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.
It is important to read this Conference understanding that Cassian is focused more on the spiritual life and living in the tension of real experience than with theological exactness. We must place this discussion in the context of the pursuit of God, which within the broken character of the world and the sinfulness of one's own life will often, if not always, require special repentance in recognition of how far one falls short of perfection.
There are genuinely cases in which one must act in a way that is imperfect, guilty or sinful. One must! However, there can be no rationalization in this regard. It is lying; permitted for good not evil, of necessity, and medicinal in nature. It is employed as if its nature were that of a hellebore - useful if taken when some deadly disease is threatening but if taken without being required by some great danger is the cause of immediate death.
The difference between Palestine and Egypt is among other things, the difference between rigidity and flexibility, which in this case is another way of describing discretion. It is better to go back on our word than to suffer the loss of something that is salutary and good. We do not recall that the reasonable and proven fathers were ever hard and inflexible in decisions of this sort but that, like wax before fire, they were so softened by reason and by the intervention of more salutary counsel that they unhesitatingly yielded to what was better. But those whom we have seen cling obstinately to their own decisions we have always experienced as unreasonable and bereft of discretion.
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