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We now enter into the final Conference with Cassian and Germanus as they speak with Abba Abraham.  The name proves apropos given the fact that his task will be to reinculcate in his two charges the spirit that motivated the great Patriarch to heed God's command "Leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you."  Cassian and Germanus were longing for home; hoping their relatives would provide them with the means to support themselves in a life of solitude, prayer and study.  Pridefully they also believe that they will be able to convert these same relatives if they are more present to them.  Abba Abraham works swiftly to dismantle the obvious self deception implicit in their plan and rather bluntly accuses them of slothfulness.  

The Egyptian monks, although living closer to family, realize that undue contact would undermine not only their solitude but the rigors of the solitary life and its demands.  Every day they are called to renounce any "enervating presence" that would destroy the simplicity of life, draw them into worldly affairs and fill their minds with distracting thoughts.  The constant silence must be fostered and protected both externally and internally.

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After a brief hiatus, the group came to the end of Conference 23.  Once again we found ourselves grappling, along with Cassian and Germanus, with the fact that despite the holiness and perfection that one may reach, our weakness and sin draws us away from living in a constant state of communion with God.  Created to live in a constant state of receptivity our sin leads to a flighty wandering of the mind and a turning away from God in a multitude of ways - even during the time of prayer.  

The greater the perfection and holiness of the individual, the greater the experience of his own sinfulness and the deeper the compunction over the weakness of his constitution.  Along with this comes a greater sense of his solidarity with others in that sin - the adulterous heart that turns away from God due to mere distractedness and laziness of mind is not in the end any less grave than what we often consider serious sins.  Humility must be one's constant companion and mercy the constant attitude with which one approaches others.

The transgressions we commit daily and our infidelity to God requires not only humility but the medicine He gives through Holy Communion.  This alone is the remedy for our sickness and its importance is understood only through action and experience.  Let us daily call out to Him for mercy and consume the medicine of immortality.
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We continued to follow Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria and the obstacles to lasting contemplation.  Theonas drives home the experience of wretchedness of the holy individual who is pulled away from contemplation of God by distraction and the weakness of the fleshly mind.  We "Fall" from contemplation and if we had a true sense of the loss that that is to us we too would experience deep compunction.  Yet, it is the action of constantly turning back to God that brings the holy soul the immediate outpouring of God's grace.  The anguished longing and desire of the soul is met by the immediate desire of God for renewed union.  

The group sought to understand this through the place where we all experience the deepest intimacy with God - the Mass.  In a world that fosters distraction and celebrates noise, it is easy for us to lose a kind of "custody of the eyes" - or custody of the Nous (the eye of the heart) that keeps us focused on the gift of love that is being offered to us and the sacrifice through which it has been made possible.  Only one who has tasted the sweetness of God's loves can understand the "Wretchedness" that St. Paul speaks of and the desire to be delivered from this body of death.  The deeper the love, the greater the pain at losing sight of the Beloved!
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Few penetrate the meaning of the Fall (although we all experience its effects) as the desert Fathers or capture what it means to live according to the law of Grace.  One has to taste something of the experience of purity of heart, contemplation, and the peace of Christ, to grasp fully what Abba Theonas is speaking about in this conference.  How many of us would experience true compunction and the tears of repentance over being distracted from God and our thoughts of God?  We are trained from an early age not to seek and value above all things that constant state of communion with God but rather encouraged to pursue one distraction after another or to direct our greatest energies to fleshly concerns.  In light of this it is easy to understand the ubiquitous experience of anxiety that touches every human being.  We know not only separation from God because of our sin but a profound inner division.  When St. Paul said: "The good that I want I do not do, but the evil that I hate, this I do", he was not referring to the struggle with base passions (which in reality we do not hate but most often desire) but rather of the condition of one who has achieved purity of heart and so mourns at how often he is pulled from gazing upon the divine brilliance and focused instead upon something much less.  To live fully in accord with the law of grace, to know the invincible peace of the Kingdom, is the reality that has been made possible for us through the blood of Christ.  Yet it is the reality the eludes our grasps because we do not seek it from the hand of the Lord but rather to construct it ourselves and in accord with the measure of our minds.  

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Devastatingly Beautiful. . .  .

This is the only way to describe tonight's group and our reflection on Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria or Contemplation.  One cannot help but be wrapped up in the beauty of the life and love that God has raised us to share in with Him and how we are constantly under His loving gaze and attention.  Yet, it is devastating when we come to see how easily we are pulled from God by our own carelessness and negligence.  We foster distraction when God desires union.  He would draw us close and we turn away so casually and even without notice.  

Again, we see the need to live in a constant state of repentance; of turning toward God again and again and away from the desires of the flesh and this world.  We must keep our eyes ever fixed upon the beloved; like a tightrope walker never looking to the right or left if we are to reach our destination.  We have been set upon a narrow path - that of single hearted love for the Lord and we must ever hold to it and repent of the ways we let our thoughts drift from Him.  
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What do we seek?  What do we long for the most?  Can any of us truly say Theoria, or contemplation; to be drawn up into the eternal blessedness of God through participation and by His grace?  Do we seek to pray without ceasing as though it is that narrow path from which we seek not to stumble?  Theonas begins in these first sections of Conference 23 to show Cassian and Germanus why contemplation of God has a dignity greater than all the dignity of righteousness and all the zeal of virtuousness.  All things in this world will be unable to maintain their title of goodness if they are compared to the future age, where no mutability in good things and no corruption of true blessedness is to be feared!  The Apostle Paul is the exemplar of one who desires the indissoluble fellowship with God above all things for himself and for others.  He cries out: "I do not know what to choose.  I am compelled on two sides, having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for that is far better, while remaining in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."  

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Abba Theonas begins to introduce Cassian and Germanus to a deeper understanding of Theoria, that is, contemplation.  In particular, he makes it clear that even though the virtues are good and precious, they are nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of the contemplation of God Himself.  Such contemplation is identifiable with purity of heart and even those who live a life of great perfection can fall, albeit unwillingly, from it due to distraction.  While not equivalent to grave sin, this distraction is due to the Fall and those who are aware of the sinfulness and poverty grieve over it.  Holy persons realize and are conscious of the great failure to cling to contemplation and repent and make reparation for it.  Such, however, cannot be said of the sinner who willingly enters into his crimes.  Despite our tendency to describe such things as "falls", a person willingly embraces their sin and is desirous of it; even overcoming every obstacle to attain it.  What is held before us then in this Conference is the height of contemplation that we are called to by grace and the pervasiveness of sin that must be struggled against even when the heights of perfection are attained.

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This evening we made a transition from Conference 22 to Conference 23, the last of Abba Theonas's three conferences.  Our discussion began with clarifying the fact that even the righteous and holy are in need of repentance and often fall, albeit unwillingly, into the sin of distraction and being pulled away from the goal of the spiritual life - Theoria, or contemplation of God.  In the light of divine goodness, all human goodness may be referred to as evil, "Thus, although the value of all the virtues . . . is good and precious in itself, it is nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of theoria.  For it greatly hinders and holds back holy persons from the contemplation of that sublime good if they are take up with what are still earthly pursuits, even if they are good works."  We have been created for God and intimacy with God; back to and greater than that state of original innocence and constant communion with the Lord before the Fall. We must be careful, then, not to see the pursuit of virtue or the avoidance of vice as the goal or end of the spiritual life, although they are essential to it.  These things cannot be separated from our desire for God and intimacy with Him.  Nor can we achieve them outside of His grace.  If abstracted from the love of God and the desire to live in that love - the spiritual life can become lifeless and devoid of meaning. 

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Abba Theonas continues to draw Cassian and Germanus into the greater vision of the Christian life - guided not by law but by grace.  The measure of holiness for the Christian is always Christ, the sinless one, and so even though our conscience does not rebuke us we know that we are but worthless servants who have only done our duty.  We seek the purity of heart and chastity that not only avoids fornication but seeks freedom from all wantonness.  In this the fundamental attitude of the Christian must be humility.  We must live in a constant state of repentance, penance and prayer; understanding that daily we fall through weakness into the capital sins and that it is only by being lifted up by God's grace and participating in the perfect purity of Christ that we come to share in the holiness of God.  

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We pick up with Germanus and Cassian speaking with Abba Theonas about Nocturnal Illusions, or rather the emissions that sometimes occur at night, the causes of these emissions, and whether or not one should presume to receive the sacred and saving food from the altar or avoid do so when overcome by them.

Theonas begins making it clear that we should strive with all effort to maintain the purity of chastity unstained - particularly at the moment when we wish to stand at the holy altar and that we must be watchful lest the integrity of the flesh that we have protected be snatched away when we are preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion.  

If such emissions are produced through our sinfulness - negligence in spiritual practice or through a surfeit of food - then would should refrain.  If it is produced through the onslaught of the devil simply to humilate a a soul yet without any feeling of wantonness then one should confidently approach the grace of the saving food.

Having said this, great care must be given to discern one's state before receiving the saving Mysteries; for if we do not discern the body and blood of the Lord and approach the altar with presumption, we eat and drink to our own condemnation.  Theonas tells us that for "many who receive it unlawfully and abusively are weakened in faith and grow sickened by catching the diseases of the passions, and they fall asleep in the sleep of sinfulness, never rising from this mortal slumber" through lack of concern for their salvation.  

A lengthy discussion ensued about the current state of Church and the frequency with which many approach the altar with seemingly no consideration of these realities and how this might be remedied.  One must above all begin to live from communion to communion; that is, in a constant state of repentance, unceasing prayer, the avoidance of sin, frequent confession and the ascetic life.  Only by simplicity - that is, only by having God as the focus of our lives and that which shapes our entire existence - will we overcome the current state of things.  We must understand and embrace the fact that we live now "under grace" and seek to conform ourselves not to human but rather divine standards.   
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