Friday, November 06, 2009

Column: Make Haste to Help Me

I'm still contemplating St. John Cassian's reflection on these two lines of Psalm 70, which he says contain: "an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of an devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a conciousness of one's own frailty, the assurance of being heard and confidence in a protection that is always present." (You can read the rest of the conference here, though it's not quite as elegant a translation; scroll down to Chapter X.) And Math Man did chuckle when he got to the end...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 5 November 2009.

O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. — Ps. 70:2

“The tuna is on sale, so I thought I’d get two.” I was in line at the grocery store in Boston, waiting while the elderly woman in front of me dug for change in the bottom of her purse. The lilt in her voice said she was an immigrant. She looked up at the cashier; the distress showed on her face, “I know I had 20 more cents when I left this morning.”

The line was growing, and growing restive. I could hear the shifting of feet and the not quite stifled sighs as her bent and gnarled fingers felt for the required coins one more time.

“Could I get this for you?” I offered. I wanted to be sure she didn’t go hungry, if that’s what this can of tuna fish meant, but most of all I wanted to spare her the unkind comments that were gathering behind me and threatening to spill over my shoulder. So I paid for the tuna fish, gathered my own things and left, happy I was able to help.

A few weeks later I was out for my walk. Near the end of my two-mile loop I discovered a few dollars wadded up in my pocket. I decided to take a short detour past the convenience store and bring the boys home a treat. Thirsty, I grabbed a cold soda for me. When the young clerk totaled it all up, I was short — 25 cents. I asked him to return the soda, but instead he took a quarter from his pocket and told me not to worry. I felt awkward, accepting help I felt I did not need, but thanked him for his kindness and headed home.

In “Why I Make Sam Go to Church” Anne Lamott describes a similar reaction when the elderly women of her parish — themselves on tight budgets — pressed bags of hoarded change on her when they heard she was expecting a baby, “I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame until I’d remember that wonderful line of Blake’s — that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.” It’s not easy to endure such a beam, I would agree.

Psalm 70 is a short but powerful prayer. It begins with the plea, “God come to my assistance.” Early monastic John Cassian reminded his monks of the advice of the desert fathers, that if you are going to use anything from the whole of sacred Scripture to pray — this verse is the one to pick.

Cassian passionately expounds on what flows from this devotion: the assurance of being heard, hope in time of despair, an awareness of the traps set for us by the devil, an antidote to pride in any spiritual consolation. Most of all, Cassian says, it keeps us ever aware that without God, we are too frail to endure. The psalm itself ends not only with another appeal for aid, but with the psalmist’s recognition, “I am lowly and needy … You are my rescuer, my help.”

I need this simple practice of prayer as much as Cassian’s monks. It can be hard for me to admit I need help in anything from anyone (my husband will chuckle knowingly when he reads this), but the truth that my moment in the Wawa drove home was this: even when we don’t think we need help — we do. O Lord, make haste to help me.

Lord God, strength of those who hope in You, support us in our prayer: because we are weak and can do nothing without You, give us always the help of Your grace so that, in fulfilling your commandments, we may please You in all we desire and do. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time.


  1. Since I became a Benedictine oblate, Cassian's Conferences are always near at hand.

    Cassian was a master at showing that the goal was not only to acquire knowledge but seek God in a proven system of spiritual discipline.

  2. John, Cassian draws so deeply from those early ermetic and monastic wells in the desert!