The anonymous author of the Middle English mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing advises his reader that the best prayer is a single word, and that a one-syllable word is best of all. After all, “Fire!” and “Help!” are undeniably our most sincere “prayers” to our fellow human beings, and the ones most likely to get a response. We instinctively rush to help a man who shouts “Help!”, the author of the Cloud explains, even if he should be our worst enemy — while a longer, more discursive request for assistance may well be turned down. And if even enemies are moved by monosyllabic calls for help, he reasons, how much more so must God be; we should therefore never cease to pray, “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!”
I do not feel qualified to comment on this appropriateness of this form of prayer, except to note that it sounds an awful lot like the “vain repetitions” warned against by Christ. However, I have found it to be surprisingly effective psychologically.
I never consciously decided to try following the advice in the Cloud. However, once I had read the passage summarized above, the machinery of association saw to it that whenever I found myself thinking or doing something that I ought not to think or do, it would pop up automatically in my mind: “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!” — and then I would find it quite impossible to go on with whatever it was I had been thinking or doing which had prompted the association.
In a previous post (qv) I discussed the inadvisability of trying to reason with oneself in the heat of temptation. Reasoning is an invitation to argue back and rationalize. Commanding oneself, while more effective than reasoning, is also suboptimal because it triggers instincts of independence and rebelliousness. If, on the other hand, some part of your soul is shouting “Help! Help! Help!” — well, what can you do but rush to help the poor guy?
I should make it clear that the author of the Cloud did not intend for his prayer to be used in this way. His purpose was not to help people control their behavior or to sin less often, but to make them constantly aware of their sinful nature and thus motivate them to draw closer to God. He did not intend it as a prayer for deliverance from some specific sin one was committing or being tempted to commit; on the contrary, he instructs his reader to think of sin “as a lump” and to avoid analyzing it or thinking of any specific sin. Nevertheless, despite the author’s intentions, I have found it to be useful for quite another purpose, and I post this in the hope that others may find the same thing.