An introduction to a method of ceaselessly praying with a verse of Scripture as taught by Saint John Cassian.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be conned over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. This thought in your heart may be to you a saving formula, and not only keep you unharmed by all attacks of devils, but also purify you from all faults and earthly stains, and lead you to that invisible and celestial contemplation, and carry you on to that ineffable glow of prayer, of which so few have any experience. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been molded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake let it be the first thing to come into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts, let it when you rise from your bed send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to all your work and business, and let it follow you about all day long.
— St. John Cassian
This, this is the formula which the mind should unceasingly cling to until, strengthened by the constant use of it and by continual meditation, it casts off and rejects the rich and full material of all manner of thoughts and restricts itself to the poverty of this one verse.
— St. John Cassian
Introducing the Practice
Saint John Cassian (360-435) was a Christian monk and ascetic, active during a very formative and transitional period in the early history of the Church. He is known for bringing the spirituality and wisdom of desert monastics to the early medieval church, and his influence is clearly seen in the later monastic rule that St. Benedict developed. Early desert monastics were extremely dedicated to their interior lives, focusing their efforts on the removal of any sinful thoughts or actions in order to be better receptacles for God’s grace. In his famous work, Conferences, St. John Cassian proposes a method of praying with a verse from Scripture. He teaches that a verse should be memorized and continuously recited as a way to ward off any harmful temptations to sin and as a way to focus all attention on a single phrase that directs the heart and mind to God. This method recalls the temptation of Jesus in the desert, where Jesus responded to every temptation from the devil by reciting verses from Scripture. While we can recite relevant verses in response to specific temptations as Jesus did in the desert, Cassian teaches that we can similarly recite a verse from Scripture throughout our daily lives in response to any situation we might find ourselves in. Cassian recommends using Psalm 70:1, “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me,” as a verse that is relevant to in all conditions of life no matter what temptations we face or what triumphs we experience. He recommends reciting this verse continuously throughout the day without ceasing so that this prayer is the foremost thought in our mind and longing in our heart.
Preparing for the Practice
When you have gathered yourselves and are ready to begin, open this time by reading the Scripture passages for this lesson. Beginning our time of prayer and meditation with Scripture grounds our practice in the foundations of our tradition. You may then go on to read any of the quotations from this lesson’s religious figure. These readings will help to prepare our hearts and minds for the spiritual practice that follows.
For this practice, you may use the verse recommended by St. John Cassian, Psalm 70:1 or another verse from Scripture that speaks to your life. If you have a favorite line of Scripture memorized, you are welcome to use that. Otherwise, here are some suggested verses:
O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me – Psalm 70:1
Not my will, but yours be done – Luke 22:43
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want – Psalm 23:1
I believe; help my unbelief! – Mark 9:24
Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved – Jeremiah 17:14
Once everyone has decided on a verse, spread out to find a comfortable place to sit where everyone can still hear the voice of the person guiding the practice.
The Spiritual Practice
Slowly close your eyes and center yourself as you enter this time of prayer. Quiet the thoughts and worries of your mind, and open your heart to the presence of God.
Begin to recite your chosen verse with each breath. You may recite it silently in your head, silently moving your lips, or softly out loud. Pronounce the word clearly and slowly, concentrating on the sound of each syllable.
Continue reciting this verse with each breath.
When distractions arise in your mind, simply refocus your attention on the Bible verse that you are reciting.
(15-20 min of silence)
Duration: 15-20 minutes
1. Which verse did you choose and why?
2. What do you think of praying with Scripture in this way?
3. Do you think you would be able to continuously recite this verse throughout your day in the way that St. John Cassian describes?