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.”

Starting Soon: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? Choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

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