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St. Isaac begins by encouraging us to become drunk with faith in God; to be so immersed in our relationship with Him that we are constantly under the influence of His grace.  Only in this way will the malady of the senses and the passions that arise out of them be healed.  It is this understanding of Christian Asceticism that must be regained.  Instead of seeking distraction and entertainment in our lives, we must seek solitude and silence; to purify the heart in order to be drawn into the Mystery and Wonder of God. 

When God's grace is abundant within us we easily scorn the fear of death and are willing to endure the greatest tribulations.  In fact, Isaac tells us, such trials are necessary for the perfecting of faith and lead us to rely more and more upon the providence of God.  Without this trust, a person is continually waylaid by his fears of the world around him and the unknown.  

Fear of God, the offspring of faith, and obedience to the commandments is the only means to avoiding distractions.  As human beings we are constantly in a state of receptivity through our senses and unless we turn away from the senses we will gradually be driven away from our delight in God.  A conscious choice must be made to simplify our lives in order to provide them with the solitude that is need for prayer and study.  Without such intent we will be driven back to the inveterate habits of licentiousness.
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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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As we sat at the feet of Abba Chaeremon with Cassian and Germanus, we continued this most important conference on Chastity.  We began by considering the presence or absence of the other passions, especially anger, as a barometer of the depth of a person's chastity.  The Lord must destroy all inner wars between the flesh and the spirit and no one will enjoy this virtue enduringly in whose flesh there still rages these battles.  When the Lord has freed the person from every seething emotion and impulse, he shall attain to the state of purity.  However, there can be no peace while the struggle continues.  We must not boast, then, at some small measure or period of chastity.  In fact, until a person arrives at the state of perfect purity he has to be trained frequently by enduring patiently inner discrepancies and until he acknowledges fully the truth that God alone can lift a person out of the pit of wretchedness. 

Chaeremon, then, went on to discuss the various degrees of chastity in detail and the deepening of freedom that comes with each stage.  We cannot define the purity that God desires for us in accord with human standards or measures. Nor can we think that simply because something is tied to human nature and natural bodily movements that they are somehow beyond moral judgment or have no moral value.  
Discussion then ensued about the cultural, educational and psychological implications of Cassian's teaching.
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Cassian and Germanus came to the end of their conference with Abba Chaeremon on Perfection discussing the various ranks of perfection that depend on an individual's virtue, will and ardor.  We are challenged by God to go from the heights to sill higher places, driven by love.  The greatest perfection is to share in the sonship of Christ; to be motivated by love in all things.  The only fear we are to have is the fear that is a part of the nature and disposition of love itself - a fear of not doing the will of God or of losing a life a virtue through negligence.  We must be preoccupied with a concerned devotion not only in every action but also in every word, lest our ardor become to the slightest extent lukewarm.

From this, we moved on to consider the distinct connection between perfection and chastity which is the subject of Conference Twelve.  Chastity, an inner tranquillity and peace and freedom from impurity is a means to an end for Cassian; a means to love with the perfection and purity of heart he has described.  It is possible to eradicate impurity through ascetical practices strengthened by the grace of God.  There is a difference between abstinence and chastity. With abstinence there can be a gnawing longing for the thing struggled against; whereas with chastity there is a love of purity for its own sake that penetrates into the unconscious and touches even the involuntary movements of the flesh.
Discussion then ensued regarding the profound depth psychology of the desert fathers and how this differs from modern, secular psychological thought and practice as a means of healing.
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Cassian and Germanus seek out the guidance of the elder Serenus, whose name captures his character.  Serenus had attained great purity of heart, peace, and freedom from the carnal desires of the flesh.  Cassian and Germanus come to him in a state of despair; for although having labored for years they found their thoughts wandering and pulling them back to the things of the world and the passions.  In their desolation they had begun to give up any hope of attaining such virtue and complain to Serenus that it is their nature that has prevented stability of mind and heart.  Serenus in both his teaching and example is becomes the cypher though which we are meant to come to understand both the path to and nature of purity of heart.  It is desire and thirst for God alone that can bring us to this freedom.  Faith, Hope and Love are the weapons we use to engage in the battle (the theological virtues that have God as their end) and the depths of the heart is purified by the sharp sword of the Spirit.  Once again the discussion was thoughtful and enriching and Cassian’s insights immeasurably valuable.

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Cassian defines and describes the various states of the soul (carnal, animal and spiritual) and discusses them in relation to lukewarmness in the spiritual life. The question of lukewarmness was pursued in depth, its various manifestations and impact upon one's salvation.

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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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We continued to discuss the final portions of Conference Three where Cassian seeks to capture the relationship between grace and free will. Synergy best expresses this relationship: God does not force His grace upon us but guides and strengthens us when we submit to his will. We cooperate. God works with us. We work with Him. God wants free-will partners. He created us to be His sons and daughters not His blind slaves. Once we come to know Him, however, we do become His servants, but we do it willingly, out of love. God offers us the gift of eternal life, but it is up to us either to accept or reject it. When God's hand of grace is grasped by our hand of faith, the result is salvation, wholeness, union with God. God has chosen to work through us, the members of His body.

Cassian moves on to discuss this in relation to the struggle between Flesh and Spirit in Conference Four.

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