November 3, 2016
Once again St. Isaac's words stir the heart to hope and the desire for God. As a homily it offers with surprising brevity a clear and rich explication of the spiritual life. He begins by calling us to humbly follow the spiritual path common to all men. God's grace can work when and as it will in a person's life, but we should strive to walk the known paths that lead to virtue. The more one grows in virtue the more the soul's insatiable desire for virtue seizes hold. Discussion ensued about perhaps how uncommon an experience that is today. Do we experience a growing and insatiable desire for virtue within our souls?
Perfection is the standard for Christians in the spiritual life. Union with God means sharing in His virtues and embodying them in our lives. For example, the whole sum of the deeds of mercy immediately brings a soul into communion with the unity of the glory of the Godhead's splendor.
The truth of this is manifest in speech: That which comes from righteous activity is a treasury of hope, but wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace. Words arising out of experience transform the listener.
Isaac concludes by reminding us that all good things come through God and are wrought in us in secret through baptism and faith. Any virtue we possess comes through these mediators and through them we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ to His good labors.
October 20, 2016
St. Isaac continues to lay the foundations for the discipline of virtue which include in particular the purification of the passions and the avoidance of distractions. He emphasizes reading as an ascetical discipline - especially the reading of scripture. Such reading helps free the mind and imagination from worldly things and the more one immerses himself in the wonder of God's love, the more the thoughts are prevented from running to the body's nature. If the heart is not occupied with study, it cannot endure the continuous assault of thoughts.
Inconstancy of mind and heart is overcome through fear and shame - a recognition of our mortality and the repentance from sin that flows from it. This is the foundation of one's spiritual journey and the quickest path to the kingdom.
We must remember that not every person will be wakened to wonder by what is said in the scriptures and the great power it contains within it. Faith more than reason must guide that study and illuminate that word and purity must clear one's vision. "A word concerning virtue has need of a heart unbusied with the earth and converse."
It becomes clear that simplicity of life and clarity of purpose and desire are necessary for those seeking the kingdom. Our faith cannot be an auxiliary construction or something to which we lesser energies. Nor can we compartmentalize our faith. The path to holiness must be tread with firm purpose and with the full self invested.
October 13, 2016
St. Isaac begins by encouraging us to become drunk with faith in God; to be so immersed in our relationship with Him that we are constantly under the influence of His grace. Only in this way will the malady of the senses and the passions that arise out of them be healed. It is this understanding of Christian Asceticism that must be regained. Instead of seeking distraction and entertainment in our lives, we must seek solitude and silence; to purify the heart in order to be drawn into the Mystery and Wonder of God.
When God's grace is abundant within us we easily scorn the fear of death and are willing to endure the greatest tribulations. In fact, Isaac tells us, such trials are necessary for the perfecting of faith and lead us to rely more and more upon the providence of God. Without this trust, a person is continually waylaid by his fears of the world around him and the unknown.
Fear of God, the offspring of faith, and obedience to the commandments is the only means to avoiding distractions. As human beings we are constantly in a state of receptivity through our senses and unless we turn away from the senses we will gradually be driven away from our delight in God. A conscious choice must be made to simplify our lives in order to provide them with the solitude that is need for prayer and study. Without such intent we will be driven back to the inveterate habits of licentiousness.
June 16, 2016
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.
May 19, 2016
We pick up with Germanus and Cassian speaking with Abba Theonas about Nocturnal Illusions, or rather the emissions that sometimes occur at night, the causes of these emissions, and whether or not one should presume to receive the sacred and saving food from the altar or avoid do so when overcome by them.
Theonas begins making it clear that we should strive with all effort to maintain the purity of chastity unstained - particularly at the moment when we wish to stand at the holy altar and that we must be watchful lest the integrity of the flesh that we have protected be snatched away when we are preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion.
If such emissions are produced through our sinfulness - negligence in spiritual practice or through a surfeit of food - then would should refrain. If it is produced through the onslaught of the devil simply to humilate a a soul yet without any feeling of wantonness then one should confidently approach the grace of the saving food.
Having said this, great care must be given to discern one's state before receiving the saving Mysteries; for if we do not discern the body and blood of the Lord and approach the altar with presumption, we eat and drink to our own condemnation. Theonas tells us that for "many who receive it unlawfully and abusively are weakened in faith and grow sickened by catching the diseases of the passions, and they fall asleep in the sleep of sinfulness, never rising from this mortal slumber" through lack of concern for their salvation.
A lengthy discussion ensued about the current state of Church and the frequency with which many approach the altar with seemingly no consideration of these realities and how this might be remedied. One must above all begin to live from communion to communion; that is, in a constant state of repentance, unceasing prayer, the avoidance of sin, frequent confession and the ascetic life. Only by simplicity - that is, only by having God as the focus of our lives and that which shapes our entire existence - will we overcome the current state of things. We must understand and embrace the fact that we live now "under grace" and seek to conform ourselves not to human but rather divine standards.
May 12, 2016
The desert fathers are not shy when it comes to talking about the more intimate details of human sexuality and its interplay with the spiritual life. Conference 22 picks up with Cassian and Germanus' much anticipated discussion with Abba Theonas about why fasting does not always seem to guarantee freedom from nocturnal emission of semen. There is no dualism between mind and body in Cassian's thought - each has an impact on the spiritual life and are intimately tied together. Nocturnal emissions take place for three possible reasons: Either a surfeit of food and drink has demanded this sort of release; or some kind of spiritual neglect has provoked it; or, finally, the devil himself has brought it about and uses it to humiliate a person who is otherwise progressing in purity, thus making him hesitate to receive Holy Communion.
This leads Germanus to ask whether a person who has had a nocturnal emission is permitted to receive communion and if so under what circumstances. Passions may lie deep within the unconscious and arise within dreams and cause such natural phenomena. An individual can incur guilt by irregularity and neglectful practices - times of gluttony, entertaining momentary sinful thoughts, lack of prayer, etc. The unconscious reveals a great deal about one's conscious spiritual life and practice.
Such considerations are important especially when it comes to receiving Holy Communion for one who seeks to truly discern the Body and Blood of the Lord. Though seeming subtle and significant to the modern mind all of this speaks to the importance of purity of heart and whether one is in a right relationship with God and living, as it were, from communion to communion. Do we appreciate the nature of the gift that we receive in the Holy Eucharist and do we live our lives in such a fashion that we are constantly preparing to receive the gift of God's grace and striving to allow it to bear the greatest fruit possible? If the Eucharist is Life and the center of our lives then our attentiveness to both our conscious awareness and practices and to manifestations of our unconscious should be great. What do our dreams or the presence of nocturnal emissions tell us about aspects of our internal state that may be hidden to us?
April 7, 2016
Germanus and Cassian finally begin to talk with Abba Theonas about the relaxation of Pentecost; that is, how one approaches a festal season and moderation of ascetical practices. Theonas starts by emphasizing the importance of discretion and right judgment arising out of a well formed conscience so that one avoid extremes. During such a season a person wouldn't want to indiscriminately maintain disciplines so as to overly weaken the body or fain asceticism before others or relax disciplines too much so as to lose control of the passions one has labored to overcome during Lent.
Celebration and relaxation should not simply be considered in a worldly fashion. As Christians we want to protect the nobler festival of the mind and the joy of incorruption above all things. The relaxation we embrace should reflect that joyful reality and we should not give way to the gross indiscretion of the world and fail to abstain from overly rich foods or eat a great deal more than usual. The celebration lies within and we don't want to overemphasize the satisfaction of carnal desires.
Attention then turns to Lent as tithing of a portion of one's life to God for the sake of greater emancipation from one's sins and passions. Likewise, Theonas goes on to explain we are to tithe the first fruits of every day to God. Before any worldly work is done, our thoughts must turn to God and we must offer Him first our sacrifice of praise.
March 31, 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.
March 10, 2016
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.
February 25, 2016
We join Cassian and Germanus now as they visit with Abba Pinufius - well known to them for his holiness and humility. Because of these qualities, they seek him out in particular as they grapple not with understanding the need for repentance and reparation but rather with the desire to know the when end of repentance has been achieved and by what marks reparation and full healing from sin can be identified.
For the modern Christian, this can be very difficult to understand; so largely have repentance and reparation become symbolic in our lives. Seeking forgiveness and confessing one's sins can simply be a legalistic notion - acknowledging infractions of certain moral laws rather than addressing the restoration of a relationship of love and repairing or healing the damage done by our sin and overcoming our disposition to sin. In a few sentences, Abba Pinufius pulls from our grasp all room for presumption. Conscience becomes the truest judge - speaking to our hearts about the true state of our souls and whether we have received the forgiveness and grace of God in vain. It becomes the strongest indicator of whether or not we have been freed from the disposition to particular sins. Repentance and reparation, and the formation of conscience, then, become constant and essential elements of the spiritual life.