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After nearly 2 3/4 years we finally came to the final few paragraphs of Cassian's last Conference (24) on Mortification - and O how fitting and beautiful a conclusion!  

Cassian and Germanus had been questioning Abba Abraham about the possibility of returning to their homeland and living under the support of their relatives.  After he reveals the subtle illusions hidden behind their desires, Germanus presses Abba Abraham for a "complete" explanation of the Lord's teaching:  

The Lord tells us, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Yet, often the prophets express that the opposite to be true. Such a view, Abba Abraham explains, arises out of obstinacy, lack of confidence and faith; as in some sense does Germanus' question. 

Remaining in our passions, the delights of the flesh turn upon us like tormentors. When we abandon the royal road, we make living the Gospel burdensome; whereas for those who take up fully and in true faith the yoke of Christ remain unmoved by every trial. 

Our ruin is clinging to delight in this present life and our tendency to blame God because we are crooked and perverse. It is not the lazy, the negligent, the lax, the fastidious or the weak who seize the kingdom of heaven but rather the violent - those who exercise a noble violence upon their own soul and who snatch it away from the fleeting pleasures of this life.

Only life in Christ brings with it the strength, virtue and hope of Christ and makes it our own!

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As we draw close to the end of the Conferences, the final pages follow Germanus and Cassian as they engage Abba Abraham on the theme of Mortification.  Even after lengthy discussion, the two young monks continue to express their desire to return to their homeland to live there under the care of their relatives and in turn to attend to their spiritual needs.  With great patience, Abraham confutes the laziness of his two young friends and the lukewarmness into which they have fallen.  They must know, he tells them, that "in the world to come you will be joined in the fate of those with whom you partook in this life of either gain or loss, or joy or sorrow." Inevitably Cassian and Germanus will get tied into the earthly affairs and fate of those around them.  They will be drawn into the drama of their relatives lives - good or bad it does not matter.  Also, he warns them that in allowing others to do too much in support of them, they will lose formation that the hardship of the desert itself provides.  Rather, in all things they should prefer deprivation and poverty.  Such charity and care belongs to the weak alone.  As those who have chosen the solitary life, they have foregone access to such generous resources as a matter of course.  They should prefer the sands rough with natural bitterness and regions wasted by floods of salt water - regions, that is, that only allow them to live day to day and in reliance upon divine providence and the labor of their hands.  Those who have an undisciplined heart and fall into distraction of mind because of it, lose whatever they seem to have acquired by the conversion of others put their profits in a bag of holes.  Leaving the desert will deprive them of their own betterment and bring them most likely to ruination.  

Their pathology is rooted in the reasonable part of the soul.  They think somehow that they have the strength and constitution that matches the desert monks and that they no longer need their instruction.   The only cure for this sickness is humility.  Their souls have been hurt by their believing not only that they have already attained the heights of perfection but even that they are able to teach others.  They have been seized by this errant conceit because of the swelling of vainglory that can only to be cut off immediately through humble contrition.

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Abba Abraham continues to engage Germanus and Cassian about their desire to return home to be near their relatives.  He warns them that the promise of being taken care of by others will draw them away from the particular hardship and asceticism necessary to live the life of true solitude and to remain focused upon God alone.  Freedom to study and pray unimpeded is not the extent of the solitary life.  It is also not to be drawn into the affairs of others, good or bad, but rather to remain within one's cell and to limit one's thoughts to God. Acedia, or a kind of listlessness will draw them out from the solitude especially when the environment and the freedom to engage others are there as a temptation.  The Egyptian monks have already built up a strong constitution in avoiding this vice and the pathless environment of the desert makes it unattractive to relatives and the curious alike.  One must learn to trust solely in the providence of God to provide for their needs and to satisfy the desires of their hearts.  Having chosen the solitary life the must see themselves as dead to the world and to all but God.

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We now enter into the final Conference with Cassian and Germanus as they speak with Abba Abraham.  The name proves apropos given the fact that his task will be to reinculcate in his two charges the spirit that motivated the great Patriarch to heed God's command "Leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you."  Cassian and Germanus were longing for home; hoping their relatives would provide them with the means to support themselves in a life of solitude, prayer and study.  Pridefully they also believe that they will be able to convert these same relatives if they are more present to them.  Abba Abraham works swiftly to dismantle the obvious self deception implicit in their plan and rather bluntly accuses them of slothfulness.  

The Egyptian monks, although living closer to family, realize that undue contact would undermine not only their solitude but the rigors of the solitary life and its demands.  Every day they are called to renounce any "enervating presence" that would destroy the simplicity of life, draw them into worldly affairs and fill their minds with distracting thoughts.  The constant silence must be fostered and protected both externally and internally.

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After a brief hiatus, the group came to the end of Conference 23.  Once again we found ourselves grappling, along with Cassian and Germanus, with the fact that despite the holiness and perfection that one may reach, our weakness and sin draws us away from living in a constant state of communion with God.  Created to live in a constant state of receptivity our sin leads to a flighty wandering of the mind and a turning away from God in a multitude of ways - even during the time of prayer.  

The greater the perfection and holiness of the individual, the greater the experience of his own sinfulness and the deeper the compunction over the weakness of his constitution.  Along with this comes a greater sense of his solidarity with others in that sin - the adulterous heart that turns away from God due to mere distractedness and laziness of mind is not in the end any less grave than what we often consider serious sins.  Humility must be one's constant companion and mercy the constant attitude with which one approaches others.

The transgressions we commit daily and our infidelity to God requires not only humility but the medicine He gives through Holy Communion.  This alone is the remedy for our sickness and its importance is understood only through action and experience.  Let us daily call out to Him for mercy and consume the medicine of immortality.

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We continued to follow Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria and the obstacles to lasting contemplation.  Theonas drives home the experience of wretchedness of the holy individual who is pulled away from contemplation of God by distraction and the weakness of the fleshly mind.  We "Fall" from contemplation and if we had a true sense of the loss that that is to us we too would experience deep compunction.  Yet, it is the action of constantly turning back to God that brings the holy soul the immediate outpouring of God's grace.  The anguished longing and desire of the soul is met by the immediate desire of God for renewed union.  

The group sought to understand this through the place where we all experience the deepest intimacy with God - the Mass.  In a world that fosters distraction and celebrates noise, it is easy for us to lose a kind of "custody of the eyes" - or custody of the Nous (the eye of the heart) that keeps us focused on the gift of love that is being offered to us and the sacrifice through which it has been made possible.  Only one who has tasted the sweetness of God's loves can understand the "Wretchedness" that St. Paul speaks of and the desire to be delivered from this body of death.  The deeper the love, the greater the pain at losing sight of the Beloved!

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Few penetrate the meaning of the Fall (although we all experience its effects) as the desert Fathers or capture what it means to live according to the law of Grace.  One has to taste something of the experience of purity of heart, contemplation, and the peace of Christ, to grasp fully what Abba Theonas is speaking about in this conference.  How many of us would experience true compunction and the tears of repentance over being distracted from God and our thoughts of God?  We are trained from an early age not to seek and value above all things that constant state of communion with God but rather encouraged to pursue one distraction after another or to direct our greatest energies to fleshly concerns.  In light of this it is easy to understand the ubiquitous experience of anxiety that touches every human being.  We know not only separation from God because of our sin but a profound inner division.  When St. Paul said: "The good that I want I do not do, but the evil that I hate, this I do", he was not referring to the struggle with base passions (which in reality we do not hate but most often desire) but rather of the condition of one who has achieved purity of heart and so mourns at how often he is pulled from gazing upon the divine brilliance and focused instead upon something much less.  To live fully in accord with the law of grace, to know the invincible peace of the Kingdom, is the reality that has been made possible for us through the blood of Christ.  Yet it is the reality the eludes our grasps because we do not seek it from the hand of the Lord but rather to construct it ourselves and in accord with the measure of our minds.  

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Devastatingly Beautiful. . .  .

This is the only way to describe tonight's group and our reflection on Abba Theonas' discussion with Germanus and Cassian on Theoria or Contemplation.  One cannot help but be wrapped up in the beauty of the life and love that God has raised us to share in with Him and how we are constantly under His loving gaze and attention.  Yet, it is devastating when we come to see how easily we are pulled from God by our own carelessness and negligence.  We foster distraction when God desires union.  He would draw us close and we turn away so casually and even without notice.  

Again, we see the need to live in a constant state of repentance; of turning toward God again and again and away from the desires of the flesh and this world.  We must keep our eyes ever fixed upon the beloved; like a tightrope walker never looking to the right or left if we are to reach our destination.  We have been set upon a narrow path - that of single hearted love for the Lord and we must ever hold to it and repent of the ways we let our thoughts drift from Him.  

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What do we seek?  What do we long for the most?  Can any of us truly say Theoria, or contemplation; to be drawn up into the eternal blessedness of God through participation and by His grace?  Do we seek to pray without ceasing as though it is that narrow path from which we seek not to stumble?  Theonas begins in these first sections of Conference 23 to show Cassian and Germanus why contemplation of God has a dignity greater than all the dignity of righteousness and all the zeal of virtuousness.  All things in this world will be unable to maintain their title of goodness if they are compared to the future age, where no mutability in good things and no corruption of true blessedness is to be feared!  The Apostle Paul is the exemplar of one who desires the indissoluble fellowship with God above all things for himself and for others.  He cries out: "I do not know what to choose.  I am compelled on two sides, having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for that is far better, while remaining in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."  

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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.

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