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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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We found ourselves quite suddenly at the denouement of Cassian's Conferences - Abba Isaac's beautiful description of how to engage in unceasing prayer and the formula to be used.  However, this seemed less like a spiritual discourse and more like a privileged view of the heart and experience of the old man seasoned in the practice of prayer.  The very reading of it was a prayer - which Abba Isaac acknowledges that Germanus and Cassian were only able to receive because the ground of their hearts had been prepared through long years of discipline and fidelity to the spiritual life.  The shape of the prayer is the uninterrupted and repeated saying of Psalm 70:1, "O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me."  Abba Isaac reveals how it adjusts itself to every condition and affliction and protects every virtue.  Yet, it does far more than that: Abba Isaac states that "straitened by the poverty of this verse (having forgone any thought but that of God), the soul will very easily attain to that gospel beatitude which holds the first place among the other beatitudes.  For it says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  Through it one professes oneself to be the Lord's beggar.

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The group began Conference Ten, the high point of Cassian teaching on imageless and unceasing prayer.  Cassian sets the stage by seeking to put the notion of imageless prayer in highest possible relief through giving an account of the monk Serapion's fall into the anthropromorphite heresy.   Serapion's mind becomes cluttered with the erroneous and deadly image of a God with human contours; unable to let go of the confines of what the imagination and intellect can construct to be drawn by faith into the intimacy and mystery of the Triune God.  It is through the pathos of this story that Cassian brings his readers to see the beauty of pure prayer and the unbroken communion with God it promises. When such prayer is attained, everything a person does is God.  And this, which is the end of all perfection, is equivalent to transforming one's whole life into a single and continuous prayer. 

A lengthy discussion then ensued regarding the simplicity of life that must be fostered in order for the silence of solitude to emerge in which such unceasing prayer can take place.  The group considered the types of pseudo contemplation that have arisen in the modern culture that sadly make genuine prayer more and more unlikely.
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Along with Cassian and Germanus, we came to the end of the first conference on prayer with Abba Issac, where discussion focussed on the different origins of tears (consciousness of one's own sins, fear of Gehenna, the sins of others, and the hardships of this life in the face of a deep longing for heaven).  Tears are to be fostered as a part of compunction, but never forced once one has reached deeper level of prayer, so as not to focus on things of lesser importance.  

Prayers are heard or not heard for various reasons.  Our hearts must be filled with a kind of urgency that gives rise to persistence in prayer and we must not doubt that God will hear and answer our prayers in due course, so long as like our Lord we seek only the will of God and what is for our salvation.
Prayer is to be engaged in silently; not only so as not to disturb others but in order not to reveal to demons the more intimate aspects of our relationship with God.  Some things are only to be shared between the soul and the Heavenly Bridegroom.
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Continuing our discussion of Conference Nine, we picked up with Abba Isaac's exposition of the final petitions of the Our Father: "And subject us not to the trial . . . but deliver us from evil."  Trial is an inevitable part of the human condition and the spiritual life, but we seek in such trials the protection of God and the grace of perseverance and long-suffering so as not to succumb to the evil of the loss of our faith or to act in a way contrary to God's will.  We ask not to be tried beyond our capacity.

When praying, care must be given not to seek those things that our transitory in nature and nothing base or temporal. To do so is to offer great injury to God's largesse and grandeur with the paltriness of our prayer.
Abba Isaac then moves on to discuss the more sublime character of "wordless prayer" that transcends understanding and to which few are called.  It is a infusion of divine light through which God can in a brief moment fill the mind and heart.  The precondition of this prayer is the breaking and humbling of the heart which is expressed through compunction and the overflow of tears that purify the heart.
A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the potential enigma of philokalic spirituality to the Western mind - the setting aside of imagination and the focus on taking every thought captive so as to eventually be brought to unceasing prayer.  
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The group continued to discuss Abba Isaac's breathtaking exposition of the "Our Father"; considering the third, fourth and fifth petitions. The beauty of his words are only equaled by their challenge.  We are called to desire above all to live the "angelic" life (to be wrapped in our desire to fulfill God's will in every aspect of our lives), to seek to nourish ourselves upon His Word (discerning the gift that we receive daily and receiving it with reverence and awe), and to cry out for God's forgiveness (understanding that the mercy we receive depends on the mercy we offer to others).  

Lengthy discussion ensued regarding the secularism and worldliness that has colored many people's experience of the faith and what it means to pray the "Our Father" and to receive the Holy Eucharist.  
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