Dedication to prayer found through ‘tranquility of mind and perpetual purity’
How about we visit with our old friend John Cassian? It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from him. Now that we’re in the Easter season, what better time to talk about prayer, a topic on which Cassian was quite fond.
A brief bio of the ol’ boy to refresh your memory... John Cassian was born in the middle of the 4th century in what is now Romania. He was a monk. Sometime in his twenties or thirties he and his buddy named Germanus left their native land and journeyed to Bethlehem where the two men joined a monastery. From there the two friends visited Egypt, spending some years there hobnobbing with fellow monks and hermits.
Eventually Cassian landed in Rome, where he was ordained a priest. Finally, Cassian went to Marseilles, where he founded a couple of monasteries. During his time in Marseilles Cassian wrote “The Institutes,” followed closely by “The Conferences.” Most likely, he most likely died in the mid-430s.
What I’m interested in discussing, here, is “The Conferences.”
This book, originally written in Latin, contains 24 chapters or “conferences.” The topic of each conference varies. For example, there are conferences on the desire of the flesh and spirit (Conference Four), on perfection (Conference Eleven) and on chastity (Conference Twelve).
The conference I would like to address is Conference Nine on prayer. Specifically, I’m interested in paragraph 2.1 (scholars have divided up “The Conferences” into chapter and verse, similar to the way books of the Bible are divided into chapter and verse).
Now, depending on the translation you use, this passage reads as follows:
“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.”
That translation is by the Dominican priest Boniface Ramsey, and it appears in the series called “Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation.”
Here is another version of that same passage:
“The whole purpose of the monk and indeed the perfection of his heart amount to this – total and uninterrupted dedication to prayer. He strives for unstirring calm of mind and for never-ending purity.”
That translation is by Colm Luibheid in “The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters.”
Now don’t freak out because Cassian is talking about monks. I know you’re not a monk. Neither am I. However, substitute the word “Christian” for the word “monk” in either version above and read the passage again. Now, compare that to 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.”
Umm. Seems to me that “uninterrupted perseverance in prayer” is not dependent on whether or not we are monks. By virtue of our being Christian, you and I are to have “uninterrupted dedication to prayer.”
Ok, fine. But the above passages also mention something else. You and I are also to strive for “tranquility of mind and perpetual purity.”
Tranquility of mind, I think, is the easier of the two concepts to grasp. Tranquility of mind means that we are at peace, that we are calm, that we are whole (as opposed to being divided within oneself).
Perpetual purity, on the other hand, seems out of reach.
Part of the problem is that we moderns conceive of purity primarily in terms of sexual ethics, as in maintaining chastity. Certainly chastity is a component of purity, but chastity does not exhaust the concept of purity. For the ancients, and Cassian is the certainly that purity also meant freedom from dominationof sin.
A pure person, in the eyes of the ancients, was a person with deep inner peace, a person not conflicted, what we moderns might say today as “a person comfortable in his own skin.” Thus, a person “striving for never-ending purity,” would be a person who is not just chaste, but a person who – through the grace of God – likewise practices all of the virtues and is at peace doing that.
The Biblical basis for all this is Jesus himself. Instead of calling it purity, though, Jesus called it “clean of heart.” Remember the beatitude? “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8).
The person who “strives for perpetual purity” subsequently has tranquility of mind. Since he or she is pure of heart and tranquil of mind, that person will easily fall into uninterrupted prayer. Because such a person is tranquil of mind and pure of heart and in a constant state of prayer (despite not mumbling or shouting out formal prayers), that person “will see God.”
See how this works?
Never pooh-pooh the monks, people.