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Last night the group took up Cassian's Thirteenth Conference "On God's Protection" which discusses the essential interplay between Grace and Free will.  Part of our close reading of the text allows for a "redeeming" of Cassian's understanding of this delicate subject from what has been, I believe, gross misrepresentation of this thought.  When read in light of and in the context of the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition and its understanding of SYNERGY, Cassian's Conference is revealed as being the most refined and beautiful explication of difficult subject matter, based upon the lived experience of the ascetical life.  It also highlights the importance of the Eastern view of theology as an experiential knowledge of God rooted in purity of heart and the life of prayer and not simply being a rationalistic approach to the mysteries of the faith.

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Chaeremon concludes his conference on Chastity by presenting us with images of perfect chastity; yet, he acknowledges that such descriptions fall short and can only be understood not through words but through the experience of those who have sought the virtue and tasted its sweetness.  Once again, he emphasizes that while the pursuit of this virtue requires nothing less than a complete response on the part of those seeking it, It is only through the grace of God that it is ultimately obtained and preserved.  In fact, Chaeremon notes that believing in the absolute importance of grace is almost as difficult for the beginners in the spiritual life as is the perfection of chastity itself.

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Chaeremon concludes his conference on Chastity by presenting us with images of perfect chastity; yet, he acknowledges that such descriptions fall short and can only be understood not through words but through the experience of those who have sought the virtue and tasted its sweetness.  Once again, he emphasizes that while the pursuit of this virtue requires nothing less than a complete response on the part of those seeking it, It is only through the grace of God that it is ultimately obtained and preserved.  In fact, Chaeremon notes that believing in the absolute importance of grace is almost as difficult for the beginners in the spiritual life as is the perfection of chastity itself.

Cassian and Germanus continue their discussion with Chaeremon on Chastity.  The old man tells them that if a person does not believe such purity is possible then he must first enter into the disciplines and the struggle to make it his own.  It is only through experience that one can come to see and taste the beauty of this virtue.  Furthermore, he tells them that chastity subsist no thanks to a rigorous defense but rather by love of the virtue and by delight in purity.  Asceticism, in other words, may lead to abstinence but not to Chastity which is the fruit of God's grace.  Perfect Chastity is distinguished by its perpetual tranquillity.  For this is the consummation of true chastity, which does not fight the movements of carnal lust but detests them with utter abhorrence, maintaining a constant and inviolable purity for itself.  This can be nothing else than holiness.  Nature itself begins to be transformed and controlled by the grace that lies within the heart and conforms to the will of the mind.

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As we sat at the feet of Abba Chaeremon with Cassian and Germanus, we continued this most important conference on Chastity.  We began by considering the presence or absence of the other passions, especially anger, as a barometer of the depth of a person's chastity.  The Lord must destroy all inner wars between the flesh and the spirit and no one will enjoy this virtue enduringly in whose flesh there still rages these battles.  When the Lord has freed the person from every seething emotion and impulse, he shall attain to the state of purity.  However, there can be no peace while the struggle continues.  We must not boast, then, at some small measure or period of chastity.  In fact, until a person arrives at the state of perfect purity he has to be trained frequently by enduring patiently inner discrepancies and until he acknowledges fully the truth that God alone can lift a person out of the pit of wretchedness. 

Chaeremon, then, went on to discuss the various degrees of chastity in detail and the deepening of freedom that comes with each stage.  We cannot define the purity that God desires for us in accord with human standards or measures. Nor can we think that simply because something is tied to human nature and natural bodily movements that they are somehow beyond moral judgment or have no moral value.  
Discussion then ensued about the cultural, educational and psychological implications of Cassian's teaching.
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Last evening we sat with Cassian and Germanus at the feet of Abba Chaeremon for a conference on Chastity - one of the most important of Cassian's entire work and discussing the virtue that is at the heart of the spiritual life and through which we grow in our capacity to love God and others.  Chaeremon begins by reminding us that lust and impurity can be completely extinguished from the heart.  We must let go of our tendency to cast it as something completely out of reach and rather understand that we are called to "Put to death the members of sin" within us (fornication, impurity, wantonness, evil desire and avarice) ; to destroy them as quickly as possible by a zeal for perfect holiness.  

Yet, even though we are called to all the rigors of abstinence we must not labor under the illusion that our efforts alone can bring us to this freedom.  The school of experience teaches us very quickly that incorruption is granted to us only by the bounty of divine grace.  Furthermore, we must come to have a love for the virtue of chastity.  Abstinence does not bring us to a perpetual integrity but rather an insatiable yearning for this most precious of virtues.  Also, it is not by repression that one comes to chastity but rather by filling the heart with a greater desire and love.  We must burn for love of Christ and fill our minds, imagination and memories with salutary dispositions.  We must fix our who gaze and all our efforts and concerns on the cultivation of our hearts.
Discussion then ensued about fostering chastity in modern times and the need for clarity and an heroic response to the grace of God.
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Cassian and Germanus came to the end of their conference with Abba Chaeremon on Perfection discussing the various ranks of perfection that depend on an individual's virtue, will and ardor.  We are challenged by God to go from the heights to sill higher places, driven by love.  The greatest perfection is to share in the sonship of Christ; to be motivated by love in all things.  The only fear we are to have is the fear that is a part of the nature and disposition of love itself - a fear of not doing the will of God or of losing a life a virtue through negligence.  We must be preoccupied with a concerned devotion not only in every action but also in every word, lest our ardor become to the slightest extent lukewarm.

From this, we moved on to consider the distinct connection between perfection and chastity which is the subject of Conference Twelve.  Chastity, an inner tranquillity and peace and freedom from impurity is a means to an end for Cassian; a means to love with the perfection and purity of heart he has described.  It is possible to eradicate impurity through ascetical practices strengthened by the grace of God.  There is a difference between abstinence and chastity. With abstinence there can be a gnawing longing for the thing struggled against; whereas with chastity there is a love of purity for its own sake that penetrates into the unconscious and touches even the involuntary movements of the flesh.
Discussion then ensued regarding the profound depth psychology of the desert fathers and how this differs from modern, secular psychological thought and practice as a means of healing.
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Cassian describes his initial travels to Egypt with Germanus and their first encounter with Abba Chaeremon, and man of great age and holiness and seek a word from him regarding the path to perfection.  Acknowledging their desire for God, the old man agrees and settles down to speak of the three things that forestall vicious behavior, namely, fear of punishment, hope of reward, and love.  To the three checks on evil there correspond three virtues - faith, hope and love.  The virtues in question are all directed toward a good end, to be sure, but they are not all equally excellent, for they correspond in turn to three significantly different states: Fear belongs to the condition of a slave, hope to that of a hireling and love to that of a son.  Only those who have attained to the image and likeness of God may be numbered in the third state, which is the noblest.  

Persons who avoid vice out of fear are far less stable in virtue than are those who do so out of love.  The former acts as if coerced and when the coercive element is no longer present they cease to be attracted to the good.  The latter, however, are drawn to the good for its own sake.  
Persons who are moved by love also will have in particular the gift of compassion for others in their weakness, realizing that they themselves are utterly dependent upon divine mercy and grace.
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Our discussion of Cassian's magnificent conference on prayer came to a close with Germanus asking how, now that they have learned of this formula for unceasing prayer, they can hold fast to the verse that Abba Isaac had given them.  How were they to keep their thoughts from flitting between scripture passage to scripture passage and remaining mere touchers and tasters of spiritual meanings and not possessors and begettors of them?  Abba Isaac's response is brief and to the point: they must simply remain steadfast in the practice of the prayer and stabilize their minds through vigils, meditation and prayer.  Beyond this they are to allow the life of the cenobium to do its work: leading them to renounce their attachment to everything in order to be fully committed to praying without ceasing. They cannot restrict their time of prayer to when they have bended knees but they must seek to live in a constant state of recollection and avoidance of distraction throughout the day.  In short, they must allow themselves to embrace the poverty of this prayer, of setting aside all thoughts but God through it, in order to also experience its true blessing and the perfection it leads to in the spiritual life.  No one is ever excluded from the perfection of heart because of illiteracy or simplicity.  

It is to perfection that Cassian will turn in the Eleventh Conference which includes fostering three things that forestall vicious behavior; namely, fear of punishment, hope of reward, and love.  Ultimately is is the love of virtue for its own sake that is most important as well as what Cassian describes as an attitude of loving fear: a reluctance to hurt a person whom one loves.  Are only fear and anxiety in this world should be wounding the loving heart of God who has given us so much.
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After having considered the formula that the mind is to hold to ceaselessly, "O God, incline unto my aid, O Lord, make haste to help me", the group listened to Abba Issac describe the fruits that such a practice produces in the soul.  Chief among them is poverty of spirit: nothing can be holier than that of one who realizes that he has no protection and no strength and who seeks daily help from God's bounty and who understands that his life and property are sustained at each and every moment by divine assistance.  Such a person becomes the "Lord's beggar."  

With this comes the fruit of discretion, that allows one to penetrate the most sublime mysteries.  The very dispositions of the psalms are taken into oneself, so that they arise from the heart not as another's words but as one's own.  The meaning of the words come not through exegesis but through proof; that is, when our experience not only perceives but anticipates its thought.  It will be as if we have become the author, grasping in anticipation the meaning of scripture; having received in power the Word rather than the simply the knowledge of it.
Once the mind's attentiveness has been set ablaze, prayer pours forth in unspeakable ecstasy to God with unutterable groans and sighs. 
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