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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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Living in the Tension: The Language of Desire

The most controversial conference of Cassian's work turns out to be the most beautiful and awe-inspiring.  We picked up tonight with section IX of Conference 13 where Cassian's approach to and understanding of the interplay of Grace and Free Will comes into clear view.  Both must be affirmed in our understanding of and living out of the Christian life.  Cassian is writing not to express theological clarity (as we often understand it) but rather to encourage us and help us understand that we must be willing to live in the tension or, perhaps expressed better, be willing to participate in the dance of love - the movement of God's desire for us and our desire for him.  Cassian's approach, then, is experiential and relational and it is here that he shows himself to be "Theologian" in the truest sense of the word.  God is seeking us in love at every moment and every circumstance, wooing us and drawing us toward Him; lingering and waiting for the movement of our will towards Him.  Without that capacity no love is possible.  But to insist on the place of free human will in no way diminishes divine grace.  The grace of God, too, remains free, since with inestimable generosity it confers on meager and small efforts such immortal glory and such gifts of everlasting blessedness.
Listen Now:


Living in the Tension: The Language of Desire

The most controversial conference of Cassian's work turns out to be the most beautiful and awe-inspiring.  We picked up tonight with section IX of Conference 13 where Cassian's approach to and understanding of the interplay of Grace and Free Will comes into clear view.  Both must be affirmed in our understanding of and living out of the Christian life.  Cassian is writing not to express theological clarity (as we often understand it) but rather to encourage us and help us understand that we must be willing to live in the tension or, perhaps expressed better, be willing to participate in the dance of love - the movement of God's desire for us and our desire for him.  Cassian's approach, then, is experiential and relational and it is here that he shows himself to be "Theologian" in the truest sense of the word.  God is seeking us in love at every moment and every circumstance, wooing us and drawing us toward Him; lingering and waiting for the movement of our will towards Him.  Without that capacity no love is possible.  But to insist on the place of free human will in no way diminishes divine grace.  The grace of God, too, remains free, since with inestimable generosity it confers on meager and small efforts such immortal glory and such gifts of everlasting blessedness.
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Taking up Cassian's Conference 13 ON GOD'S PROTECTION again, we prefaced our conversation with a closer look at the criticism lodged against Cassian's thought by Prosper of Aquitaine.  Considering the study of Casiday in his book, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, it becomes clear through a thorough analysis of both Cassian and Prosper that Prosper in his zeal to defend the Church against the heresy of Pelagianism misrepresents Cassian's teaching and even alters or excludes portions deliberately.  Unfortunately, it is only in recent times that scholars have begun to closely scrutinize both writers' works in a fashion that gives a clear and accurate picture of the truth.

Having addressed these concerns, we then turned once more to the text only to find ourselves captivated by the depth and beauty of the elder Chaeremon's teaching on the essential nature of God's grace in the pursuit of all virtue, especially chastity.  Furthermore, God is set on the salvation of all men and women and looks for the smallest response to his grace within us; only then to pour forth an abundance on us and to guide and direct our steps at every turn.  God is like a jealous lover; not hurt by our rejection but rather driven on by love to draw us back to Him by any means necessary.
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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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