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Archive for the 'discretion' Category

Germanus and Cassian finally begin to talk with Abba Theonas about the relaxation of Pentecost; that is, how one approaches a festal season and moderation of ascetical practices.  Theonas starts by emphasizing the importance of discretion and right judgment arising out of a well formed conscience so that one avoid extremes.  During such a season a person wouldn't want to indiscriminately maintain disciplines so as to overly weaken the body or fain asceticism before others or relax disciplines too much so as to lose control of the passions one has labored to overcome during Lent.

Celebration and relaxation should not simply be considered in a worldly fashion.  As Christians we want to protect the nobler festival of the mind and the joy of incorruption above all things.  The relaxation we embrace should reflect that joyful reality and we should not give way to the gross indiscretion of the world and fail to abstain from overly rich foods or eat a great deal more than usual.  The celebration lies within and we don't want to overemphasize the satisfaction of carnal desires.

Attention then turns to Lent as tithing of a portion of one's life to God for the sake of greater emancipation from one's sins and passions.  Likewise, Theonas goes on to explain we are to tithe the first fruits of every day to God.  Before any worldly work is done, our thoughts must turn to God and we must offer Him first our sacrifice of praise.  
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After the introduction to the conference presented over the past two weeks revolving around the elder Theona's conversion and his choice of pursuing the absolute good of following Christ and pursuing purity of heart, the dialogue itself begins.  The two friends asks Theonas about the custom of not kneeling during the 50 days of Pentecost and of observing a modified schedule of fasting during that season.  Theonas first makes a bow to the authority of the ancients.  Then, addressing himself to the issue of fasting, he distinguishes between absolute goods and absolute evils on the one hand and those things that are, on the other hand, either good or bad depending on how they are used.  Fasting is not an absolute good; if it were, then it would be wrong ever to eat.  It is, instead, something indifferent, which is practiced for the sake of acquiring an absolute and essential good.  The characteristics of an absolute good, however, are that "it is good by itself and not by reason of something else . . .necessary for its own sake and not for the sake of something else . . . unchangeable and always good . . . its removal and cessation cannot but bring on the gravest evil and that similarly, the essential evil, which is its opposite, cannot ever become good." This definition, so typical of Cassian in its precision, can in no way apply to fasting.  With two allusions to the subordination of fasting to the acquisition of purity of heart we are once again drawn back to the atmosphere of the first conference.

While this precise approach to discipline might seem laborious, it lays the foundation for Cassian to set forward with power and clarity the spirit in which we are to live our new life in Christ; the higher standard of love that shapes our identity and ever aspect of our life as human beings filled with the grace of God.
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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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We come now to the conclusion of Conference 19 where Cassian and Germanus question Abba John about how one overcomes and does battle with vices that reemerge after the solitary life of the anchorite has been embraced.  Abba John describes for them how they must engage in a kind of mental warfare - drawing the vices they see active in their hearts to mind and allowing themselves to be humbled by them and then apply the necessary reparation that is need; that is, apply the healing balm of penance and self rebuke to uproot the vestiges of these sins.  The self-honesty as well as the self-awareness necessary for such an undertaking is great, especially since it is done without the support and guidance of others.  The only vice where this is not to be done is fornication or unchastity.  Since such vices arise out of and are connected to bodily appetites, the use of mental imagery could be very dangerous and simply draw one further into sin.  

Lengthy discussion ensued about renewing the asceticism that would even allow this kind of mindfulness and purity of heart to develop.  In particular, the group discussed the importance of fasting in the humbling of mind and body and allowing one to recognize one's dependence on God.  We must come to see once more the necessity of such practices, develop the resolve to embrace them, and take them up with love; acknowledging that they bring us freedom and draw us closer to Christ.  
We also spoke at length about the importance of not receiving the grace of God in vain.  When receiving the grace and mercy of God through confession of our sins, we must take up the means available to us to repair the damage that the sin has inflicted; to uproot the vice and apply the healing balm.
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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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After having considered the formula that the mind is to hold to ceaselessly, "O God, incline unto my aid, O Lord, make haste to help me", the group listened to Abba Issac describe the fruits that such a practice produces in the soul.  Chief among them is poverty of spirit: nothing can be holier than that of one who realizes that he has no protection and no strength and who seeks daily help from God's bounty and who understands that his life and property are sustained at each and every moment by divine assistance.  Such a person becomes the "Lord's beggar."  

With this comes the fruit of discretion, that allows one to penetrate the most sublime mysteries.  The very dispositions of the psalms are taken into oneself, so that they arise from the heart not as another's words but as one's own.  The meaning of the words come not through exegesis but through proof; that is, when our experience not only perceives but anticipates its thought.  It will be as if we have become the author, grasping in anticipation the meaning of scripture; having received in power the Word rather than the simply the knowledge of it.
Once the mind's attentiveness has been set ablaze, prayer pours forth in unspeakable ecstasy to God with unutterable groans and sighs. 
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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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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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Continuing discussion of the value of the revelation of one's thoughts to an elder and the responsibility of the elder to treat those entrusted to them with kindness and compassion; example of discretion as the avoiding of extremes, especially in regards to the practice of fasting.

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