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We come to the conclusion of Conference 20 on repentance and reparation and consider the depth of the desert Fathers understanding of the human person.  Abba Pinufius sets off carnal sins from the others as those that one would not want to recall as a means of uprooting the disposition to them.  Such sins, touching upon our natural appetites and desires carry within them the danger of drawing us back into them if we allow them to return to memory and imagination.  Pinufius is not treating such natural appetites as evils but rather respecting their power and importance to our identity as human beings.  For such reasons they are not to be treated casually or lightly in the spiritual battle. We must instead turn our minds to heavenly things - the desire for God and the virtues.  

The closing note is a reminder that what has been addressed in this conference pertains to the more grave sins in the eyes of God.  We may come to the point where we do not commit them and have freed ourselves from the disposition towards them.  However, the smaller sins we commit repeatedly throughout the day, often without noticing, remain something we struggle with and continue to do penance for throughout our lives.  Repentance and reparation our constant fixtures of the spiritual life.
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Cassian and Germanus find themselves struggling, as it were, with a seemingly no win situation.  No matter what decision they make they will experience loss on a spiritual level.  They had made a rash promise when coming to Egypt.  They had promised their superiors that they would return quickly.  However, they have found that simply hearing the teachings of the elders was insufficient; they must live the discipline of the desert for a much longer period of time in order to have their hearts formed and purged of the slackness that lies within.  To return now would not only make it impossible for them to communicate the wisdom of the desert fully but also place them both in jeopardy on a spiritual level.  Once have let the inspiration to pursue the perfection of the desert monasticism pass they would experience enormous spiritual loss.  However, to remain now would be to set aside a promise they had made to their superiors.  Abba Joseph seeks to guide them through this situation realizing that they had acted rashly and without discernment.  One must never promise anything quickly.  The question now, however, is where can the inevitable damage they will experience be made more tolerable and compensated for by the remedy of reparation. They must humbly assume the damage caused by their sin but remain along the path where their lack of discernment and purity of heart will be addressed in order that they same mistake not be made again.  What hospital do you go to depending on your infirmity?  Where will the deepest and most lasting healing take place? 

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This is probably the most challenging Conference to read, to read patiently, and with a sense of generosity when interpreting its teachings. Cassian and Germanus made a promise to their superiors in Palestine that when visiting Egypt they would return as quickly as possible.  Once there, however, they discover that it was a promise rashly made and without discernment.  The way of desert wisdom is not learned quickly or communicated to others after only a brief stay.  Cassian and Germanus are then faced with the question of breaking their promise in order to stay and so know the blessings of the Egyptian lifestyle or to return prematurely and fall perhaps back into a a kind of mediocrity.  They turn to Abba Joseph once again for guidance and counsel.

It is important to read this Conference understanding that Cassian is focused more on the spiritual life and living in the tension of real experience than with theological exactness.  We must place this discussion in the context of the pursuit of God, which within the broken character of the world and the sinfulness of one's own life will often, if not always, require special repentance in recognition of how far one falls short of perfection.
There are genuinely cases in which one must act in a way that is imperfect, guilty or sinful.  One must!  However, there can be no rationalization in this regard.  It is lying; permitted for good not evil, of necessity, and medicinal in nature.  It is employed as if its nature were that of a hellebore - useful if taken when some deadly disease is threatening but if taken without being required by some great danger is the cause of immediate death.  
The difference between Palestine and Egypt is among other things, the difference between rigidity and flexibility, which in this case is another way of describing discretion.  It is better to go back on our word than to suffer the loss of something that is salutary and good.  We do not recall that the reasonable and proven fathers were ever hard and inflexible in decisions of this sort but that, like wax before fire, they were so softened by reason and by the intervention of more salutary counsel that they unhesitatingly yielded to what was better. But those whom we have seen cling obstinately to their own decisions we have always experienced as unreasonable and bereft of discretion.  
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A wonderful discussion this evening on the concluding paragraphs of the Conference and in particular on the practice of fasting.  Attention is given to the implications of Cassian's teaching for Christians living in a secular culture and in the face of the many evils therein.  How is it that one pursues a life of holiness in the modern day?  How do we engage the culture in a fashion that is not stilted or reactionary?  

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Discretion and the importance of the revelation of one's thoughts; the graces of the humble recognition of one's sins and the safety it brings in the spiritual life; the importance of the spiritual elder and the concurrent dangers of false teachers.

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The Importance of Discretion in the Spiritual Life; Various Titles of Discretion; Necessity to attain and sustain virtue; examples of lack of discretion; Necessity of Humility for Attain Discretion; Importance of the Revelation of one's thoughts to another.

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At the end of the first Conference, Abbot Moses observes that they have passed naturally from purity of heart to a new subject - discretion.   Throughout this conference he will concentrate on the need for discretion, the ways of acquiring and practicing it and the great merit of discretion.  

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Responsibility for guarding the heart and for improving the character of our thoughts; sources of thoughts; the skill of discernment; impact of cultural trends of contemporary "spirituality"

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St. John then discusses more advanced forms of discernment and how such a gift may be fostered in a persons' soul. (a) He speaks of the necessity of mortifying one's will, seeking the counsel of others with humility, and abandoning attachment to everything. (b) A person must learn how to judge failures and successes in his spiritual pursuits and interpret their meaning. (c) He must also learn not to follow certain inclinations that would lead him to take upon himself tasks beyond his capabilities. (d) Such a virtue will help him to understand the meaning of the moral lapses in those who seem to be holy and blessed with many spiritual gifts. (e) Gradually he will learn not to be surprised at the unexpected actions of others, but will remain a peace even when afflicted and rebuked. (f) He will understand the need to strike down demons before giving them an opportunity to wound him. (g) His eyes will be open to how demons seek to teach us how to interpret scripture in a distorted fashion and how they seek to confuse our thoughts. (h) He will see how and in what manner he must enter into the struggle and who his enemies are.

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St. John begins to discuss what discernment allows us to see and how it must be used. (a) Discernment, he states, helps us to understand the capital vices and their offspring. It is the ability to see how certain actions and thoughts give rise to sin and teaches us how to avoid them. (b) Discernment helps us to examine our motives honestly and allows us to see that virtues and vices are sometimes intermingled. It even helps us to understand why certain prayers go unanswered by God. (c) Furthermore, such a gift helps us to know and anticipate the ways of demons and teaches us how to respond to situations involving multiple evils. (d) It leads us to scrutinize ourselves as a matter of course - thoroughly examining every virtue and vice.  (e) He who has received this gift can detect hidden vices in others as well as in himself. He knows the seasons of the spiritual life, when the fruits of spiritual labors come, the movements of one's spirit and the different levels of sorrow and despair. (f) He makes the will of God his rule of life. (g) He knows which of the spiritual gifts are the most important and valuable. (h) He neglects no fault, no matter how small, seeing that it may bring his downfall. (i) A discerning man understands that sometimes we are vulnerable to certain sins simply because of body weaknesses. (j) He understands that relationships must be properly understood if they are to remain undefiled and holy. (k) He knows and desires to give what is best to God - the first fruits of his labors and his day. (l) He chooses the path in life which best suits him - the path that leads to sanctity. (m) Discernment helps him to see all things in their proper light.

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