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Cassian and Germanus find themselves struggling, as it were, with a seemingly no win situation.  No matter what decision they make they will experience loss on a spiritual level.  They had made a rash promise when coming to Egypt.  They had promised their superiors that they would return quickly.  However, they have found that simply hearing the teachings of the elders was insufficient; they must live the discipline of the desert for a much longer period of time in order to have their hearts formed and purged of the slackness that lies within.  To return now would not only make it impossible for them to communicate the wisdom of the desert fully but also place them both in jeopardy on a spiritual level.  Once have let the inspiration to pursue the perfection of the desert monasticism pass they would experience enormous spiritual loss.  However, to remain now would be to set aside a promise they had made to their superiors.  Abba Joseph seeks to guide them through this situation realizing that they had acted rashly and without discernment.  One must never promise anything quickly.  The question now, however, is where can the inevitable damage they will experience be made more tolerable and compensated for by the remedy of reparation. They must humbly assume the damage caused by their sin but remain along the path where their lack of discernment and purity of heart will be addressed in order that they same mistake not be made again.  What hospital do you go to depending on your infirmity?  Where will the deepest and most lasting healing take place? 

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This is probably the most challenging Conference to read, to read patiently, and with a sense of generosity when interpreting its teachings. Cassian and Germanus made a promise to their superiors in Palestine that when visiting Egypt they would return as quickly as possible.  Once there, however, they discover that it was a promise rashly made and without discernment.  The way of desert wisdom is not learned quickly or communicated to others after only a brief stay.  Cassian and Germanus are then faced with the question of breaking their promise in order to stay and so know the blessings of the Egyptian lifestyle or to return prematurely and fall perhaps back into a a kind of mediocrity.  They turn to Abba Joseph once again for guidance and counsel.

It is important to read this Conference understanding that Cassian is focused more on the spiritual life and living in the tension of real experience than with theological exactness.  We must place this discussion in the context of the pursuit of God, which within the broken character of the world and the sinfulness of one's own life will often, if not always, require special repentance in recognition of how far one falls short of perfection.
There are genuinely cases in which one must act in a way that is imperfect, guilty or sinful.  One must!  However, there can be no rationalization in this regard.  It is lying; permitted for good not evil, of necessity, and medicinal in nature.  It is employed as if its nature were that of a hellebore - useful if taken when some deadly disease is threatening but if taken without being required by some great danger is the cause of immediate death.  
The difference between Palestine and Egypt is among other things, the difference between rigidity and flexibility, which in this case is another way of describing discretion.  It is better to go back on our word than to suffer the loss of something that is salutary and good.  We do not recall that the reasonable and proven fathers were ever hard and inflexible in decisions of this sort but that, like wax before fire, they were so softened by reason and by the intervention of more salutary counsel that they unhesitatingly yielded to what was better. But those whom we have seen cling obstinately to their own decisions we have always experienced as unreasonable and bereft of discretion.  
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Cassian and Germanus conclude there discussion with Abba Joseph by discussing the various kinds of feigned patience that mask the anger and bitterness that we can hold in our hearts towards others.  Our words may be smoother than oil but become darts meant to wound.  One can relish gaining the position of emotional advantage over the other while maintaining the perception of virtue; fasting or embracing greater silence in a diabolical fashion that only increases pride rather than fostering humility.  

Again, Abba Joseph reminds us that our desire should be not only to avoid anger ourselves but to sooth and calm the annoyance that arises in another's heart. We cannot be satisfied with our own sanctity; as if that could exist at the expense of others.  We must enlarge our hearts so as to be able to receive the wrath of others and transform it through love and humility.  By humble acts of reparation we should seek to diminish anger at every turn rather than inflame it.
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Cassian continues to "take us where we do not want to go" in this Conference on Friendship.  Divine Love and purity of heart must become the lens through which we see every interaction with another person.  A willingness to set aside our will and judgment for the sake of charity is paramount.  We must not make our perception of the truth or need to speak the truth our god, but rather we must be willing to set aside all in humility so as not to be the source of discord and contention.  These are truly hard sayings and difficult to bear and we will keep coming back in our pride to make the will and wisdom of God inappropriate and impossible to live.  Cruciform love is what we must bear witness to in our actions and allow to form our every thought and perception.  We must overcome every wave of anger and annoyance that wells up within our hearts and develop such a sensitivity to and desire to preserve this charity that we do everything in our power to soothe the hearts of those who are angry with us justly or unjustly.

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You could feel the tension rise in the room as we began to make our way through Cassian's Conference on Friendship.  It was startling, jarring and challenging while being absolutely beautiful and psychologically insightful at the same time.  He gradually reveals to us what we value the most and what are hearts are truly set upon both for ourselves and others.  He is, one might say, mercilessly realistic.  I doubt any of us will view friendship or any other relationship in the same way! 
Some preliminary conversation about the relationship between Cassian and Germanus provides the occasion for Abba Joseph to raise the topic of the different kinds of friendship. After speaking of friendships founded on utility, kinship, and the like, he observes that they are subject to disintegration for one reason or other. Only a friendship based on a mutual desire for perfection is capable of surviving, and this desire must be strong in each friend; each must, in a word, share a common yearning for the good. When Germanus asks whether one friend should pursue what he perceives as good even against the wishes of the other friend, Joseph replies by saying that friends should never or rarely think differently about spiritual matters. Certainly they should never get into arguments with one another, which would indicate that in fact they were not of one mind in the first place. With this Joseph sets out six rules for maintaining friendship. It is interesting to see that these rules treat the subject more from the negative than from the positive side; that is, they aim more at preserving a friendship from collapse than at promoting it, although of course the former implies the latter. The final three rules, thus, touch upon controlling anger. Indeed, much of the rest of the conference has precisely this for its theme. The practice of humility and discretion-even to the point of seeking counsel from those who appear slow-witted, although actually they are more perceptive-is a major antidote to that divisiveness of will among friends from which anger springs. For the space of three chapters, the tenth to the twelfth, the discussion is so focused on discretion as to be particularly reminiscent of the second conference. Following these chapters Cassian distinguishes between love and affection: The former is a disposition that must be shown to all, whereas the latter is reserved to only a few. Affection itself exists in almost limitless variety: "For parents are loved in one way, spouses in another, brothers in another, and children in still another, and within the very web of these feelings there is a considerable distinction, since the love of parents for their children is not uniform" (16.14.2). The remaining half of the conference returns to the topic of dealing with anger, and in it Cassian demonstrates, as he did in previous conferences, his fine grasp of the workings of the human mind. He had already alluded in the ninth chapter to unacceptable conduct being concealed under the guise of "spiritual" behavior, and with the fifteenth chapter he takes this up again. There are brothers, for example, who cultivate the exasperating habit of singing psalms when someone is angry with them or they are angry with someone; they do this instead of seeking reconciliation and, undoubtedly, in order to manifest to any who might be looking on that they are superior to their own and others' emotions. Other brothers find it easier to treat pagans mildly and with restraint than to act in such wise toward their fellows; Cassian can only shake his head at this attitude. Still others give those who have irritated them the "silent treatment" or make provoking gestures that are more injurious than words; these persons deceive themselves by claiming that they have spoken nothing to disturb their confreres. (At this point Cassian distinguishes between deed and intention, which is a nuance that will assume a certain prominence in the next conference.) There are others, again, few though they may be, who stop eating when they are angry, although ordinarily they are able to endure fasting only with difficulty; persons of this sort must be qualified as sacrilegious for doing out of pride what they cannot do out of piety. Finally, there are some who knowingly set themselves up for a blow because of their all too artificially patient demeanor, to which they add insulting language; this patent abuse of the gospel injunction to turn the other cheek in fact indicates a wrathful spirit. Only the person who is strong, Cassian informs the reader, can sustain one who is weak without losing his temper. The weak, on the other hand, are easily moved to anger and to harsh words. To sum up, anger must never be surrendered to, and when discord has arisen reconciliation must be speedy. The concentration on anger in these pages that treat of friendship must at first appear startling, and Cassian may be criticized for not presenting a more optimistic vision of his subject. Where are the beautiful sentiments that lie scattered throughout much of Augustine's Confessions, say, or that can be found in Gregory Nazianzen, Paulinus of Nola, and others? Does friendship consist in nothing more than swallowing one's gorge? Yet Cassian is being painfully realistic: Anger is in fact one of the greatest threats, if not the greatest, to the very intimate relationship that he suggests in the opening pages of the conference. For a more idealized picture of friendship we must go to the first lines of the present conference or to those of the very first conference, in which Cassian describes his bond with Germanus. This is certainly the ideal, and we may only wish that its portrayal had been a little longer drawn out. A perhaps more important criticism is that most of what Cassian says is not really specific to friendship but can apply to almost any relationship. If the reader senses a slight unfocusing of the conference, it is probably for this reason.
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Abba Nesteros's second conference, which deals with the charism of healing, is the shortest of all twenty-four conferences. Nesteros begins by distinguishing among three kinds of healing that differ by reason not of their object or their effect but by reason of the character and disposition of the healer. Thus there are healings performed by holy persons; by sinners and by other unworthy persons to whom, nonetheless, power has been given by God; and by demons who work through public sinners and who are thereby seeking to undermine the respect in which religion is held. Therefore it is not miracles themselves that are admirable, since the wicked can sometimes perform them, but rather a virtuous life. Above all, it is love that counts, and this is equivalent to that practical knowledge that had been discussed in 14.1.3ff. The great men of the desert were in fact hesitant to work miracles, and they only did so when it seemed that they were compelled to it. As an illustration of this reluctance, Nesteros recounts the stories of three abbas who enacted miracles either to defend the faith in some way or as a merciful response to an urgent request. These men gave no credit to themselves for their gift but humbly acknowledged God as its source. It is humility that particularly marks the Christian and that is capable of being learned by all, whereas miracle-working is for the few and is, in any event, conducive to vainglory. Indeed, it is a greater miracle to control one's own passions than to work miracles for others. As a proof of this, and in conclusion, Nesteros relates an incident in the life of Abba Paphnutius. Paphnutius prided himself on his perfect chastity, but once, when he was cooking his meal, he burned his hand, which upset him. This in turn led him to reflect, despite his conviction of being pure, on the fires of hell. As he was musing on these thoughts and slowly drowsing off, an angel appeared to him and gently rebuked him for believing that he was pure, when in fact he was not completely in control of himself. If he wanted to demonstrate this to himself, he should take a naked maiden and embrace her and see if he remained unmoved. Paphnutius wisely realized that he could not survive such a test, and Nesteros ends the conference by observing that perfect purity is a higher gift than expelling demons. Cassian's express relegation of miracles and extraordinary charisms to a very secondary level in comparison with a virtuous life is consonant with his words in Inst. praef. 8: "My plan is to say a few things not about the marvelous works of God but about the improvement of our behavior and the attainment of the perfect life, in keeping with what we have learned from our elders." The same sentiment appears later in Conlat. 18.1.3, when Cassian declares himself unwilling to expatiate on the miracles of Abba Piamun; his purpose is to "offer to our readers only what is necessary for instruction in the perfect life and not a useless and vain object of wonderment without any correction for faults." Nonetheless there is enough of the miraculous in the present conference, and throughout The Conferences in general, for the reader to grasp quickly that wonders were not necessarily infrequent in the desert. This is in turn intended to accomplish the further end of implanting in the reader an awe of the abbas whose teaching is being transmitted. Their miracles thus give authority to their words.
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Once worldly cares have been stilled and virtue acquired, Abba Nesteros tells Cassian and Germanus that an assiduous program of reading the Bible must be undertaken. Reading though brings with it the danger of pride and consequently Abba Nesteros tells them that humble discretion must be exercised. He suggest the memorization of Scripture - in fact, perhaps, surprising to modern ears, the memorization of the entire Bible. Scripture is put forward here as the subject of continual mediation.

Spiritual matters are not to be spoken of lightly; nor without experience behind them.  Our one desire should be to seek to be the spouse of Christ and to allow our hearts to be shaped fully by His Word.  Holiness leads to the deepest knowledge and we must avoid relying simply on human wisdom and rhetorical skill.  Likewise we must set aside all daydreaming about worldly literature and the exercise of the intellect, reason and imagination and make Christ our lasting treasure; understanding that in Him we lack absolutely nothing.  

Finally, when speaking of the mysteries of God, our words should be directed especially to those who know the bitterness of life, whose hearts have been crushed by the weight of their own sin - those who know their poverty and so can truly be nourished and healed by the Word.

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We labored through a few pages of the conference where Abba Nesteros lays out the types of Spiritual Knowledge that exist - tropology, allegory and analogy.  Of these various types of knowledge the tropological is most necessary early in the spiritual life - that which pertains to correction of life and to practical instruction in the conquering of vice and growth in virtue.  One cannot find perfection in the words of others but rather in the virtuousness of their own acts.  Our hearts must become sacred tabernacles, cleansed of every contagion of sin and ready to receive the Word of God.

Great care must be taken to remain silent, guarding the teachings of the elders in the heart rather than rushing to teach them to others.  Avoid all vainglory in questions and never seek to show off your learning. Don't teach unless you have previously lived the truths you put forward; for Abba Nesteros writes "whoever neglects many great things and dares to teach them is certainly not merely least in the Kingdom of Heaven but should be considered greatest in the punishment of Gehenna."
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Knowledge and the Desire for God

Cassian and Germanus' discussion with elder Nesteros on Spiritual Knowledge to all appearances is one of the most analytic of all the conferences.  The distinction is made between Practical knowledge, which both understands the working of the vices and forms the mind according to the virtues, and Contemplative Knowledge or Theoretical knowledge, which consists of the contemplation of divine things and the understanding of most sacred meanings.  Yet, despite its analytic tone, the 14th Conferences is truly about the necessity of simplicity of life, of directing one's thoughts and energies toward the pursuit of God and seeking the knowledge and understanding of things that bring us to that end.  Knowledge is not meant to satisfy our curiosity so much as to lead us to God.  In fact, we can distract and dissipate our minds through scattering our thoughts too broad and wide upon things of little import.  It is holiness that leads us to the deepest knowledge and we must avoid the abuse of learning by treating it merely as a rhetorical skill.

NOTE: The next meeting will be July 22nd.
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Dance of Love: Synergy of Grace and Free Will

We come to the conclusion of Cassian's beautiful conference on the interplay of grace and free will and once again we discover one who sees with profound clarity that there is no conflict between the two but rather a synergy that is necessary for a relationship of love.  God gives everything and does everything to enliven that love within us but His desire must meet our own.  Anyone fully immersed in the spiritual life comes to understand this; not through abstraction and argumentation but rather through experience.  Faith fully lived brings understanding.
Cassian states this firmly as follows:
"Therefore it is understood by all the Catholic fathers, who have taught perfection of heart not by idle disputation but in fact and in deed, that the first aspect of the divine gift is that each person be inflamed to desire everything which is good, but in such a way that the choice of a free will faces each alternative fully. Likewise, the second aspect of divine grace is that the aforesaid practice of virtue bear results, but in such a way that the possibility of choice not be extinguished. The third aspect is that it pertains to the gifts of God that one persevere in a virtue that has been acquired, but not in such a way that a submissive freedom be taken captive.  Thus it is that the God of the universe must be believed to work all things in all, so that he stirs up, protects, and strengthens, but not so that he removes the freedom of will that he himself once granted. If something cleverly gleaned from human argumentation and reasoning seems contrary to this understanding, it should be avoided rather than called forth to the destruction of the faith. For we do not acquire faith from understanding but understanding from faith, as it is written: `If you do not believe, you will not understand.'' For how God works all things in us on the one hand and how everything is ascribed to free will on the other cannot be fully grasped by human intelligence and reason."

As men and women of faith, we must be willing to live within the paradoxes and tensions of faith - humbling ourselves before the wisdom of God and the immensity of His love; yet in our desire for the Beloved willfully and freely embracing His grace. 
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