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.
Conferences of St. John Cassian: Conference Three on Renunciation -Part V and Conference Four on Desires of Flesh and Spirit
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.
We continue to follow Cassian as he discusses the relationship between grace and free will. God is not only the beginning and end of all things but his grace is the source of our growth in virtue and our rising out of vice when we have fallen. Our free will is used to embrace that grace in obedience or to turn away from it. Discussion then ensued about the importance and centrality of desire in the spiritual life. Christianity in its essence is relational and we create an illusion when we make the ascetical life about the performance of a muscular will as opposed growing in the freedom to embrace the grace that God offers us in love.
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.
After discussing the three sources of one's calling to monastic life or conversion, Cassian moves on to consider three forms of renunciation that lead one to embrace the life of grace: renunciation of one's attachment to material things, renunciation of one's attachment to sin, and renunciation of anything that prevents one from living in the fullness of theoria, or contemplation of God. Discussion ensued about how this renunciation is fulfilled by those who live in the world and in the face of the challenges of this generation and in light of the modern culture. How does one live for God alone in our day and seek purity of heart? What are the obstacles that we often place in our own way to pursuing the life of holiness and the joy in brings?