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.
This is probably the most challenging Conference to read, to read patiently, and with a sense of generosity when interpreting its teachings. Cassian and Germanus made a promise to their superiors in Palestine that when visiting Egypt they would return as quickly as possible. Once there, however, they discover that it was a promise rashly made and without discernment. The way of desert wisdom is not learned quickly or communicated to others after only a brief stay. Cassian and Germanus are then faced with the question of breaking their promise in order to stay and so know the blessings of the Egyptian lifestyle or to return prematurely and fall perhaps back into a a kind of mediocrity. They turn to Abba Joseph once again for guidance and counsel.
Continuing discussion of the value of the revelation of one's thoughts to an elder and the responsibility of the elder to treat those entrusted to them with kindness and compassion; example of discretion as the avoiding of extremes, especially in regards to the practice of fasting.
Discretion and the importance of the revelation of one's thoughts; the graces of the humble recognition of one's sins and the safety it brings in the spiritual life; the importance of the spiritual elder and the concurrent dangers of false teachers.
How many times do we struggle to know God's will for our lives. As St. John notes: There are many roads to holiness - - and to Hell. A path wrong for one will suit another, yet what each is doing is pleasing to God." How are we to live our lives? What are we to do? In a moment of crisis, when a decision has to be made and to made quickly, what does God want us to do? What will please Him? What will bring us heavenly rewards? Am I hearing the voice of God or the voice of self or worse still, the voice of Satan? How do I know? Anyone who is traveling the spiritual road knows in the depths of his being how agonizing these questions truly are. In response to this feeling, St. John offers some practical advice from his own experience.
First, he insists that "those who wish to discover the will of God must begin by mortifying their own will." St. John recognizes that it is easy for us to say that we want to know God's will when, in fact, we really only want our will. It is also easy for us to convince ourselves that what God wants is what we want, and then to imagine that our voice is the voice of God. This deception (known as "prelest" in the spiritual tradition) leads us to hell. Once we have confused our voice for God's, we are easy prey for the Devil. Humility, the recognition that our will is confused and confusing, is the necessary prelude to knowing the will of God. To keep us from playing games with ourselves and to insure that we are totally humble before God so that we can be guided by Him, St. John suggest that we make no decisions without the input and agreement of others. Do nothing without a blessing! This blessing may be obtained from one's confessor, superior, spiritual guide, the writings and examples of the saints and from our brothers and sisters in Christ.
St. John also suggest that we discover the will of God through abandoning every attachment. We human beings are impulsive; our desires are awakened and immediately we want to fulfill them. Usually, if we say "No" to our immediate desires to do something, they fade away and are replaced by desire for other things. If we detach ourselves from that which awakened our desires, they tend to go away. This is especially true if we submit ourselves during this time to a strict regiment of prayer and fasting. Human desires (even those Satanically inspired) cannot sustain themselves if they are detached from the object of their desire and if they are not fed by constant thought and imagination. However, a call from God will grow stronger during a time of prayer and fasting. The will of God is not dependent upon human impulses. The more it is nurtured and fed with prayer and fasting the stronger it grows. The more detached we are from those things which feed the flesh and its desires and the more attached we are to those things which feed our soul the more we are able to discern the will of God for our lives.
Furthermore, St. John teaches that trials and difficulties are often reliable signposts in discerning the will of God. We often start something which we think is of God and as soon as it gets difficult we grow discouraged and think that maybe we made a mistake and that maybe it really wasn't of God. How different is the reasoning of St. John. If we start something and experience tremendous troubles in the doing of it, then we probably are on the right track. Satan will only oppose something that is good; the better and purer it is, the more Satan will try to stop us at every turn.
Yet to know God's will is not easy; we often make mistakes. This should keep us humble but it should not depress us. For our encouragement, St. John writes: "God is not unjust. He will not slam the door against the man who humbly knocks. . . .And every act that is not the product of personal inclination or of impurity will be imputed to us for good, especially if it is done for the sake of God. . . . God judges us by our intentions, but because of His love for us He only demands from us such actions as lie within our power."
Signs of obedience in the monk; Obedience and how it is to be fostered in community life - silence, watchfulness, humility, constancy, and faith; Things that help or hinder the growth of obedience. Again Climacus addresses the choice of one's director and how a monk must cherish this relationship above all; Applying John's teaching to contemporary life and relationships.
FOSTERING OBEDIENCE, THE DEVIL'S ASSAULTS ON THE OBEDIENT, THE VALUE OF A SPIRITUAL FATHER
Climacus then turns his thoughts to how this virtue is fostered and developed. One must begin by being watchful of every thought, seeking purity of heart through true contrition. A monk should willingly accept rebukes and criticism, freely exposing his thoughts to his director. If one is truly obedient this will be reflected in his speech and his unwillingness to cling to his own opinions.
The truly obedient need have no fear of death or judgment.
Having to confess one's thoughts to spiritual father will keep a monk from committing sins. Obedience is perfected when simply the thought of the spiritual father keeps a monk from doing wrong. The truly obedient monk in humility attributes all good that he does to the prayers of his spiritual father.
The Devil's attacks on those who are obedient.
The necessity of constancy in obedience and completeness in the revelation of thoughts. A monk must develop that habit of doing both.
Climacus warns that a monk should not get into the practice of leaving one healer for another. Again the monk should not enter the solitary life or leave his spiritual father too quickly.
What must be done from the start: Choosing a spiritual father and submitting one's self and one's thoughts to him completely. Climacus gives an example of how the wisdom and sternness of a spiritual father brought true humility to a monk through the public confession of his sins. Although himself shocked by the severity of the test and the humiliation experienced, Climacus recognizes the spiritual healing it brought to the young monk and the power of his example for the rest of the community.
Climacus describes the obedience of the monks at a monastery in Alexandria and the wisdom of their holy superior. The obedience of the monks was constant, even in the absence of their superior. They supported each other in the practice and did penance for each other's indiscretions. The superior was strict in his application of remedies, applying them quickly and expecting them to be used without question. The value of this, Climacus states, was in the fruits it produced.
Multiple examples of obedience are given as well as the responsibility of a director of souls of testing the virtue of his monks.