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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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St. Isaac the Syrian once said: "He who perceives his sins is higher then he who raises the dead by his prayer; he who has been vouchsafed to see himself is better than he who has been vouchsafed to see angels." In other words, he who understands his sins and so can struggle with them has acquired a higher blessing than what appears to be an extraordinary grace. One gift raises a person to earthly life again, the other opens up the path to eternal life and freedom from the passions.

Perhaps no one captures the truth of this better than St. John Cassian in his explication of the Eight Principal Vices. Here he not only defines what the dominant vices are but also how they are connected, manifest themselves and remedied.

Tonight's discussion focused on the what the sins are, which are rooted in the bodily appetites and which arise from thoughts. Cassian counsels focusing one's struggle on the dominant vice in one's life and focusing in particular on overcoming the bodily vices through fasting, vigils and other bodily disciplines - all strengthen through watchfulness and prayer. The practice of fasting was considered at length and how one might begin the practice as a regular part of the spiritual life.

Discussion also ensued regarding the nature of the temptations of Christ in comparison with those living in a fallen state.

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Cassian defines and describes the various states of the soul (carnal, animal and spiritual) and discusses them in relation to lukewarmness in the spiritual life. The question of lukewarmness was pursued in depth, its various manifestations and impact upon one's salvation.

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Cassian begins with a rather dense discussion of the nature of the desires of the flesh and the spirit. While rather challenging to follow, the payoff in regards to clarity is great. The struggles between the flesh and the spirit create a kind of equilibrium for the will that prevent us from falling into excess. The desires of the flesh are limited by spiritual fervor and the ascetic disciplines and the desires of the spirit are balanced by the limits of human nature. We are prevented from simply doing "what we want to do" and the internal struggle that is an ever present reality leads us to discretion and obedience. Discussion ensued about how we often seek to anesthetize ourselves to this struggle and inner dis-ease and characterize it as frustrating or something to be limited. Rather it has been given to us by God as something which is beneficial and keeps us on the path of humble self discipline and reliance on the grace of God.

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We continued to discuss the final portions of Conference Three where Cassian seeks to capture the relationship between grace and free will. Synergy best expresses this relationship: God does not force His grace upon us but guides and strengthens us when we submit to his will. We cooperate. God works with us. We work with Him. God wants free-will partners. He created us to be His sons and daughters not His blind slaves. Once we come to know Him, however, we do become His servants, but we do it willingly, out of love. God offers us the gift of eternal life, but it is up to us either to accept or reject it. When God's hand of grace is grasped by our hand of faith, the result is salvation, wholeness, union with God. God has chosen to work through us, the members of His body.

Cassian moves on to discuss this in relation to the struggle between Flesh and Spirit in Conference Four.

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