The Salinas River winds undetected through the Central Coast of California. Most of the time, it looks like a small creek you might see bordering two backyards. However, this “Upside Down River”Anne B Fisher, The Salinas, Upside Down River, (Fresno, CA: Valley Publishers, 1945). is one of the largest subsurface flowing rivers in the United States. While I lived and pastored in Atascadero, California, I had first-hand experience of observing, or perhaps better said, not observing the Salinas River except when it briefly exposed its shy self during the rainy season.
Surprisingly, under that barren sandy riverbed, a hidden and undetected underground river flowed as a life-giving resource to the entire region. Similarly, the exhortation by the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to pray without ceasing” evokes a vision to live with God in an under-the-surface way. But how can this happen? How can a person train for unceasing prayer? How might God’s free-flowing love and under-the-surface grace be expressed to us and through us moment by moment?
02. Ancient Innovative Prayer
One of the earliest written strategies to living out this exhortation to unceasing prayer is from John Cassian’s Conferences, in which Cassian outlines teachings he received from the dessert dwelling Christians between AD 390–400. While John Cassian’s birthplace is uncertain, most suspect he was born around AD 360 in present-day Romania. As a teenager, John Cassian traveled to the Holy Lands and then entered a monastery near Bethlehem. It is from this monastery where Cassian and his fellow pilgrim monk Germanus, set out for the Egyptian desert. Cassian listened and later transmitted various teachings of the Egyptian desert dwellers over several years of living with them at the end of the fourth century.
In later years Cassian would travel to Constantinople, where he became an ordained deacon working alongside John Chrysostom. Cassian would eventually travel on to Rome, work with the Pope, and was ordained as a priest. In the latter part of his life, Cassian settled around present-day southern France (Marseilles). He founded two monasteries there. However, Cassian’s most significant influence was bringing the Egyptian desert teaching to the West. Cassian’s most influential works are the Institutes and the Conferences.
The prayer from Psalm 70:1—Come to my help, Oh God, Oh Lord, hurry to my rescue—is introduced in chapter 10 of John Cassian’s Conferences. The Conferences are a series of conversations in which Cassian portrays himself and fellow pilgrim monk Germanus wandering the Egyptian desert interviewing various desert fathers around several spiritual topics. This prayer from Psalm 70:1 emerges as a “focusing technique”Columban Stewart, Cassian The Monk: Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 105. to train a Christian to pray without ceasing.
03. Practicing Prayer
In the fall of 2004, my family and I moved to study at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. In my first semester, I was introduced to Cassian’s prayer-focusing technique for the first time. Captivated by it, I began to pray Psalm 70:1 as both a prayer and a focusing strategy for continual prayer. As I began spending significant time with this prayer, I noticed under-the-surface spiritual nourishment occurring, expressed toward God and others.
While pastoring in Vancouver, a spiritual friendship/discipleship relationship soon began with a twenty-two-year-old man named Christian. He heard of my recent discovery of Cassian’s prayer and wanted in on the action too. So, we both practiced verbally and non-verbally, turning over this prayer many times each morning, intending to return to it as often as possible throughout the day. We both experienced, “Come to my help, Oh God, Oh Lord, hurry to my rescue,” as an Ancient Innovative Prayer. Ancient in that it was first recorded by John Cassian around AD 415 and innovative in that the prayer is highly adaptable and portable to our present age of distractibility.
04. Reclaiming and Re-Focusing Your Attention
In the article, Distracted Living: Taking Your Attention Back, Beverly D. Flaxington has said, “you may not hear much about the crisis called distracted living. This is where you miss out on much of your life because you generally are not paying attention—or your attention is so torn in many directions that you really don’t focus on anything.” She goes on to say, “while the ‘Age of Information may have made us better connected and informed; it has also made our lives more rushed, hectic and distracted. Research is now proving that the brain is not quite coping with the amount of information we receive, and our ability to disconnect from the outside and be present in the moment is actually decreasing.”Beverly D. Flaxington, “Distracted Living: Taking Your Attention Back!” Psychology Today, August 28, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understand-other-people/201508/distracted-living (accessed 12/13/22.)
“It is in the writings of Cassian that we find the first clear description of the practice of prayer designated by the Greeks as monologistic, a form in which a single prayer formula is constantly repeated in order to help focus the mind and heart in order to sustain unceasing prayer.”John Levko, S.J. Cassian’s Prayer for the 21st Century, (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2000), 14. Stewart suggests that, “the question of focus (in prayer) is the single most important practical problem Cassian addresses in his monastic theology.”Stewart, Cassian The Monk, 113. The ancient innovative prayer, “Come to my help, Oh God, Oh Lord, hurry to my rescue,” offers a way of reorienting within our culture of distracted living.
Cassian encourages this portable prayer to “be adapted to every condition and can be usefully deployed against every temptation. . . . an indomitable wall for all those struggling against the onslaught of demons . . . but equally (helpful) amid fortunate and joyful conditions.”John Cassian, Conferences, Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Colm Luibheid (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 133. For Cassian, “the thought of this verse should be turning unceasingly in your heart. Never cease to recite it as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature. This heartfelt thought will prove to be a formula of salvation for you.Cassian, Conferences. Cassian considers how this prayer interacts with the daily life struggles against the eight evil thoughtsHarmless, William, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 322–329, 374. Harmless notices “the way Cassian interlaces his praise of the psalm verse with his theory of the eight vices. He treats two singly (gluttony and lust) and groups the others in two threesomes (anger-greed-sadness and acēdia-vainglory-pride). These eight evil thoughts eventually become the seven deadly sins in later theology. For a fuller discussion of the eight vices see John Cassian, The Institutes, Ancient Christian Writers, Boniface Ramsey O.P., trans., (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 113–274. with unending possible scenarios where this prayer could be exercised.
Perhaps this ancient innovative prayer could be re-imagined into our present-day distracting contexts. There could be renewed prayerful attention to God with under-the-surface and life-giving resources in our times of need. Although originally practiced in a desert environment, the temptations around these eight vices are as current as the latest iPhone.