pas­sions have been dug out, the firm foun­da­tions of sim­plic­i­ty and humil­i­ty can be placed in what may be called the liv­ing and sol­id ground of our heart, on the gospel rock.” 

The pre­lim­i­nary weed­ing of the pas­sions helps to devel­op the sta­bil­i­ty and strength con­tin­u­al prayer demands, for con­flict, spir­i­tu­al attack, and strug­gle can be expect­ed as we seek to draw near­er to God. 

Isaac, then, encour­ages us to lay a firm foun­da­tion for prayer because of its inher­ent dif­fi­cul­ties and chal­lenges. For if prayer rests upon such foun­da­tions, even though the heav­i­est rain of the pas­sions should come down and vio­lent tor­rents of per­se­cu­tions should beat against it like a bat­ter­ing ram and a sav­age tem­pest of adver­sary spir­its should press upon it, not only will it not fall into ruin, but no force of any kind will ever dis­turb it.” 

📚 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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