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Archive for March 2016

After the introduction to the conference presented over the past two weeks revolving around the elder Theona's conversion and his choice of pursuing the absolute good of following Christ and pursuing purity of heart, the dialogue itself begins.  The two friends asks Theonas about the custom of not kneeling during the 50 days of Pentecost and of observing a modified schedule of fasting during that season.  Theonas first makes a bow to the authority of the ancients.  Then, addressing himself to the issue of fasting, he distinguishes between absolute goods and absolute evils on the one hand and those things that are, on the other hand, either good or bad depending on how they are used.  Fasting is not an absolute good; if it were, then it would be wrong ever to eat.  It is, instead, something indifferent, which is practiced for the sake of acquiring an absolute and essential good.  The characteristics of an absolute good, however, are that "it is good by itself and not by reason of something else . . .necessary for its own sake and not for the sake of something else . . . unchangeable and always good . . . its removal and cessation cannot but bring on the gravest evil and that similarly, the essential evil, which is its opposite, cannot ever become good." This definition, so typical of Cassian in its precision, can in no way apply to fasting.  With two allusions to the subordination of fasting to the acquisition of purity of heart we are once again drawn back to the atmosphere of the first conference.

While this precise approach to discipline might seem laborious, it lays the foundation for Cassian to set forward with power and clarity the spirit in which we are to live our new life in Christ; the higher standard of love that shapes our identity and ever aspect of our life as human beings filled with the grace of God.

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Nowhere is the universal call to holiness, the call to live in and embrace the grace of God radically, more fully and challengingly expressed than in this section of Cassian's 21st Conference.  These realities become extremely personal as they are displayed through the story of the conversion of Theonas, the elder of the conference.  The pursuit of the perfection of grace touches every aspect of life and whether a person is a monk, a virgin or married, they are called to take it up whatever the costs.  Theonas was married and comes to the realization that he must embrace more than a lawful commitment to his spouse but a relationship that fosters chastity.  The locus of conflict that he begins to identify is between sexual habit and continence in the heart and that it is possible for a person not to be a lover of marriage but rather of slave of lust.  Sexuality here becomes the perfect mirror of the human self - the lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivations.  He and his wife had been pushed into marriage with the notion that the vows alone would control sexual passions.  They mistakenly thought that purity of heart could be fostered without embracing fully the life of grace and its expression in a disciplined life.  Marriage is touched by grace - it is to make present the selfless love of Christ for his Bride the Church.  This comes at a costs and by grace, not by magic or wishful thinking.  

Theonas desired not only his own salvation but that of his wife; that they would abstain from conjugal relationship and embrace ascetical discipline until their hearts were purified and the love for each other chaste. He would not defraud himself or his wife of salvation or become for each other merely "seducer."  To divorce his wife with whom he was one would mean cutting off and losing a part of himself.  If his hand causes him to sin he must in the end cut it off.  To be Christ's disciple, to love himself above all things, then he would fulfill and embrace the words of the Lord that "unless you hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister and yes even your own life, you cannot be my disciple."  

Cassian will not allow us to easily dismiss these challenging teachings of the Gospel as hyperbole or set aside the call to embrace the grace of God and so be transformed from "glory to glory."

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Cassian and Germanus now begin their discussion with Abba Theonas; the conference beginning with the story of Theonas' own conversion and which is meant to be the cypher through which the teachings that follow are meant to be interpreted.  There is a higher ideal of the Gospel - one that urges a far greater abnegation of self than what is found the the fulfillment of the law.  Furthermore, one is called, persuaded, to respond to the higher life of grace and is invited to assent through freedom of will and the desire for what is beautiful.  The perfect who stand not under the law but under grace, remain ardent, and so attain to that state where they are not dominated by sin.  They are not content to offer tithes but rather seek to offer themselves and their own souls to God, for which no exchange can be made by a human being.  Christ forces no one to the highest reaches of virtue by the obligation of a precept but he moves by the power of a free will and inflames by salutary persuasion and by the desire for perfection.  

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We come to the conclusion of Conference 20 on repentance and reparation and consider the depth of the desert Fathers understanding of the human person.  Abba Pinufius sets off carnal sins from the others as those that one would not want to recall as a means of uprooting the disposition to them.  Such sins, touching upon our natural appetites and desires carry within them the danger of drawing us back into them if we allow them to return to memory and imagination.  Pinufius is not treating such natural appetites as evils but rather respecting their power and importance to our identity as human beings.  For such reasons they are not to be treated casually or lightly in the spiritual battle. We must instead turn our minds to heavenly things - the desire for God and the virtues.  

The closing note is a reminder that what has been addressed in this conference pertains to the more grave sins in the eyes of God.  We may come to the point where we do not commit them and have freed ourselves from the disposition towards them.  However, the smaller sins we commit repeatedly throughout the day, often without noticing, remain something we struggle with and continue to do penance for throughout our lives.  Repentance and reparation our constant fixtures of the spiritual life.

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While trying to help Cassian and Germanus focus on the end of repentance and the marks of reparation which is healing (the removal of the thorn of the conscience and any disposition to sin), Pinufius patiently steps back and tries to hearten and encourage his proteges in the continuing pursuit of these things.  He must first help them see the constant means God places at our disposal to know his mercy and forgiveness and the means he provides for healing us of the effects of our sins.  Again, with a single stroke of the pen, Cassian removes our tendency to turn the forgiveness of sin and the repairing of its wounds into something mechanical or magical. God is a lover who ceaselessly seeks us out and draws us to himself; offering us at every turn means to know his forgiveness. Never more can we blame God for our lingering attraction to sin and return to it.  It is our negligence and lack of resolve, our pride and laziness alone that keeps us from coming to know that fullness and freedom, love and forgiveness.  Our lack of hatred for sin and our unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to free ourselves from its grip, reveals a lack of love and gratitude for God's gifts.  

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