November 24, 2016
The impact of sloth on the soul is often neglected and its significance minimized. St. Isaac the Syrian warns that without harsh tribulations of the flesh it is difficult for the untrained youth to be held under the yoke of sanctification. We must be willing to take upon ourselves the cross of the pursuit of virtue before sharing in its glory. Whenever the soul becomes heedless of the labors of virtue, he is inevitably drawn to what is opposed to them and thus becomes deprived of God's help and so subject to alien spirits. Every man who before training in the afflications of the cross completely and pursues the sweetness and glory of the cross out of sloth and for its own sweetness, has wrath come upon him. He lacks the proper wedding garment - the healing of the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor that belongs to the shame of the cross. A man whose mind is polluted with the passions of dishonor and rushes to imagine with his mind and ascend to the divine vision, is put to silence by divine punishment. "And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"
Theoria is rooted in virtue and becomes the receptacle and house of the knowledge of God. It is in the body that we must pursue virtue and so we must engage in the rigors of asceticism. We are not angels but rather fallen human beings who must purify the eye of the heart for the perception of the divine mysteries.
St. Isaac then begins to clarify the understanding of the word world. The world is collective noun applied to all the passions. Great care must be given in separating oneself from the world and with humility we must understand that depeneding on our state we may not perceive all the passions that hold us in their grip.
August 11, 2016
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.
July 14, 2016
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!
July 7, 2016
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.
June 30, 2016
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.
June 23, 2016
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."
June 16, 2016
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.
June 9, 2016
This evening we made a transition from Conference 22 to Conference 23, the last of Abba Theonas's three conferences. Our discussion began with clarifying the fact that even the righteous and holy are in need of repentance and often fall, albeit unwillingly, into the sin of distraction and being pulled away from the goal of the spiritual life - Theoria, or contemplation of God. In the light of divine goodness, all human goodness may be referred to as evil, "Thus, although the value of all the virtues . . . is good and precious in itself, it is nonetheless obscured upon comparison with the brilliance of theoria. For it greatly hinders and holds back holy persons from the contemplation of that sublime good if they are take up with what are still earthly pursuits, even if they are good works." We have been created for God and intimacy with God; back to and greater than that state of original innocence and constant communion with the Lord before the Fall. We must be careful, then, not to see the pursuit of virtue or the avoidance of vice as the goal or end of the spiritual life, although they are essential to it. These things cannot be separated from our desire for God and intimacy with Him. Nor can we achieve them outside of His grace. If abstracted from the love of God and the desire to live in that love - the spiritual life can become lifeless and devoid of meaning.
February 4, 2016
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.
A great deal of discussion focused on the applying the wisdom of the desert to the life of one seeking holiness while living in the world. Simplicity of life and clarity about the essential pursuit of purity of heart as well as emotional maturity were discussed at length in regard to how they apply to the married state, consecrated single life and the life of the secular clergy. One must cultivate a sensitive conscience through frequent examination and humble repentance. Prayer must be fostered not as a good activity but as the very source of life and holiness. Christians must once again foster a culture that is truly shaped by the gospel. They must also be attentive to the ways the Divine Physician provides for healing when spiritual guides our lacking.
January 28, 2016
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.
Lengthy discussion then ensued regarding how such principles could be applied to contemporary life and the pursuit of holiness in the world. How do we regain our simplicity and clarity of focus on living the Christian life in a world that thrives on distraction and a busyness that crowds out solitude and prayer? The loss of a larger Catholic culture and its formative effects has been immeasurable. Individuals and families live in isolation and find themselves walking in lockstep with those living in and formed by modern worldly sensibilities. If the family is the domestic Church then should it not possess more in common with the cenobium? Should not an environment be sought and created that nourishes the faith, the pursuit of holiness and a life of simplicity where prayer can emerge and shape one's existence?
The renewal of Christian culture is something that will likely take place by slowly building that which will endure; not necessarily by appealing to modern sensibilities but living the gospel fully and embracing the love of the Cross. Cassian's writing remains ever relevant because it approaches the human person in relation to God not in a superficial fashion but as the deep mystery in which we must be fully immersed.