August 13, 2015
Abba Nesteros's second conference, which deals with the charism of healing, is the shortest of all twenty-four conferences. Nesteros begins by distinguishing among three kinds of healing that differ by reason not of their object or their effect but by reason of the character and disposition of the healer. Thus there are healings performed by holy persons; by sinners and by other unworthy persons to whom, nonetheless, power has been given by God; and by demons who work through public sinners and who are thereby seeking to undermine the respect in which religion is held. Therefore it is not miracles themselves that are admirable, since the wicked can sometimes perform them, but rather a virtuous life. Above all, it is love that counts, and this is equivalent to that practical knowledge that had been discussed in 14.1.3ff. The great men of the desert were in fact hesitant to work miracles, and they only did so when it seemed that they were compelled to it. As an illustration of this reluctance, Nesteros recounts the stories of three abbas who enacted miracles either to defend the faith in some way or as a merciful response to an urgent request. These men gave no credit to themselves for their gift but humbly acknowledged God as its source. It is humility that particularly marks the Christian and that is capable of being learned by all, whereas miracle-working is for the few and is, in any event, conducive to vainglory. Indeed, it is a greater miracle to control one's own passions than to work miracles for others. As a proof of this, and in conclusion, Nesteros relates an incident in the life of Abba Paphnutius. Paphnutius prided himself on his perfect chastity, but once, when he was cooking his meal, he burned his hand, which upset him. This in turn led him to reflect, despite his conviction of being pure, on the fires of hell. As he was musing on these thoughts and slowly drowsing off, an angel appeared to him and gently rebuked him for believing that he was pure, when in fact he was not completely in control of himself. If he wanted to demonstrate this to himself, he should take a naked maiden and embrace her and see if he remained unmoved. Paphnutius wisely realized that he could not survive such a test, and Nesteros ends the conference by observing that perfect purity is a higher gift than expelling demons. Cassian's express relegation of miracles and extraordinary charisms to a very secondary level in comparison with a virtuous life is consonant with his words in Inst. praef. 8: "My plan is to say a few things not about the marvelous works of God but about the improvement of our behavior and the attainment of the perfect life, in keeping with what we have learned from our elders." The same sentiment appears later in Conlat. 18.1.3, when Cassian declares himself unwilling to expatiate on the miracles of Abba Piamun; his purpose is to "offer to our readers only what is necessary for instruction in the perfect life and not a useless and vain object of wonderment without any correction for faults." Nonetheless there is enough of the miraculous in the present conference, and throughout The Conferences in general, for the reader to grasp quickly that wonders were not necessarily infrequent in the desert. This is in turn intended to accomplish the further end of implanting in the reader an awe of the abbas whose teaching is being transmitted. Their miracles thus give authority to their words.