We come now to the conclusion of Conference 19 where Cassian and Germanus question Abba John about how one overcomes and does battle with vices that reemerge after the solitary life of the anchorite has been embraced. Abba John describes for them how they must engage in a kind of mental warfare - drawing the vices they see active in their hearts to mind and allowing themselves to be humbled by them and then apply the necessary reparation that is need; that is, apply the healing balm of penance and self rebuke to uproot the vestiges of these sins. The self-honesty as well as the self-awareness necessary for such an undertaking is great, especially since it is done without the support and guidance of others. The only vice where this is not to be done is fornication or unchastity. Since such vices arise out of and are connected to bodily appetites, the use of mental imagery could be very dangerous and simply draw one further into sin.
Conferences of St. John Cassian - Conference Nineteen On the End of the Cenobite and Hermit Part III
Again, Germanus and Cassian take up their discussion with Abba John about the end of the life of a cenobite and of the hermit. Both have been deeply humbled as their understanding of the necessity and importance of long formation in the cenobia for developing the capacity of pursuing the anchoritic life. Only by having lived in community and having crucified the ego and one's passions can one possibly pursue the life of greater solitude and contemplation. For it is in the deeper silence of the the anchoritic life that the once hidden passions will again emerge. In fact, some people become so savage due to the unbroken silence of the desert simply because they sought it in pride or prematurely. If one goes off to the desert with vices not yet attended to, only their effects will be repressed but the dispositions to them will not be extinguished.
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.
Cassian's discussion with Abba Piamun about the various kinds of monks stands more as a backdrop to a greater reflection on the necessary virtues of the Christian life; virtues not requiring a retreat to the desert but rather a willingness to retreat into the heart and there do battle to free oneself from the grip of the ego. Tonight we were presented with a most beauty portrait of humility - the virtue that becomes like the oil used by wrestlers and which allows the rebukes, insults and detraction of others to slide off of us, never being able to take grip of our hearts and pull us down into indignation and anger towards others. Abba Piamun provides us with the stories of two exemplars of patience and humility that provoke the desire for imitation and help us to understand that the spiritual life is not about leisure or joy in this world. Trial and affliction shape and sharpen these virtues until they take on the quality God desires.
We continue to listen with Cassian and Germanus to Abba Piamun discuss the kind of monks - Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarbaites and a fourth category of monk who briefly enters the cenobitic life only to rapidly leaves the confines of communal discipline and obedience to an elder for a premature embrace of the life of seclusion. The distinctions made by Abba Piamun, however, merely serve as a backdrop to a greater discussion the necessary progress and formation that one must embrace before seeking a life a greater hiddenness and contemplation. The conference is fraught with examples of the dangers of seeking to leap over the fundamental formation of the common life. To do so, reveals a kind of pride or self-delusion; that one can enter into a higher state without having properly formed the mind and heart in humility and obedience.
Cassian and Germanus move deeper into the Egyptian desert in search of a larger and more perfect group of holy men. The meet Abba Piamun, the elder and priest of all the anchorites living a more solitary life there under his guidance. Before speaking to them about the various kinds of monastic life, Piamun discusses the necessary dispositions that would make a journey such as their's fruitful. There had been many before Cassian and Germanus who simply came to Egypt to satisfy their curiosity but lacking the necessary desire to embrace the teachings of the elders and to imitate their lives. They must approach the spiritual life as anyone seeks to acquire a skill in some art; they must give themselves over to the pursuit fully. They must seek to imitate fully and faithfully the elders rather than simply to discuss or analyze everything that they see or hear. In other words, they must not cling to or trust their own judgment for they will only come to the point where even things which are very beneficial or salutary will seem useless or harmful to them. Letting go of all obstinacy they must seek to become docile and allow the truth to emerge through their experience over time.