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Germanus and Cassian continue to engage the elder Serenus about the action of evil spirits.   Serenus with great patience and eloquence shows them that evil spirits only have the power to incite and that we as human beings remain capable of either rejecting or accepting their suggestions.  We either choose to be deceived or fail quickly to oppose them.  So called "possession" is only due to the weakening of the body that comes from the acceptance and embrace of sin; much akin to the effects of wine or fever on the human person.  God alone is incorporeal and has access to the deepest part of our soul.  Evil spirits, however, discern from bodily gestures and from perceptible movements whether temptation or suggestion has taken hold of the heart: for example, when a person has been silent, or sighing with a certain indignation, or his face pale or blush and thus they have a subtle knowledge of who is given to what vice.

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Cassian and Germanus seek out the guidance of the elder Serenus, whose name captures his character.  Serenus had attained great purity of heart, peace, and freedom from the carnal desires of the flesh.  Cassian and Germanus come to him in a state of despair; for although having labored for years they found their thoughts wandering and pulling them back to the things of the world and the passions.  In their desolation they had begun to give up any hope of attaining such virtue and complain to Serenus that it is their nature that has prevented stability of mind and heart.  Serenus in both his teaching and example is becomes the cypher though which we are meant to come to understand both the path to and nature of purity of heart.  It is desire and thirst for God alone that can bring us to this freedom.  Faith, Hope and Love are the weapons we use to engage in the battle (the theological virtues that have God as their end) and the depths of the heart is purified by the sharp sword of the Spirit.  Once again the discussion was thoughtful and enriching and Cassian’s insights immeasurably valuable.

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The group considered the final paragraphs of Conference Six; reflecting in particular on the effects of diligence and negligence on the spiritual life.  Cassian’s elder reminds him and us that we should call no person blessed until after his or her death.  Virtue acquired by the grace of God and asceticism must be preserved with the same concern and effort with which it was obtained.  Spiritual carelessness is like a leaky roof through which there are tiny leaks of passion that penetrate the soul.  Left unattended they weaken the structure of the virtues and afterward they pour in a heavy shower of sinfulness.

As we began the introductory material of Conference Seven on Demons we considered the modern tendency to psychologize spiritual afflictions, labeling them as such, and how this weakens the soul.  It often leads one to excuse oneself (ex causa); that is, free themselves from the charge of the spiritual warfare that is necessary and from the desire and the intensity of mind that would lead them otherwise to reach out for God and His help.  Cassian reminds us that the demons’ knowledge of the secrets of the mind is not infallible; it is instead a clever deduction from our observable behaviors.

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We continue to make our way through Cassian's analysis of the spiritual life and its trials.  As we approach the end of the Sixth Conference, Cassian makes it clear that there is no unchanging state in the spiritual life.  We are either seeking God and growing in virtue (driven by desire) or we are being drawn deeper into the life of sin.  Love of God, desire for the Beloved, must draw us on through the life of grace.  With an intensity of mind, we must pursue what lies ahead and not let ourselves be molded and shaped by the things of the world.  We must be held by God and shaped in accord with His wisdom and will.

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The group continued its discussion of the sixth conference following the elder’s teaching on the necessity of trials in the spiritual life as a means of purification from sin.  One must seek to trust in the wisdom of God as he finds himself afflicted for the sake of correction or to burn away the dross.  At times one will undergo trials for the sake of the glory of God, to manifest the power of his grace through his endurance.  In the most challenging section of the conference, the elder tells Cassian and Germanus that there are those so hardened in their sin that they are beyond the remedy of chastisement and who must be abandoned to the darkness of the sin and the full consequence of the loss of communion with God.  Having failed to respond to God’s remedy, they must be abandoned to the desolation of their choosing with the hope that its emptiness will stir them at last to conversion or simply be a warning to others.

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The group continued this week following Cassian’s discussion with the elder Theodore about the ability to be “ambidextrous” in the spiritual life; that is, the importance of being able to remain at peace in the face of prosperity or adversity.  Our chief desire should be to avoid sin and to trust that God, in his providence, can make all things work for the good of those who love and obey Him.  A lengthy discussion ensued about how such an understanding of things changes our approach to life and what we value.  The group also discussed the experience of suffering in relation to Cassian’s teaching.

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Tonight we began reading Conference 6 on the Slaughter of Holy Men where Cassian introduces us to the meaning of suffering and affliction.  It is by no means an easy journey.  Cassian slowly constructs a foundation upon which we can build.  The only real good is virtue and the only evil is vice and separation from God.  This is the frame, perhaps unfamiliar and uncomfortable to the modern mind and sensibilities, within which we are to shape our understanding of life.  Ultimately affliction is only understood in light of Christ’s immersion in the affliction of our sin and entering into the depths of the hell that it places a soul.  He enters into the depths through love in order that we might rise to the heights through love.  We meet most intimately and powerfully in that place of affliction – the Cross.  It is these realities that we will be unpacking in the weeks to come.

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Tonight we completed our discussion of the Eight Vices focusing in particular on the nature of gluttony and the perpetual struggle that is rooted in our most basic need for food. When laxity exist in the practice of fasting, one will make few gains in the spiritual battle or what gains have been made will be forfeited due to negligence. Cassian also reminds us that fasting must be accompanied by the pursuit and perfection of the other virtues. If not, we will find ourselves in the end drawn into a worse state of sin than if we had not even struggled at all. Christ must come to reign in our lives and the state of virtue that is rightfully ours and for which we have been created must be seized with zeal.

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The group continued to discuss Cassian’s exposition of the Eight Principal Vices. We followed as Cassian defined each of the vices and how they manifest themselves, how a vice such as the self-esteem associated with vainglory can be used to prevent an individual from following into lesser vice such as fornication through the shame it causes, and how we should spy out and focus our struggle against the worst of our vices. A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the nature of the spiritual struggle as presented by the desert fathers and how one understands this in light of life in the modern world and worldly pursuits. Reading the desert fathers can be summed up in one word: discomfiting. The group struggled, as it often has, to understand the radical call to holiness with the affective and often subjective and individualistic approach to the spiritual life and response to the demands of the Gospel. How does one live in the modern world and in the modern culture without isolating oneself on one hand or compromising the call to live completely for Christ on the other? How do we pursue that which is good and beautiful within the world without making our faith an auxiliary construction or placing the pursuit of virtue on an equal footing with earthly goals or achievements?

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The group continues to discuss Cassian’s analysis of the eight principal vices, how they manifest themselves and are interconnected. Particular attention was given to the vice of gluttony and how essential it is to combat it as a foundation to the ascetical life and as the first and necessary step to combatting the other vices. The various forms of gluttony were considered and the value of fasting explored. Cassian’s thought reveals the need to reexamine modern sensibilities regarding our appetites and their satisfaction. Fasting must not simply be a discipline embraced but something that is loved because it humbles the mind and body and also because it creates a deeper hunger and longing for the love of God.

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