Devastatingly Beautiful. . . .
Devastatingly Beautiful. . . .
What do we seek? What do we long for the most? Can any of us truly say Theoria, or contemplation; to be drawn up into the eternal blessedness of God through participation and by His grace? Do we seek to pray without ceasing as though it is that narrow path from which we seek not to stumble? Theonas begins in these first sections of Conference 23 to show Cassian and Germanus why contemplation of God has a dignity greater than all the dignity of righteousness and all the zeal of virtuousness. All things in this world will be unable to maintain their title of goodness if they are compared to the future age, where no mutability in good things and no corruption of true blessedness is to be feared! The Apostle Paul is the exemplar of one who desires the indissoluble fellowship with God above all things for himself and for others. He cries out: "I do not know what to choose. I am compelled on two sides, having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for that is far better, while remaining in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."
Abba Theonas begins to introduce Cassian and Germanus to a deeper understanding of Theoria, that is, contemplation. In particular, he makes it clear that even though the virtues are good and precious, they are nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of the contemplation of God Himself. Such contemplation is identifiable with purity of heart and even those who live a life of great perfection can fall, albeit unwillingly, from it due to distraction. While not equivalent to grave sin, this distraction is due to the Fall and those who are aware of the sinfulness and poverty grieve over it. Holy persons realize and are conscious of the great failure to cling to contemplation and repent and make reparation for it. Such, however, cannot be said of the sinner who willingly enters into his crimes. Despite our tendency to describe such things as "falls", a person willingly embraces their sin and is desirous of it; even overcoming every obstacle to attain it. What is held before us then in this Conference is the height of contemplation that we are called to by grace and the pervasiveness of sin that must be struggled against even when the heights of perfection are attained.
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.
Abba Theonas continues to draw Cassian and Germanus into the greater vision of the Christian life - guided not by law but by grace. The measure of holiness for the Christian is always Christ, the sinless one, and so even though our conscience does not rebuke us we know that we are but worthless servants who have only done our duty. We seek the purity of heart and chastity that not only avoids fornication but seeks freedom from all wantonness. In this the fundamental attitude of the Christian must be humility. We must live in a constant state of repentance, penance and prayer; understanding that daily we fall through weakness into the capital sins and that it is only by being lifted up by God's grace and participating in the perfect purity of Christ that we come to share in the holiness of God.