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St. Isaac presents us with the identity of the monk and his defining characteristics. Discussion ensued about interiorized monasticism and our embrace of the call to sanctity. Holiness, the control of the passions and unceasing prayer are meant not only for the monk but for all. 
 
Like the monk we are called to love chastity and to pursue it through nourishing ourselves upon the writings of the scriptures and the Fathers and through prolonged prayer. We must immerse ourselves deeply in the love and mercy of God in order that the deep wounds we bear may be healed. 
 
Our life is found not in the things of this world but in God. We are strangers to the city and citizens of the Kingdom. Our detachment must be such that we fear not the loss of our reputation but endure all dishonor quietly in order to defuse hatred and anger. 
 
Bearing such affliction purifies and solidifies the particular virtues within us as gold is purified in the fire. 
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Once again St. Isaac's words stir the heart to hope and the desire for God.  As a homily it offers with surprising brevity a clear and rich explication of the spiritual life.  He begins by calling us to humbly follow the spiritual path common to all men.  God's grace can work when and as it will in a person's life, but we should strive to walk the known paths that lead to virtue.  The more one grows in virtue the more the soul's insatiable desire for virtue seizes hold.  Discussion ensued about perhaps how uncommon an experience that is today.  Do we experience a growing and insatiable desire for virtue within our souls?  

Perfection is the standard for Christians in the spiritual life.  Union with God means sharing in His virtues and embodying them in our lives.  For example, the whole sum of the deeds of mercy immediately brings a soul into communion with the unity of the glory of the Godhead's splendor.  

The truth of this is manifest in speech: That which comes from righteous activity is a treasury of hope, but wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace.  Words arising out of experience transform the listener.

Isaac concludes by reminding us that all good things come through God and are wrought in us in secret through baptism and faith.  Any virtue we possess comes through these mediators and through them we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ to His good labors.
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We continued to follow Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria and the obstacles to lasting contemplation.  Theonas drives home the experience of wretchedness of the holy individual who is pulled away from contemplation of God by distraction and the weakness of the fleshly mind.  We "Fall" from contemplation and if we had a true sense of the loss that that is to us we too would experience deep compunction.  Yet, it is the action of constantly turning back to God that brings the holy soul the immediate outpouring of God's grace.  The anguished longing and desire of the soul is met by the immediate desire of God for renewed union.  

The group sought to understand this through the place where we all experience the deepest intimacy with God - the Mass.  In a world that fosters distraction and celebrates noise, it is easy for us to lose a kind of "custody of the eyes" - or custody of the Nous (the eye of the heart) that keeps us focused on the gift of love that is being offered to us and the sacrifice through which it has been made possible.  Only one who has tasted the sweetness of God's loves can understand the "Wretchedness" that St. Paul speaks of and the desire to be delivered from this body of death.  The deeper the love, the greater the pain at losing sight of the Beloved!
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Devastatingly Beautiful. . .  .

This is the only way to describe tonight's group and our reflection on Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria or Contemplation.  One cannot help but be wrapped up in the beauty of the life and love that God has raised us to share in with Him and how we are constantly under His loving gaze and attention.  Yet, it is devastating when we come to see how easily we are pulled from God by our own carelessness and negligence.  We foster distraction when God desires union.  He would draw us close and we turn away so casually and even without notice.  

Again, we see the need to live in a constant state of repentance; of turning toward God again and again and away from the desires of the flesh and this world.  We must keep our eyes ever fixed upon the beloved; like a tightrope walker never looking to the right or left if we are to reach our destination.  We have been set upon a narrow path - that of single hearted love for the Lord and we must ever hold to it and repent of the ways we let our thoughts drift from Him.  
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Abba Theonas begins to introduce Cassian and Germanus to a deeper understanding of Theoria, that is, contemplation.  In particular, he makes it clear that even though the virtues are good and precious, they are nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of the contemplation of God Himself.  Such contemplation is identifiable with purity of heart and even those who live a life of great perfection can fall, albeit unwillingly, from it due to distraction.  While not equivalent to grave sin, this distraction is due to the Fall and those who are aware of the sinfulness and poverty grieve over it.  Holy persons realize and are conscious of the great failure to cling to contemplation and repent and make reparation for it.  Such, however, cannot be said of the sinner who willingly enters into his crimes.  Despite our tendency to describe such things as "falls", a person willingly embraces their sin and is desirous of it; even overcoming every obstacle to attain it.  What is held before us then in this Conference is the height of contemplation that we are called to by grace and the pervasiveness of sin that must be struggled against even when the heights of perfection are attained.

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This evening we made a transition from Conference 22 to Conference 23, the last of Abba Theonas's three conferences.  Our discussion began with clarifying the fact that even the righteous and holy are in need of repentance and often fall, albeit unwillingly, into the sin of distraction and being pulled away from the goal of the spiritual life - Theoria, or contemplation of God.  In the light of divine goodness, all human goodness may be referred to as evil, "Thus, although the value of all the virtues . . . is good and precious in itself, it is nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of theoria.  For it greatly hinders and holds back holy persons from the contemplation of that sublime good if they are take up with what are still earthly pursuits, even if they are good works."  We have been created for God and intimacy with God; back to and greater than that state of original innocence and constant communion with the Lord before the Fall. We must be careful, then, not to see the pursuit of virtue or the avoidance of vice as the goal or end of the spiritual life, although they are essential to it.  These things cannot be separated from our desire for God and intimacy with Him.  Nor can we achieve them outside of His grace.  If abstracted from the love of God and the desire to live in that love - the spiritual life can become lifeless and devoid of meaning. 

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We pick up with Germanus and Cassian speaking with Abba Theonas about Nocturnal Illusions, or rather the emissions that sometimes occur at night, the causes of these emissions, and whether or not one should presume to receive the sacred and saving food from the altar or avoid do so when overcome by them.

Theonas begins making it clear that we should strive with all effort to maintain the purity of chastity unstained - particularly at the moment when we wish to stand at the holy altar and that we must be watchful lest the integrity of the flesh that we have protected be snatched away when we are preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion.  

If such emissions are produced through our sinfulness - negligence in spiritual practice or through a surfeit of food - then would should refrain.  If it is produced through the onslaught of the devil simply to humilate a a soul yet without any feeling of wantonness then one should confidently approach the grace of the saving food.

Having said this, great care must be given to discern one's state before receiving the saving Mysteries; for if we do not discern the body and blood of the Lord and approach the altar with presumption, we eat and drink to our own condemnation.  Theonas tells us that for "many who receive it unlawfully and abusively are weakened in faith and grow sickened by catching the diseases of the passions, and they fall asleep in the sleep of sinfulness, never rising from this mortal slumber" through lack of concern for their salvation.  

A lengthy discussion ensued about the current state of Church and the frequency with which many approach the altar with seemingly no consideration of these realities and how this might be remedied.  One must above all begin to live from communion to communion; that is, in a constant state of repentance, unceasing prayer, the avoidance of sin, frequent confession and the ascetic life.  Only by simplicity - that is, only by having God as the focus of our lives and that which shapes our entire existence - will we overcome the current state of things.  We must understand and embrace the fact that we live now "under grace" and seek to conform ourselves not to human but rather divine standards.   
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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 come to the end of Conference 21, Abba Theonas raises the bar for us in terms of how we understand our lives as Christian men and women.  He presents us with a magnificent comparison between focusing on our lives in a legalistic fashion (fulfilling certain precepts and obligations) and seeing our lives as being caught up in the grace of God and transcending the limitations of the law in every way.  

Sin is to have no dominion over us for the love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Every disposition to sin is to be something absolutely foreign to us since all our concentration and all our longing is constantly fixed upon the divine love and to such a degree that we do not take delight in base things and do not even make use of those things that would normally be conceded to us by our own judgment and that of the world's.  The grace of the Savior is to inflame us with a holy love of incorruption which burns up all the thorns of evil desires such that the dying ember of vice does not diminish our integrity in any way.

This is something that must be experienced to be understood fully.  The purity of heart and the all consuming love for God and the love virtue is rarely tasted in our day.  May God fill us with the desire for it!
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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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