During the first few centuries of Christianity in Ireland, countless men and women chose a life of solitude, relocating to remote locations to spend the rest of their days in silence and prayer.
They were widely known for their intense lives of asceticism and became experts at prayer and union with God.
One way they achieved their goals for spiritual communion with God was to imitate the practices of the Desert Fathers — monks and nuns who lived in the Egyptian desert and were highly regarded for their holiness.
In particular, the monks responded to the call of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing,” by reciting a prayer found in one of the Psalms, highlighted by the 4th-century monk St. John Cassian.
The prayer comes from Psalm 70 and traditionally was prayed while breathing in and out, making it a part of a monk’s very breath. This allowed a monk to remain in a constant state of contemplation, calling upon God at every moment of the day.
It is normally translated as, “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me,” and is currently part of the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours that priests, religious, and lay people continue to pray.
St. John Cassian wrote in his Conferences that the monk should pray this prayer “ceaselessly revolving it in his heart, having got rid of all kinds of other thoughts; for he cannot possibly keep his hold over it unless he has freed himself from all bodily cares and anxieties.”
Irish monks would practice this by physically going somewhere away from civilization, and then clearing all worldly thoughts before engaging in this “ceaseless” prayer. We can imitate their example by finding that “inner room” within our house or apartment, or even by hiking out to a park that is removed from the busyness of the city.
Then we can try to empty our minds of all other thoughts and focus on the prayer, “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me,” reciting it over and over, “revolving it” in our hearts.
In this way, we can open the door to God’s presence and listen attentively to what he as to say to us. It’s a beautiful exercise, one that has a rich tradition that has been used by countless monks and nuns for centuries.
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