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In a wonderful discussion of the end of homily five and the beginning of homily six, we lingered over what St. Isaac describes as the aim of our conduct: "to be courteous and respectful to all. Ans do not provoke any man or vie zealously with him, either for the sake of the Faith, or on account of his evil deeds; but watch over yourself not to blame or accuse any man in any matter. For we have a Judge in heaven who is impartial. But if you would have that man return to the truth, be grieved over him and, with tears and love, say a word or two unto him; but do not be inflamed with anger against him, lest he see within you signs of hostility. For love does not know how to be angry, or provoked, or passionately to reproach anyone. The proof of love and knowledge is profound humility, which is born of a good conscience in Jesus Christ our Lord...".

We are to win over souls not with anger or hostility or with argument, but rather with a genuine love for the other and a desire for their well being. We should grieve over the sins of others and not use them as an opportunity to berate or condescend.

Isaac continues to revolve around the virtues of humility and purity of heart in Homily Six and how they take root within us. He warns that God will allow us to experience the fruit of our negligence and the sorrow that is born of sin in order to draw is back to Himself. We must understand that asceticism without a heart truly consecrated to God is wasted.

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Few penetrate the meaning of the Fall (although we all experience its effects) as the desert Fathers or capture what it means to live according to the law of Grace.  One has to taste something of the experience of purity of heart, contemplation, and the peace of Christ, to grasp fully what Abba Theonas is speaking about in this conference.  How many of us would experience true compunction and the tears of repentance over being distracted from God and our thoughts of God?  We are trained from an early age not to seek and value above all things that constant state of communion with God but rather encouraged to pursue one distraction after another or to direct our greatest energies to fleshly concerns.  In light of this it is easy to understand the ubiquitous experience of anxiety that touches every human being.  We know not only separation from God because of our sin but a profound inner division.  When St. Paul said: "The good that I want I do not do, but the evil that I hate, this I do", he was not referring to the struggle with base passions (which in reality we do not hate but most often desire) but rather of the condition of one who has achieved purity of heart and so mourns at how often he is pulled from gazing upon the divine brilliance and focused instead upon something much less.  To live fully in accord with the law of grace, to know the invincible peace of the Kingdom, is the reality that has been made possible for us through the blood of Christ.  Yet it is the reality the eludes our grasps because we do not seek it from the hand of the Lord but rather to construct it ourselves and in accord with the measure of our minds.  

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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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While trying to help Cassian and Germanus focus on the end of repentance and the marks of reparation which is healing (the removal of the thorn of the conscience and any disposition to sin), Pinufius patiently steps back and tries to hearten and encourage his proteges in the continuing pursuit of these things.  He must first help them see the constant means God places at our disposal to know his mercy and forgiveness and the means he provides for healing us of the effects of our sins.  Again, with a single stroke of the pen, Cassian removes our tendency to turn the forgiveness of sin and the repairing of its wounds into something mechanical or magical. God is a lover who ceaselessly seeks us out and draws us to himself; offering us at every turn means to know his forgiveness. Never more can we blame God for our lingering attraction to sin and return to it.  It is our negligence and lack of resolve, our pride and laziness alone that keeps us from coming to know that fullness and freedom, love and forgiveness.  Our lack of hatred for sin and our unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to free ourselves from its grip, reveals a lack of love and gratitude for God's gifts.  

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We join Cassian and Germanus now as they visit with Abba Pinufius - well known to them for his holiness and humility.  Because of these qualities, they seek him out in particular as they grapple not with understanding the need for repentance and reparation but rather with the desire to know the when end of repentance has been achieved and by what marks reparation and full healing from sin can be identified.

For the modern Christian, this can be very difficult to understand; so largely have repentance and reparation become symbolic in our lives.  Seeking forgiveness and confessing one's sins can simply be a legalistic notion - acknowledging infractions of certain moral laws rather than addressing the restoration of a relationship of love and repairing or healing the damage done by our sin and overcoming our disposition to sin.  In a few sentences, Abba Pinufius pulls from our grasp all room for presumption.  Conscience becomes the truest judge - speaking to our hearts about the true state of our souls and whether we have received the forgiveness and grace of God in vain. It becomes the strongest indicator of whether or not we have been freed from the disposition to particular sins. Repentance and reparation, and the formation of conscience, then, become constant and essential elements of the spiritual life.  
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Taking up Cassian's Conference 13 ON GOD'S PROTECTION again, we prefaced our conversation with a closer look at the criticism lodged against Cassian's thought by Prosper of Aquitaine.  Considering the study of Casiday in his book, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, it becomes clear through a thorough analysis of both Cassian and Prosper that Prosper in his zeal to defend the Church against the heresy of Pelagianism misrepresents Cassian's teaching and even alters or excludes portions deliberately.  Unfortunately, it is only in recent times that scholars have begun to closely scrutinize both writers' works in a fashion that gives a clear and accurate picture of the truth.

Having addressed these concerns, we then turned once more to the text only to find ourselves captivated by the depth and beauty of the elder Chaeremon's teaching on the essential nature of God's grace in the pursuit of all virtue, especially chastity.  Furthermore, God is set on the salvation of all men and women and looks for the smallest response to his grace within us; only then to pour forth an abundance on us and to guide and direct our steps at every turn.  God is like a jealous lover; not hurt by our rejection but rather driven on by love to draw us back to Him by any means necessary.
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Last night the group took up Cassian's Thirteenth Conference "On God's Protection" which discusses the essential interplay between Grace and Free will.  Part of our close reading of the text allows for a "redeeming" of Cassian's understanding of this delicate subject from what has been, I believe, gross misrepresentation of this thought.  When read in light of and in the context of the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition and its understanding of SYNERGY, Cassian's Conference is revealed as being the most refined and beautiful explication of difficult subject matter, based upon the lived experience of the ascetical life.  It also highlights the importance of the Eastern view of theology as an experiential knowledge of God rooted in purity of heart and the life of prayer and not simply being a rationalistic approach to the mysteries of the faith.

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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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