In his book Conferences, John Cassian recorded the wisdom of Abba Isaac who explained how we can follow Paul’s words to pray without ceasing. This is done by using a single scripture verse over and over again. The words Isaac recommends are taken from Psalm 70:1 “O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.”
Abba Isaac teaches that this prayer is the best to imprint upon our hearts because it is good in every situation. There is never any moment in life when we do not require God’s assistance. Isaac explains that we should say this prayer to dispel the demons as well as to support and nurture the presence of the angels. In the desert tradition demons were metaphors for vices and angels were metaphors for virtues.
We need God’s help to overcome our vices and also to develop the virtues. The importance of acknowledging our need for help is expressed beautifully in the first of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous. If we wish to overcome any of the vices a person can fall victim to, it is essential that we acknowledge our own shortcomings and struggles so that we can put our faith in the Good and the Beautiful instead of our own unhealthy patterns and habitual thoughts.
One time, as Jesus approached a crowd, someone came and knelt before him and asked Jesus to have mercy on his son. This man had already asked the disciples to dispel this demon but they were unable to do so. After giving the disciples heck for being a faithless generation, Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of the child.
Afterwards, the disciples approached Jesus privately and asked him why they were not able to cast out the demon. Jesus responded to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
When we have faith the size of a mustard seed and seek God’s help in all things we have taken the first step in talking back to the demons. Christ dwells within our hearts and when we trust in the presence of God within us we have true faith. This is why Abba Isaac suggested that this prayer for help be used without ceasing when he said,
“You should write this on the threshold and doors of your mouth, you should place it on the walls of your house and in the recesses of your heart, so that when you prostrate yourself in prayer this may be your chant as you bow down, and when you rise from there and go about all the necessary affairs of life it may be your upraised and constant prayer.”
This prayer is not only appropriate in every situation but it also nurtures and supports our recollection. If we use this prayer constantly we reorient ourselves towards God and our need for her assistance. Abba Isaac goes on to say that when this prayer has become fully integrated into our being that we will come to know the meaning of the psalms before we read them. He refers to this as a recollection as well as an attentiveness.
This recollection which we seek is a return to spiritual wholeness and a healed consciousness which is not swept away by the waves of distraction. It is a mind which is united with the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters in the beginning with God. This prayer for God’s help leads us into another, deeper prayer. Talking back to our inner demons with this verse from the psalms is a stepping stone into true prayer, which is a blazing fire that is never consumed. Abba Isaac described it like this,
“Once the mind’s attentiveness has been set ablaze, it is called forth in an unspeakable ecstasy of heart and with an insatiable gladness of spirit, and the mind, having transcended all feelings and visible matter, pours out to its God with unutterable groans and sighs.”
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