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Archive for December 2015

Cassian's discussion with Abba Piamun about the various kinds of monks stands more as a backdrop to a greater reflection on the necessary virtues of the Christian life; virtues not requiring a retreat to the desert but rather a willingness to retreat into the heart and there do battle to free oneself from the grip of the ego.  Tonight we were presented with a most beauty portrait of humility - the virtue that becomes like the oil used by wrestlers and which allows the rebukes, insults and detraction of others to slide off of us, never being able to take grip of our hearts and pull us down into indignation and anger towards others.  Abba Piamun provides us with the stories of two exemplars of patience and humility that provoke the desire for imitation and help us to understand that the spiritual life is not about leisure or joy in this world.  Trial and affliction shape and sharpen these virtues until they take on the quality God desires.

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We continue to listen with Cassian and Germanus to Abba Piamun discuss the kind of monks - Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarbaites and a fourth category of monk who briefly enters the cenobitic life only to rapidly leaves the confines of communal discipline and obedience to an elder for a premature embrace of the life of seclusion. The distinctions made by Abba Piamun, however, merely serve as a backdrop to a greater discussion the necessary progress and formation that one must embrace before seeking a life a greater hiddenness and contemplation.  The conference is fraught with examples of the dangers of seeking to leap over the fundamental formation of the common life.  To do so, reveals a kind of pride or self-delusion; that one can enter into a higher state without having properly formed the mind and heart in humility and obedience.  

A rather lengthy discussion ensued among the group about the challenges of living in the world according to the wisdom put forward in the conference.  How does one gain or find the benefits of the cenobium while living in the world?  Where is the necessary formative influence of obedience to an elder to be sought?  How does one create a culture where the pursuit of holiness and purity of heart are the fundamental goals while living in the secular world?  
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Cassian and Germanus move deeper into the Egyptian desert in search of a larger and more perfect group of holy men.  The meet Abba Piamun, the elder and priest of all the anchorites living a more solitary life there under his guidance.  Before speaking to them about the various kinds of monastic life, Piamun discusses the necessary dispositions that would make a journey such as their's fruitful.  There had been many before Cassian and Germanus who simply came to Egypt to satisfy their curiosity but lacking the necessary desire to embrace the teachings of the elders and to imitate their lives.  They must approach the spiritual life as anyone seeks to acquire a skill in some art; they must give themselves over to the pursuit fully.  They must seek to imitate fully and faithfully the elders rather than simply to discuss or analyze everything that they see or hear.  In other words, they must not cling to or trust their own judgment for they will only come to the point where even things which are very beneficial or salutary will seem useless or harmful to them.  Letting go of all obstinacy they must seek to become docile and allow the truth to emerge through their experience over time.

How different this is from the modern Christian.  Often we want to be convinced of the truth or experience the fruits of faith and religious discipline while eluding the necessary obedience and docility.  We want to be sold on why we should want to embrace the ascetic life rather than humbly seeking the counsel and guidance of others. 
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 We come to the conclusion of Germanus' and Cassian's discussion with Abba Joseph on Making Promises and the rare dispensation that would allow one to break them.  The considerations laid out in this conference must be seen in light of a life lived in pursuit of holiness and specifically in seeking purity of heart.  Cassian and Germanus are well aware of the implications of going back on their promise to return from Egypt to their home monastery.  In fact, they are in anguish about the prospect.  

Yet, Abba Joseph understands that they made their oath rashly and in such a way that they could see that leaving Egypt without having gained knowledge of their life through long experience was foolhardy.  To leave prematurely would be to jeopardize their own salvation in the sense that it may lead them to return to a life of mediocrity.  Cassian and Germanus must apply what Joseph describes as a "hellebore": a poisonous herb that when applied in the state of deadly illness can be curative.  It must be used then and only then.  For if applied when one is healthy it will bring about death.  Such is the breaking of their oath now.  They are exchanging one tool for another - remaining in Egypt as a higher state of life and one that will lead them more assuredly along the path to their immediate goal of purity of heart.  They will have to bear the burden of this breaking this rashly made oath and make reparation for it, but nonetheless it is the appropriate decision.  Lying or breaking an oath under any other circumstance however would be spiritually deadly. 
Our tendency in the West is to seek comfort in the legal and moral absolutes.  Yet on those rare occasions it can be means of excusing ourselves from the greater charge of holiness of life.  We can cling with fidelity to some truth only to excuse ourselves from heeding the call of Truth Himself.
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