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Tonight we came to the conclusion of Homily 17 of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Isaac continues to discuss the Chaste life and how to protect it. He instructs us to keep our inner life a private affair. We must not reveal what is most intimate and our relationship with God or our vulnerabilities. We must never put ourselves or God to the test nor must we retaliate when we are condemned by others. Gluttony must be avoided at all costs and we must avoid rich foods so as not to weigh ourselves down. Silence is to be guarded as most valuable and in this we should avoid talkativeness and flee theological discussions. We must occupy ourselves with one thing alone – our relationship with Christ. 
 
In Homily 18 St. Isaac begins to speak to us about the stages of the spiritual life. In particular he focuses upon the violence we must do to ourselves in order to transform the passions - fasting, reading, vigils, prostrations.  Such must be embraced to stoke the fires of devotion and compunction which give way to tears that cleanse the heart. We must keep our focus on these disciplines and not hurry indiscriminately towards the higher forms of prayer. To do so would be to subject ourselves to potential delusion.
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Last night we concluded Homily 15. St. Isaac beautifully weaved his way back and forth between the dangers of talkativeness, gluttony and and the association with those who would pull one away from the path of sanctity and the contrasting virtues of silence, fasting and solitude. 
 
The greater the embrace of the virtues often brings with it a kind of isolation. The witness of virtue itself is challenging and elicits the fearful anger or resentment of others. 
 
One should lives one's life from Eucharist to Eucharist - desiring the nourishment that comes from and is a taste of heaven.  The more one longs for the Bread of Life and to be nourished upon the love of God the less one will be attracted to worldly pleasures that are often sought in its place. 
 
Living for God and from God must become the ultimate joy and pursuit at every moment of one's life. 
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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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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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We are all familiar enough with the urges of gluttony. But perhaps we have not stopped to fully consider the spiritual dangers of gluttony. This is something St. John spends a great deal of time discussing. His analysis is very helpful, for he opens up to us the interconnectedness of the spiritual life. St. John expresses the teaching of the Fathers in this way: "the belly is the cause of all human shipwreck."
Why? For two reasons: first, a gluttonous lifestyle feeds the passions which are inherent in man. Unrestrained eating habits spill over into an unrestrained lifestyle. The reason for this is clear: "Gluttony is the prince of the passions." St. John gives several examples. If you struggle with unclean thoughts, remember: "The mind of someone intemperate is filled with unclean longings." If you struggle with talking too much, remember: "The tongue flourishes where food is abundant." If you struggle with a lack of repentance, remember: "A full stomach dries up one's weeping." If you struggle with sexual sin, remember: "The man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the passion of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil." Of course, these are just a few examples of many. The point which St. John is making may be summarized as follows. The passions with which you struggle are energized by your gluttonous habits. Gluttony feeds your passions. Fasting takes away their nourishment.
The nature of the spiritual life is that all passion are interconnected. We cannot allow just one passion to be unrestrained. This is especially true of gluttony. If we are gluttonous we will be overwhelmed by other passions as well. And what is true in a negative way is also true in a positive way. If we struggle with gluttony and gain some victory, we also gain victory over our other passions.
But gluttony is not only dangerous because it unleashes our passions. The Fathers also teach that gluttony is dangerous because the demon of gluttony is the front man for other more dangerous demons. "You should remember," counsels St. John, "that frequently a demon can take up residence in your belly and keep a man from being satisfied, even after having devoured the whole of Egypt and after having drunk all of the Nile. After we have eaten, this demon goes off and sends the spirit of fornication against us, saying: `Get him now! Go after him. When his stomach is full, he will not put up much of a fight.' How seldom do we consider this when we are moved to eat. We have been taught to pamper our bodies and submit to their ever demand. Very few of us, however, question what spirit may be behind these desires. 


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