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In this section of the 4th Homily Isaac warns: "Do not take it upon yourself to teach others while still in ill health; rather consider yourself ignorant and always a novice - preferring humility, holiness and purity to all things. Guard against becoming mere vendors of words and arm yourself with the weapons of tears, fasting and the study of scripture and the Fathers.

 

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The desert fathers are not shy when it comes to talking about the more intimate details of human sexuality and its interplay with the spiritual life.  Conference 22 picks up with Cassian and Germanus' much anticipated discussion with Abba Theonas about why fasting does not always seem to guarantee freedom from nocturnal emission of semen.  There is no dualism between mind and body in Cassian's thought - each has an impact on the spiritual life and are intimately tied together.  Nocturnal emissions take place for three possible reasons: Either a surfeit of food and drink has demanded this sort of release; or some kind of spiritual neglect has provoked it; or, finally, the devil himself has brought it about and uses it to humiliate a person who is otherwise progressing in purity, thus making him hesitate to receive Holy Communion.

This leads Germanus to ask whether a person who has had a nocturnal emission is permitted to receive communion and if so under what circumstances.  Passions may lie deep within the unconscious and arise within dreams and cause such natural phenomena.  An individual can incur guilt by irregularity and neglectful practices - times of gluttony, entertaining momentary sinful thoughts, lack of prayer, etc.  The unconscious reveals a great deal about one's conscious spiritual life and practice.  

Such considerations are important especially when it comes to receiving Holy Communion for one who seeks to truly discern the Body and Blood of the Lord.  Though seeming subtle and significant to the modern mind all of this speaks to the importance of purity of heart and whether one is in a right relationship with God and living, as it were, from communion to communion.  Do we appreciate the nature of the gift that we receive in the Holy Eucharist and do we live our lives in such a fashion that we are constantly preparing to receive the gift of God's grace and striving to allow it to bear the greatest fruit possible?  If the Eucharist is Life and the center of our lives then our attentiveness to both our conscious awareness and practices and to manifestations of our unconscious should be great.  What do our dreams or the presence of nocturnal emissions tell us about aspects of our internal state that may be hidden to us?  

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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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Cassian and Germanus now begin their discussion with Abba Theonas; the conference beginning with the story of Theonas' own conversion and which is meant to be the cypher through which the teachings that follow are meant to be interpreted.  There is a higher ideal of the Gospel - one that urges a far greater abnegation of self than what is found the the fulfillment of the law.  Furthermore, one is called, persuaded, to respond to the higher life of grace and is invited to assent through freedom of will and the desire for what is beautiful.  The perfect who stand not under the law but under grace, remain ardent, and so attain to that state where they are not dominated by sin.  They are not content to offer tithes but rather seek to offer themselves and their own souls to God, for which no exchange can be made by a human being.  Christ forces no one to the highest reaches of virtue by the obligation of a precept but he moves by the power of a free will and inflames by salutary persuasion and by the desire for perfection.  

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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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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 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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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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