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.
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.
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.
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.