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 29, 2012

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

Today we will continue with our reading from St. John Cassian's "Conferences."  As you will remember from last week, St. John Cassian and his travelling companion, the monk Germanus, were visiting Abba Moses in Scetis.  The subject of their conversation?  The goal of the ascetic life.  Let’s listen in as Abba Moses continues his explanation:

BEGIN: “To cling always to God and to the things of God, this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly.  Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous.  Martha and Mary provide a most beautiful scriptural paradigm of this outlook and of this mode of activity.  In looking after the Lord and His disciples Martha did a very holy service.  Mary, however, was intent on the spiritual teaching of Jesus and she stayed by His feet, which she kissed and anointed with the oil of her good faith.  And she got more credit from the Lord because she had chosen the better part, one which could not be taken away from her.  For while Martha was working hard, responsibly and fully intent on her job, she realized that she could not do all the work herself and she demanded the help of her sister from the Lord.  ‘Does it not bother you that my sister leaves me to do the work alone?’ she said.  ‘Tell her to come and help me’ (Luke 10:40).  Certainly she summons Mary to a task that is not inconsequential but is a praiseworthy service.  Yet what does she hear from the Lord?  ‘Martha, Martha, you are full of worry and are upset over many things where actually it should be over a few or even one thing.  Mary has chosen the good part and it will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10:41-42).

“You will note that the Lord establishes as the prime good contemplation, that is the gaze turned in the direction of the things of God.  Hence we say that the other virtues, however useful and good we may say they are, must nevertheless be put on a secondary level, since they are all practiced for the sake of this one.  ‘You are full of worry and are upset over many things when actually it should be over a few or even one.’  In saying this the Lord locates the primary good not in activity, however praiseworthy, however abundantly fruitful, but in the truly simple and unified contemplation of Himself.  He says that not much is needed for perfect blessedness.  He means here that type of contemplation which is primarily concerned with the example of a few saints.  Contemplating these, someone still on the upward road comes at last to that which is unique, namely the sight of God Himself, which comes with God’s help.  Having passed beyond the activities and the ministry of holy men he will live solely on the beauty and the knowledge of God.  ‘Mary therefore chose the good part and it will not be taken away from her.’  But one must look carefully at this.  In saying ‘Mary chose the good part,’ He was saying nothing about Martha and in no way was He giving the appearance of criticizing her.  Still, by praising the one He was saying that the other one was a step below her.  Again, by saying ‘it will not be taken away from her’ He was showing that Martha’s role could be taken away from her, since the service of the body can only last as long as the human being is there, whereas the zeal of Mary can never end.”

We were deeply stirred by this.  “So then,” we said, “the toil of fasting, the constant scriptural reading, the works of mercy, justice, piety, and humanity will be taken away from us and will not remain as we remain?  And this when the Lord Himself promised the reward of heaven to the people who do these things?  ‘Come you blessed of my Father,’ He said, ‘Take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.  I was hungry and you gave me to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me to drink’ (Matthew 25:34-35).  And all the rest.  These things which bring the people who do them into the kingdom of heaven, how can they be taken away?”

Moses: “I did not say that the reward of a good deed must be taken away, for the same Lord said, ‘Whoever will give even a glass of cold water to one of these little ones because he is one of my disciples, Amen I tell you, he will not lose his reward’ (Matthew 10:42).  But what I do say is that an activity which takes place as a result of the needs of the body, the onslaught of the flesh, or the inequality of this world must come to an end.  The dedication to scriptural reading or the infliction of fasts only serve the useful purpose of purifying the heart and punishing the flesh in this present life as long as it is the case that √ęthe flesh indulgent itself against the spirit’ (Galatians 5:17).  These activities are sometimes lifted from those who, wearied out by too much hard work, by sickness or by old age, are unable to practice them continuously.  All the more reason, therefore, for these to cease in the next life when “this corruption” will take on “incorruptibility” (I Corinthians 15:53), when this body which is now animal will rise as “spirit” (I Corinthians 15:44), when flesh will no longer indulge in conflict with the spirit.  The blessed apostle spoke clearly about all this when he said that “the exercising of the body has a limited value, whereas piety” and no doubt he means love, “is useful for everything, holding as it does the promise of life both now and in the future” (I Timothy 4:8). What is said here about limited value is clearly right, since this is something which cannot be done for all time nor can it by itself bring us to the summit of perfection.  The notion of limit can also indicate either the brevity of time, for bodily exercise is not something to last throughout the present and the future life, or else it refers to the minimal value of such exercise.  The demands made on the body are actually only the beginning of the road to progress.  They do not induce that perfect love which has within it the promise of life now and in the future.  And so we consider the practice of such works to be necessary only because without them it is not possible to reach the high peaks of love.

“As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails.  Their workings here would not be required where it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick. These are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all.  As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will.

“But all of this will cease in the time to come when equality shall reign, when there shall no longer be the injustice on account of which these good works must be undertaken, when from the multiplicity of what is done here and now everyone shall pass over to the love of God and to the contemplation of things divine.  Men seized of the urge to have a knowledge of God and to be pure in mind devote all their gathered energies to this one task.  While they still live in the corruption of the flesh they give themselves to that service in which they will persevere when that corruption has been laid aside.  And already they come in sight of what the Lord and Savior held out when He said, ‘Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:8).”  END

from St. John Cassian’s “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 42 - 45.