Apr 14th, 2016 by philokalia
As we come to the end of Conference 21, Abba Theonas raises the bar for us in terms of how we understand our lives as Christian men and women. He presents us with a magnificent comparison between focusing on our lives in a legalistic fashion (fulfilling certain precepts and obligations) and seeing our lives as being caught up in the grace of God and transcending the limitations of the law in every way.
Sin is to have no dominion over us for the love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Every disposition to sin is to be something absolutely foreign to us since all our concentration and all our longing is constantly fixed upon the divine love and to such a degree that we do not take delight in base things and do not even make use of those things that would normally be conceded to us by our own judgment and that of the world's. The grace of the Savior is to inflame us with a holy love of incorruption which burns up all the thorns of evil desires such that the dying ember of vice does not diminish our integrity in any way.
This is something that must be experienced to be understood fully. The purity of heart and the all consuming love for God and the love virtue is rarely tasted in our day. May God fill us with the desire for it!
Apr 7th, 2016 by philokalia
Germanus and Cassian finally begin to talk with Abba Theonas about the relaxation of Pentecost; that is, how one approaches a festal season and moderation of ascetical practices. Theonas starts by emphasizing the importance of discretion and right judgment arising out of a well formed conscience so that one avoid extremes. During such a season a person wouldn't want to indiscriminately maintain disciplines so as to overly weaken the body or fain asceticism before others or relax disciplines too much so as to lose control of the passions one has labored to overcome during Lent.
Celebration and relaxation should not simply be considered in a worldly fashion. As Christians we want to protect the nobler festival of the mind and the joy of incorruption above all things. The relaxation we embrace should reflect that joyful reality and we should not give way to the gross indiscretion of the world and fail to abstain from overly rich foods or eat a great deal more than usual. The celebration lies within and we don't want to overemphasize the satisfaction of carnal desires.
Attention then turns to Lent as tithing of a portion of one's life to God for the sake of greater emancipation from one's sins and passions. Likewise, Theonas goes on to explain we are to tithe the first fruits of every day to God. Before any worldly work is done, our thoughts must turn to God and we must offer Him first our sacrifice of praise.
Mar 31st, 2016 by philokalia
After the introduction to the conference presented over the past two weeks revolving around the elder Theona's conversion and his choice of pursuing the absolute good of following Christ and pursuing purity of heart, the dialogue itself begins. The two friends asks Theonas about the custom of not kneeling during the 50 days of Pentecost and of observing a modified schedule of fasting during that season. Theonas first makes a bow to the authority of the ancients. Then, addressing himself to the issue of fasting, he distinguishes between absolute goods and absolute evils on the one hand and those things that are, on the other hand, either good or bad depending on how they are used. Fasting is not an absolute good; if it were, then it would be wrong ever to eat. It is, instead, something indifferent, which is practiced for the sake of acquiring an absolute and essential good. The characteristics of an absolute good, however, are that "it is good by itself and not by reason of something else . . .necessary for its own sake and not for the sake of something else . . . unchangeable and always good . . . its removal and cessation cannot but bring on the gravest evil and that similarly, the essential evil, which is its opposite, cannot ever become good." This definition, so typical of Cassian in its precision, can in no way apply to fasting. With two allusions to the subordination of fasting to the acquisition of purity of heart we are once again drawn back to the atmosphere of the first conference.
While this precise approach to discipline might seem laborious, it lays the foundation for Cassian to set forward with power and clarity the spirit in which we are to live our new life in Christ; the higher standard of love that shapes our identity and ever aspect of our life as human beings filled with the grace of God.
Mar 24th, 2016 by philokalia
Nowhere is the universal call to holiness, the call to live in and embrace the grace of God radically, more fully and challengingly expressed than in this section of Cassian's 21st Conference. These realities become extremely personal as they are displayed through the story of the conversion of Theonas, the elder of the conference. The pursuit of the perfection of grace touches every aspect of life and whether a person is a monk, a virgin or married, they are called to take it up whatever the costs. Theonas was married and comes to the realization that he must embrace more than a lawful commitment to his spouse but a relationship that fosters chastity. The locus of conflict that he begins to identify is between sexual habit and continence in the heart and that it is possible for a person not to be a lover of marriage but rather of slave of lust. Sexuality here becomes the perfect mirror of the human self - the lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivations. He and his wife had been pushed into marriage with the notion that the vows alone would control sexual passions. They mistakenly thought that purity of heart could be fostered without embracing fully the life of grace and its expression in a disciplined life. Marriage is touched by grace - it is to make present the selfless love of Christ for his Bride the Church. This comes at a costs and by grace, not by magic or wishful thinking.
Theonas desired not only his own salvation but that of his wife; that they would abstain from conjugal relationship and embrace ascetical discipline until their hearts were purified and the love for each other chaste. He would not defraud himself or his wife of salvation or become for each other merely "seducer." To divorce his wife with whom he was one would mean cutting off and losing a part of himself. If his hand causes him to sin he must in the end cut it off. To be Christ's disciple, to love himself above all things, then he would fulfill and embrace the words of the Lord that "unless you hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister and yes even your own life, you cannot be my disciple."
Cassian will not allow us to easily dismiss these challenging teachings of the Gospel as hyperbole or set aside the call to embrace the grace of God and so be transformed from "glory to glory."
Mar 17th, 2016 by philokalia
Cassian and Germanus now begin their discussion with Abba Theonas; the conference beginning with the story of Theonas' own conversion and which is meant to be the cypher through which the teachings that follow are meant to be interpreted. There is a higher ideal of the Gospel - one that urges a far greater abnegation of self than what is found the the fulfillment of the law. Furthermore, one is called, persuaded, to respond to the higher life of grace and is invited to assent through freedom of will and the desire for what is beautiful. The perfect who stand not under the law but under grace, remain ardent, and so attain to that state where they are not dominated by sin. They are not content to offer tithes but rather seek to offer themselves and their own souls to God, for which no exchange can be made by a human being. Christ forces no one to the highest reaches of virtue by the obligation of a precept but he moves by the power of a free will and inflames by salutary persuasion and by the desire for perfection.
Mar 10th, 2016 by philokalia
We come to the conclusion of Conference 20 on repentance and reparation and consider the depth of the desert Fathers understanding of the human person. Abba Pinufius sets off carnal sins from the others as those that one would not want to recall as a means of uprooting the disposition to them. Such sins, touching upon our natural appetites and desires carry within them the danger of drawing us back into them if we allow them to return to memory and imagination. Pinufius is not treating such natural appetites as evils but rather respecting their power and importance to our identity as human beings. For such reasons they are not to be treated casually or lightly in the spiritual battle. We must instead turn our minds to heavenly things - the desire for God and the virtues.
The closing note is a reminder that what has been addressed in this conference pertains to the more grave sins in the eyes of God. We may come to the point where we do not commit them and have freed ourselves from the disposition towards them. However, the smaller sins we commit repeatedly throughout the day, often without noticing, remain something we struggle with and continue to do penance for throughout our lives. Repentance and reparation our constant fixtures of the spiritual life.
Mar 3rd, 2016 by philokalia
While trying to help Cassian and Germanus focus on the end of repentance and the marks of reparation which is healing (the removal of the thorn of the conscience and any disposition to sin), Pinufius patiently steps back and tries to hearten and encourage his proteges in the continuing pursuit of these things. He must first help them see the constant means God places at our disposal to know his mercy and forgiveness and the means he provides for healing us of the effects of our sins. Again, with a single stroke of the pen, Cassian removes our tendency to turn the forgiveness of sin and the repairing of its wounds into something mechanical or magical. God is a lover who ceaselessly seeks us out and draws us to himself; offering us at every turn means to know his forgiveness. Never more can we blame God for our lingering attraction to sin and return to it. It is our negligence and lack of resolve, our pride and laziness alone that keeps us from coming to know that fullness and freedom, love and forgiveness. Our lack of hatred for sin and our unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to free ourselves from its grip, reveals a lack of love and gratitude for God's gifts.
Feb 25th, 2016 by philokalia
We join Cassian and Germanus now as they visit with Abba Pinufius - well known to them for his holiness and humility. Because of these qualities, they seek him out in particular as they grapple not with understanding the need for repentance and reparation but rather with the desire to know the when end of repentance has been achieved and by what marks reparation and full healing from sin can be identified.
For the modern Christian, this can be very difficult to understand; so largely have repentance and reparation become symbolic in our lives. Seeking forgiveness and confessing one's sins can simply be a legalistic notion - acknowledging infractions of certain moral laws rather than addressing the restoration of a relationship of love and repairing or healing the damage done by our sin and overcoming our disposition to sin. In a few sentences, Abba Pinufius pulls from our grasp all room for presumption. Conscience becomes the truest judge - speaking to our hearts about the true state of our souls and whether we have received the forgiveness and grace of God in vain. It becomes the strongest indicator of whether or not we have been freed from the disposition to particular sins. Repentance and reparation, and the formation of conscience, then, become constant and essential elements of the spiritual life.
Feb 11th, 2016 by philokalia
We come now to the conclusion of Conference 19 where Cassian and Germanus question Abba John about how one overcomes and does battle with vices that reemerge after the solitary life of the anchorite has been embraced. Abba John describes for them how they must engage in a kind of mental warfare - drawing the vices they see active in their hearts to mind and allowing themselves to be humbled by them and then apply the necessary reparation that is need; that is, apply the healing balm of penance and self rebuke to uproot the vestiges of these sins. The self-honesty as well as the self-awareness necessary for such an undertaking is great, especially since it is done without the support and guidance of others. The only vice where this is not to be done is fornication or unchastity. Since such vices arise out of and are connected to bodily appetites, the use of mental imagery could be very dangerous and simply draw one further into sin.
Lengthy discussion ensued about renewing the asceticism that would even allow this kind of mindfulness and purity of heart to develop. In particular, the group discussed the importance of fasting in the humbling of mind and body and allowing one to recognize one's dependence on God. We must come to see once more the necessity of such practices, develop the resolve to embrace them, and take them up with love; acknowledging that they bring us freedom and draw us closer to Christ.
We also spoke at length about the importance of not receiving the grace of God in vain. When receiving the grace and mercy of God through confession of our sins, we must take up the means available to us to repair the damage that the sin has inflicted; to uproot the vice and apply the healing balm.
Feb 4th, 2016 by philokalia
Again, Germanus and Cassian take up their discussion with Abba John about the end of the life of a cenobite and of the hermit. Both have been deeply humbled as their understanding of the necessity and importance of long formation in the cenobia for developing the capacity of pursuing the anchoritic life. Only by having lived in community and having crucified the ego and one's passions can one possibly pursue the life of greater solitude and contemplation. For it is in the deeper silence of the the anchoritic life that the once hidden passions will again emerge. In fact, some people become so savage due to the unbroken silence of the desert simply because they sought it in pride or prematurely. If one goes off to the desert with vices not yet attended to, only their effects will be repressed but the dispositions to them will not be extinguished.
A great deal of discussion focused on the applying the wisdom of the desert to the life of one seeking holiness while living in the world. Simplicity of life and clarity about the essential pursuit of purity of heart as well as emotional maturity were discussed at length in regard to how they apply to the married state, consecrated single life and the life of the secular clergy. One must cultivate a sensitive conscience through frequent examination and humble repentance. Prayer must be fostered not as a good activity but as the very source of life and holiness. Christians must once again foster a culture that is truly shaped by the gospel. They must also be attentive to the ways the Divine Physician provides for healing when spiritual guides our lacking.