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In the final paragraph of Homily Four, St. Isaac exhorts us to die to all things and the doings of the world that give rise to the passions.  He acknowledges that there is a a kind of madness to this as seen from a worldly perspective and that reality gets turned on its head.  But it is only when we trust to the Lord by embracing this path fully that we will experience the sweetness of spiritual inebriation.  Though difficult, he encourages us not to lose hope for the mere movement of toward God and the mere expression of desire for holiness brings with it a flood of grace and mercy.

Homily Five begins by reminding us that we have received all that we need through the revelation of nature and the scriptures to guide and direct us in the spiritual life; especially the reality of our own mortality.  Death gives rise to the question of the meaning of our lives and what path we are going to pursue.  We cannot, however, approach these realities and think that we can stand still or refrain from offering any response.  "Whoever does not voluntarily withdraw himself from the passions is involuntarily drawn away by sin."  There is no static position for us as human beings.  We must withdraw from the causes of the passions and set ourselves toward the good; realizing that God honors not wealth but rather poverty of spirit, not pride but humility.

In the spiritual battle, we must engage "manfully", that is, with courage.  We must not doubt God is our Helper in the good work otherwise we will be scared of our own shadow.  If we hope in Him, however, we will experience Him as one who manages our "household", that is, our heart and sends His angels to strengthen and encourage us.

Never hold any sin to be slight.  To love God is to hate evil and our sin, no matter how grave or small in our eyes. And having made any strides in the spiritual life, it must be seen as mere fidelity and obedience to what is commanded of us.  Pride must have no place within us.

Sin must be fought and healed with the right remedies.  Lack of chastity cannot be healed by giving great alms and fasting does not overcome avarice.  In place of the loss of sanctity God requires sanctification.  Lack of chastity must be restored to purity.

 

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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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Abba Nesteros's second conference, which deals with the charism of healing, is the shortest of all twenty-four conferences. Nesteros begins by distinguishing among three kinds of healing that differ by reason not of their object or their effect but by reason of the character and disposition of the healer. Thus there are healings performed by holy persons; by sinners and by other unworthy persons to whom, nonetheless, power has been given by God; and by demons who work through public sinners and who are thereby seeking to undermine the respect in which religion is held. Therefore it is not miracles themselves that are admirable, since the wicked can sometimes perform them, but rather a virtuous life. Above all, it is love that counts, and this is equivalent to that practical knowledge that had been discussed in 14.1.3ff. The great men of the desert were in fact hesitant to work miracles, and they only did so when it seemed that they were compelled to it. As an illustration of this reluctance, Nesteros recounts the stories of three abbas who enacted miracles either to defend the faith in some way or as a merciful response to an urgent request. These men gave no credit to themselves for their gift but humbly acknowledged God as its source. It is humility that particularly marks the Christian and that is capable of being learned by all, whereas miracle-working is for the few and is, in any event, conducive to vainglory. Indeed, it is a greater miracle to control one's own passions than to work miracles for others. As a proof of this, and in conclusion, Nesteros relates an incident in the life of Abba Paphnutius. Paphnutius prided himself on his perfect chastity, but once, when he was cooking his meal, he burned his hand, which upset him. This in turn led him to reflect, despite his conviction of being pure, on the fires of hell. As he was musing on these thoughts and slowly drowsing off, an angel appeared to him and gently rebuked him for believing that he was pure, when in fact he was not completely in control of himself. If he wanted to demonstrate this to himself, he should take a naked maiden and embrace her and see if he remained unmoved. Paphnutius wisely realized that he could not survive such a test, and Nesteros ends the conference by observing that perfect purity is a higher gift than expelling demons. Cassian's express relegation of miracles and extraordinary charisms to a very secondary level in comparison with a virtuous life is consonant with his words in Inst. praef. 8: "My plan is to say a few things not about the marvelous works of God but about the improvement of our behavior and the attainment of the perfect life, in keeping with what we have learned from our elders." The same sentiment appears later in Conlat. 18.1.3, when Cassian declares himself unwilling to expatiate on the miracles of Abba Piamun; his purpose is to "offer to our readers only what is necessary for instruction in the perfect life and not a useless and vain object of wonderment without any correction for faults." Nonetheless there is enough of the miraculous in the present conference, and throughout The Conferences in general, for the reader to grasp quickly that wonders were not necessarily infrequent in the desert. This is in turn intended to accomplish the further end of implanting in the reader an awe of the abbas whose teaching is being transmitted. Their miracles thus give authority to their words.
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The group continued this week following Cassian’s discussion with the elder Theodore about the ability to be “ambidextrous” in the spiritual life; that is, the importance of being able to remain at peace in the face of prosperity or adversity.  Our chief desire should be to avoid sin and to trust that God, in his providence, can make all things work for the good of those who love and obey Him.  A lengthy discussion ensued about how such an understanding of things changes our approach to life and what we value.  The group also discussed the experience of suffering in relation to Cassian’s teaching.

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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 continued to discuss Cassian’s exposition of the Eight Principal Vices. We followed as Cassian defined each of the vices and how they manifest themselves, how a vice such as the self-esteem associated with vainglory can be used to prevent an individual from following into lesser vice such as fornication through the shame it causes, and how we should spy out and focus our struggle against the worst of our vices. A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the nature of the spiritual struggle as presented by the desert fathers and how one understands this in light of life in the modern world and worldly pursuits. Reading the desert fathers can be summed up in one word: discomfiting. The group struggled, as it often has, to understand the radical call to holiness with the affective and often subjective and individualistic approach to the spiritual life and response to the demands of the Gospel. How does one live in the modern world and in the modern culture without isolating oneself on one hand or compromising the call to live completely for Christ on the other? How do we pursue that which is good and beautiful within the world without making our faith an auxiliary construction or placing the pursuit of virtue on an equal footing with earthly goals or achievements?

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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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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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We continue with Cassian's exposition of the three forms of renunciation and the importance of understanding that simply renouncing attachment to material goods without renouncing vice is wanting in its nature. There are only two riches that endure unto eternal life - our vices and our virtues. These two things are freighted with destiny and cannot be neglected. The spiritual life cannot be stripped of its moral demands and the call to deep conversion. Even if one were to give up all of his goods or even his own life, but was lacking in love or purity of heart, he has nothing. The starkness of this teaching is as refreshing as it is challenging in an age that seeks to avoid making any moral judgments or giving moral weight to actions.

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For just as the kingdom of the devil is gained by the conniving at the vices, so the kingdom of God is possessed in purity of heart and spiritual knowledge by practicing the virtues.

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