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Archive for January 2016

Germanus and Cassian continue their conversation with Abba John who in many ways is unique.  He began his life in the Cenobium, became an anchorite, and then returned to the common life of the Cenobium after many years in solitude.  Abba John experienced the desire and the fruit of the life of deep solitude as an anchorite - intimacy with God and theoria or contemplation.  However, after many years of solitude distractions and concerns began to weigh upon him so much so that he was losing the simplicity of life and freedom that allows for undistracted contemplation.  There was a relaxation, among many of the anchorites, of the simplicity necessary for such a life and an over-concern for carnal realities began to emerge; too much of a focus on bodily comfort and the variety and plentitude of food.  Too much concern was focused on the morrow rather that God in the present moment.  What may seem to be a slight regression in practice to us made an enormous difference for those who were to be seeking God in radical simplicity in order to be free emotionally and spiritually to be raised up to the heights of prayer.  Abba John, therefore, wisely and humbly made the decision to return to the Cenobium where he could live with a greater freedom from such concerns because of the nature and support of the common life as well as live under obedience to a superior and so be conformed to Christ more perfectly.  

Lengthy discussion then ensued regarding how such principles could be applied to contemporary life and the pursuit of holiness in the world.  How do we regain our simplicity and clarity of focus on living the Christian life in a world that thrives on distraction and a busyness that crowds out solitude and prayer?  The loss of a larger Catholic culture and its formative effects has been immeasurable.  Individuals and families live in isolation and find themselves walking in lockstep with those living in and formed by modern worldly sensibilities.  If the family is the domestic Church then should it not possess more in common with the cenobium?  Should not an environment be sought and created that nourishes the faith, the pursuit of holiness and a life of simplicity where prayer can emerge and shape one's existence?
The renewal of Christian culture is something that will likely take place by slowly building that which will endure; not necessarily by appealing to modern sensibilities but living the gospel fully and embracing the love of the Cross. Cassian's writing remains ever relevant because it approaches the human person in relation to God not in a superficial fashion but as the deep mystery in which we must be fully immersed.    
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Cassian and Germanus continue their discussion of Cenobitism and Anchoritism with an elderly Abba Paul who had lived in solitude for 20 years only later to return to the common life of the Cenobium.  While praising the anchoritic life and its possibilities for ardent prayer, Abba Paul states that the common life is marked with the evangelical disregard for the morrow and submission to the elder.  Those living the common life are able to share the labor and a monastery becomes self-sufficient, allowing the monks simply to focus upon fulfilling the rule daily undisturbed.  Living in obedience to an elder they also are able to better address the scourge of the anchoritic life which is being tempted by pride and vainglory.  Anchorites often run the risk of becoming overly occupied with food and possessions since they do not have the common life to support them. Furthermore, anchorites are often besieged by visitors seeking counsel and do not have the enclosure to protect their solitude.  

In any case, Abba Paul tells them that perfection in either life is a rare thing.  The end of the cenobite is to put to death and to crucify all his desires and, in accordance with the Gospel precept to have no thought for the next day . . . But the perfection of the of the hermit is to have a mind bare of all earthly things and, as much as human frailty permits, to unite it with Christ.  
Even after 20 years of solitude, Abba Paul return to the Cenobium; having seen fault lines in his own heart - worldly or carnal desires that he believed only the discipline of the common life could address.  In the end, the cenobitic life was the "safer" path for him.
This conference like the last begins with a profound example of patience; unlike anything Cassian or Germanus had seen in their previous monastery and that must have deeply humbled these two travelers who had only spent 2 years in a monastery prior to seeking out the perfection of the East.  A young monk bears a slap from one of the elders that echoed so loudly as to be heard and felt physically by the 200 monks gathered to celebrated the death anniversary of a former abba of the monastery.  Not only did the young monk bear the humiliation patiently but with no physical or emotional sign of disturbance.  How could Cassian and Germanus failed to be humbled in their pursuit of the ideal of solitude while confronted with the perfection of the cenobitic life unlike anything they encountered before?
A lengthy discussion ensued about how such teaching applies to the life and formation of those living in the world.  What comes into sharp focus regardless of the specific path taken is the need to have Christ and the pursuit of purity of heart at the center of one's life and shaping its contours.  Truly one may live in the world but one must not be of the world or shaped by it.  How starkly different must the Christian life be in comparison to the secular!! 
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We come to the conclusion of Conference 18, struck both by the beauty of the wisdom put forward and the fearfulness of its warning.  The example of the perfect patience and long suffering of the young monk Paphnutius described at our last meeting is followed by an explication of the most dangerous of sins - spiritual envy.  The poison of this serpent's bite knows no remedy - for the sting of the serpent goes unseen and unfelt and remains hidden by an otherwise virtuous life.  "What would you do in the case of a person who is offended by the very fact that he sees that you are humbler and kinder . . . ?"  The hatred of the good and the desire to destroy it can be hidden within the pursuit of holiness itself.  No guidance from even the wisest of elders can draw out the poison.  Only the action of God's grace can and in the fashion of the love and suffering of the cross.  When the one offended suffers at the sight of the sin in the other, not in judgment but in compassion. Who sees the deep wounds, trembles and weeps and then offers his own life in reparation; absorbing the poison even at great costs (including death) not simply to contain the poison but to transform it through a Godly love.  

A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the deep wounds the faithful have suffered at the hands of the shepherds and what can possibly bring healing to a flock that has been ravaged.  Once again, the humble embrace of the mystery of the Cross stands before us in all its fearsome splendor.
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Living in the desert, having access to a holy elder, and being surrounded by those of great virtue is not a guarantee that one will grow in humility and patience.  The true battle ground is within the heart and the fierce struggle that must take place is with one's own dispositions.  The Christian must undergo a decisive change in the way they look at reality and the struggles of life.  The pursuit of holiness and virtue must become the center of consciousness - the frame of reference; as well as an unceasing reliance upon the grace of God through prayer.  The wisdom that must guide us in our reaction to the slights and insults of others must be the wisdom of the cross; the ego must as it were be crucified in love for God and neighbor.  Our natural disposition so often is to defend and strike back rather than to receive with love the hatred of others in such a way that it can be transformed by the love of God. 

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