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Nowhere is the universal call to holiness, the call to live in and embrace the grace of God radically, more fully and challengingly expressed than in this section of Cassian's 21st Conference.  These realities become extremely personal as they are displayed through the story of the conversion of Theonas, the elder of the conference.  The pursuit of the perfection of grace touches every aspect of life and whether a person is a monk, a virgin or married, they are called to take it up whatever the costs.  Theonas was married and comes to the realization that he must embrace more than a lawful commitment to his spouse but a relationship that fosters chastity.  The locus of conflict that he begins to identify is between sexual habit and continence in the heart and that it is possible for a person not to be a lover of marriage but rather of slave of lust.  Sexuality here becomes the perfect mirror of the human self - the lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivations.  He and his wife had been pushed into marriage with the notion that the vows alone would control sexual passions.  They mistakenly thought that purity of heart could be fostered without embracing fully the life of grace and its expression in a disciplined life.  Marriage is touched by grace - it is to make present the selfless love of Christ for his Bride the Church.  This comes at a costs and by grace, not by magic or wishful thinking.  

Theonas desired not only his own salvation but that of his wife; that they would abstain from conjugal relationship and embrace ascetical discipline until their hearts were purified and the love for each other chaste. He would not defraud himself or his wife of salvation or become for each other merely "seducer."  To divorce his wife with whom he was one would mean cutting off and losing a part of himself.  If his hand causes him to sin he must in the end cut it off.  To be Christ's disciple, to love himself above all things, then he would fulfill and embrace the words of the Lord that "unless you hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister and yes even your own life, you cannot be my disciple."  

Cassian will not allow us to easily dismiss these challenging teachings of the Gospel as hyperbole or set aside the call to embrace the grace of God and so be transformed from "glory to glory."
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Cassian and Germanus continue their discussion with Chaeremon on Chastity.  The old man tells them that if a person does not believe such purity is possible then he must first enter into the disciplines and the struggle to make it his own.  It is only through experience that one can come to see and taste the beauty of this virtue.  Furthermore, he tells them that chastity subsist no thanks to a rigorous defense but rather by love of the virtue and by delight in purity.  Asceticism, in other words, may lead to abstinence but not to Chastity which is the fruit of God's grace.  Perfect Chastity is distinguished by its perpetual tranquillity.  For this is the consummation of true chastity, which does not fight the movements of carnal lust but detests them with utter abhorrence, maintaining a constant and inviolable purity for itself.  This can be nothing else than holiness.  Nature itself begins to be transformed and controlled by the grace that lies within the heart and conforms to the will of the mind.

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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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In this step, St. John writes about the struggle for chastity: "The man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing. Offer the Lord the weakness of your nature. Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity."


Sadly, in today's world, these words sound foreign. As a society, we have abandoned the concept of sexual virtue and purity. On our television screens and in the movie theaters, we calmly watch without reaction repeated violations of chastity. As Christians we have come to accept and tolerate attitudes and behaviors in ourselves and others that at another time would have been unthinkable. In so many ways we have lost sight of the fact that Chastity is not only precious in the eyes of God but a necessary virtue for us to obtain in our ascent to heaven. Holy Scripture makes this clear: "Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness . . . and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19,21). For this reason, St. John calls unchastity "a sort of death within us, a sin that is catastrophic." 

What then is Chastity? St. John answers: "The chaste man is not someone with a body undefiled, but rather a person whose members are in complete subjection to the soul." One must remember that for St. John the body is both adversary and friend: adversary in as much as it has been marred by the fall, friend in as much as it remains God's creation and is called to share in the resurrection glory. For the Christian, the body is not a tomb or prison, not a piece of clothing to be worn for a time and then cast aside, but an integral part of the true self. The Christian's aim is "a body made holy." Likewise, the passions, although a consequence of the fall and therefore no true part of human nature, are merely the distortion of the natural impulses implanted by God. While repudiating the passions, we should not reject the natural God-given impulses that underlie them, but should restore to good use that which has become misdirected as a result of the fall. Our watchword should be "transfigure" not "suppress"; "educate" not "eradicate". Therefore, physical eros is not to be considered sinful, but can and should be used as a way of glorifying God. Sin is evil, but not the body and its natural impulses. In fact, physical love can be a paradigm of our longing for God. The struggle for chastity, then, begins with controlling the body's sexual desires, through prayer and spiritual discipline, and ends with their transfiguration. Having overcome the passion, we are free to be our true selves, free to love others, free to love God.
How do we fight against the spirit of unchastity? St. John speaks a great deal about the necessity of doing serious battle against "evil thoughts" - that is, thoughts provoked by demons. This also includes conceptual images such as fantasies. Through ascetical discipline and prayer we must foster watchfulness - a state of spiritual sobriety, alertness, and vigilance in which one constantly guards the heart and intellect. In our discipline we must be as relentless and cunning as the demons who tempt us. With one difference - - We must in humility recognize our weakness and absolute dependence upon God to attain this virtue.
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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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