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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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We continue to follow Cassian as he discusses the relationship between grace and free will. God is not only the beginning and end of all things but his grace is the source of our growth in virtue and our rising out of vice when we have fallen. Our free will is used to embrace that grace in obedience or to turn away from it. Discussion then ensued about the importance and centrality of desire in the spiritual life. Christianity in its essence is relational and we create an illusion when we make the ascetical life about the performance of a muscular will as opposed growing in the freedom to embrace the grace that God offers us in love.  

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We continue with Cassian's exposition of the three forms of renunciation and the importance of understanding that simply renouncing attachment to material goods without renouncing vice is wanting in its nature. There are only two riches that endure unto eternal life - our vices and our virtues. These two things are freighted with destiny and cannot be neglected. The spiritual life cannot be stripped of its moral demands and the call to deep conversion. Even if one were to give up all of his goods or even his own life, but was lacking in love or purity of heart, he has nothing. The starkness of this teaching is as refreshing as it is challenging in an age that seeks to avoid making any moral judgments or giving moral weight to actions.

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After discussing the three sources of one's calling to monastic life or conversion, Cassian moves on to consider three forms of renunciation that lead one to embrace the life of grace: renunciation of one's attachment to material things, renunciation of one's attachment to sin, and renunciation of anything that prevents one from living in the fullness of theoria, or contemplation of God. Discussion ensued about how this renunciation is fulfilled by those who live in the world and in the face of the challenges of this generation and in light of the modern culture. How does one live for God alone in our day and seek purity of heart? What are the obstacles that we often place in our own way to pursuing the life of holiness and the joy in brings?

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