December 10, 2015
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.
How different this is from the modern Christian. Often we want to be convinced of the truth or experience the fruits of faith and religious discipline while eluding the necessary obedience and docility. We want to be sold on why we should want to embrace the ascetic life rather than humbly seeking the counsel and guidance of others.
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.
July 23, 2015
We labored through a few pages of the conference where Abba Nesteros lays out the types of Spiritual Knowledge that exist - tropology, allegory and analogy. Of these various types of knowledge the tropological is most necessary early in the spiritual life - that which pertains to correction of life and to practical instruction in the conquering of vice and growth in virtue. One cannot find perfection in the words of others but rather in the virtuousness of their own acts. Our hearts must become sacred tabernacles, cleansed of every contagion of sin and ready to receive the Word of God.
Great care must be taken to remain silent, guarding the teachings of the elders in the heart rather than rushing to teach them to others. Avoid all vainglory in questions and never seek to show off your learning. Don't teach unless you have previously lived the truths you put forward; for Abba Nesteros writes "whoever neglects many great things and dares to teach them is certainly not merely least in the Kingdom of Heaven but should be considered greatest in the punishment of Gehenna."
July 2, 2015
Knowledge and the Desire for God
Cassian and Germanus' discussion with elder Nesteros on Spiritual Knowledge to all appearances is one of the most analytic of all the conferences. The distinction is made between Practical knowledge, which both understands the working of the vices and forms the mind according to the virtues, and Contemplative Knowledge or Theoretical knowledge, which consists of the contemplation of divine things and the understanding of most sacred meanings. Yet, despite its analytic tone, the 14th Conferences is truly about the necessity of simplicity of life, of directing one's thoughts and energies toward the pursuit of God and seeking the knowledge and understanding of things that bring us to that end. Knowledge is not meant to satisfy our curiosity so much as to lead us to God. In fact, we can distract and dissipate our minds through scattering our thoughts too broad and wide upon things of little import. It is holiness that leads us to the deepest knowledge and we must avoid the abuse of learning by treating it merely as a rhetorical skill.
NOTE: The next meeting will be July 22nd.