The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

ST. JOHN CASSIAN and ABBA MOSES - The Ascetic Life Part I

Now that Orthodox Lent is finished, let us look to the road ahead and ask ourselves, “What is the point of the ascetic life?  What is the point of fasting and vigils and prayer and deprivation?  Why should the Christian endure these things?”

St. John Cassian and his travelling companion, Germanus, asked such a question in “Conferences.”  Abbot Moses in Scetis answered his questions in the following way:

BEGIN: [St. John Cassian asked] “So tell me then what is the end and the objective which inspires you to endure all these trials so gladly?”  Since he [Abbot Moses] really wanted to know our answer to this question we replied that we had taken on all this for the sake of the kingdom of God.

“A good answer insofar as it concerns your goal,” he said, “But now what should be our aim, what direction should we take which, if closely followed, will bring us to our objective?  This, above all, is something of which you ought to be aware.”

We admitted, in all honesty, that we did not know.  “As I have remarked already, every art and discipline is preceded by some objective,” he said, “The spirit points in a certain direction.  There is an unwavering purpose in the mind.  If this is not held on to with all eagerness and dedication there can be no coming to the longed-for fruits of the goal.  The farmer, as I remarked, has the goal of living peacefully in sure abundance thanks to good rich harvests, and in order to reach that end he sets himself to clearing the brambles and the useless grasses from his land.  He knows well that he will not enjoy that restful ease toward which he is striving unless somehow his work and his aspirations themselves become a sort of foretaste of what he hopes to actually enjoy one day.

“The merchant does not put aside his urge to amass goods, for it is through these that he can grow wealthy on the proceeds.  It would be useless for him to have a wish for profit if he did not follow the road heading there.

“And there are those who have a wish for the honors of this world.  They take on this job or follow that career, depending on the honor they want, and they do so in order to arrive at their wished-for plan by way of the right path along which hope leads them.

“In the same fashion the objective of our life is the kingdom of God, but we should carefully ask what we should aim for.  If we do not look very carefully into this we will wear ourselves out in useless strivings.  For those who travel without a marked road there is the toil of the journey ñ and no arrival at a destination.”

Seeing our amazement at all this, the old man resumed: ìAs we have said, the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.  But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target.  If we keep to this point of reference we will proceed with all assurance, as though along a carefully drawn line.  If our minds wander a little form this we can come back to it again and keep our eye on it, using it as a standard by which to give ourselves sure guidance.  This standard will draw all our efforts toward the one point and will serve as a warning to us if our minds waver even a little from the proposed route.”

. . . “Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart.  This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness.  For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities, and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.

“It may be that some good and necessary task prevents us from achieving fully all that we set out to do.  Let us not on this account give way to sadness or anger or indignation, since it was precisely to repel these that we would have done what in fact we were compelled to omit.  What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger.  Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother.  We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others.  If this virtue remains whole and unharmed within us, nothing can injure us, not even if we are forced to omit any of these other subordinate virtues.  Nor will it be of any use to have practiced all these latter if there is missing in us that principal objective for the sake of which all else is undertaken.

“A worker takes the trouble to get hold of the instruments that he requires.  He does so not simply to have them and not use them. Nor is there any profit for him in merely possessing the instruments.  What he wants is, with their help, to produce the crafted objective for which these are the efficient means.

“In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness, and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection.  They are not themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained through them.  To practice them will therefore be useless if someone instead of regarding these as means to an end is satisfied to regard them as the highest good.  One would possess the instruments of a profession without knowing the end where the hoped-for fruit is to be found.

“And so anything which can trouble the purity and the peace of our heart must be avoided as something very dangerous, regardless of how useful and necessary it might actually seem to be.  With this for a rule we will be able to avoid the lack of concentration which comes as the mind follows highways and byways and we will be able to go with an assured sense of direction toward our longed-for goal.”  END

from St. John Cassian's “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 38-40, 41-42.