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, March 10, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - On Making Promises

Today we continue our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian. Although we studied some selections from this phenomenal collection of ancient desert wisdom before, it is a work of such magnitude and such a breadth of spiritual teachings that it is worth returning to again and again and its teachings cover many topics relevant to all of us today.

St. John Cassian lived from about 360 to 430 and joined a monastery in Bethlehem early in his adulthood. With his companion, Germanus, St. John Cassian made several trips from Palestine to the deserts of Egypt where they studied the monastic life from the great desert fathers of their time. "The Conferences" records their twenty-four dialogues with fifteen abbas. Cassian then arranged these dialogues collected over a period of years into a monastic "primer" that has been studied ever since by generations of the faithful seeking to advance in spiritual wisdom. As such, this spiritual treasure is not just for monks, but for everyone seeking spiritual growth.

In today's newsletter, we will look at the seventeenth Conference which includes the dialogue "On Making Promises." It is a conversation between St. John, Germanus, and Abba Joseph. This subject came up when the two pilgrims (St. John and Germanus) began debating whether they should stay in Egypt, an option they believed offered them the possibility of increased spiritual growth, or keep their promise to return to their monastery in Palestine where they felt the spiritual life was mediocre. In true monastic fashion, they took their problem to an Abba. As a result of Abba Joseph's "word," the two holy pilgrims stayed another seven years in Egypt, then returned to their monastery in Palestine, only to receive a blessing shortly thereafter to return to Egypt. On the basis of Abba Joseph's understanding of the nature of a promise, the two pilgrims had a basis for their decision. Let us now study this teaching of Abba Joseph as a basis for understanding promises in our own lives. This study will take place over the next several issues of our newsletter; the combined series will be available by autoresponder at the end of our study.

Today we will learn from Abba Joseph when it is okay to break a promise; next week, we will learn when it is permissible to lie.


I: After the previous conference had ended, then, and nocturnal silence had fallen, we were brought by the holy Abba Joseph to a distant cell in order to get some rest. But his words had stirred up a kind of fire in our hearts and, having passed the whole night without sleep, we left the cell, went off about a hundred paces from it, and sat down together in a still more remote spot. And when the opportunity for speaking with one another in a quiet and friendly fashion was offered us by the shades of night, Abba Germanus groaned heavily as we sat there.

II. "What are we doing?" he said. "For we see ourselves at a critical point and hindered by our extremely wretched condition. Reason itself and the way of life of holy persons are effectively teaching us what is more beneficial for making progress in the spiritual life, yet the promise that we made to the elders does not permit us to choose what is expedient.

For our life and chosen orientation could be more perfectly shaped by the examples of these great men except for the fact that the obligation of what was promised compels us to return at once to the coenobium. If we went back there, no means of returning here would ever again be offered us. But if we stay here and choose to satisfy our desire, what about the fidelity to our vow which we know that we made to our elders, promising to go back as soon as possible after having been permitted to travel around quickly to the holy men and monasteries of this region?"

And as we were thus in turmoil over this and were unable to decide what to do for the sake of our salvation, we bore witness by groans alone to the distress of our most difficult situation. We cast blame on the weakness of our audacity and cursed our innate bashfulness, weighed down by the burden of which, even contrary to our own benefit and chosen orientation, we were unable to resist the pleas of those holding us back except by a swift return, in accordance with our promise, and we bemoaned the fact that we labored under the evil of that shame, of which it is said: "There is a shame that brings sin."

III. Then I said: "Let the advice - or rather the authority - of the old man resolve our dilemma. We ought to bring our troubles to him, and whatever he decides should, as if it were a divine and heavenly response, put an end to all our turmoil. We should have no doubts at all, indeed, about what will be given us by the Lord through the mouth of this holy man, by reason both of his worthiness and our faith. For by the Lord's gift believers have often obtained beneficial advice from the unworthy, and unbelievers from holy persons, since it is he who bestows it in keeping with both the worthiness of those who answer and the faith of those who ask."

The holy Abba Germanus heard these words with eagerness as if I had uttered them not of myself but at the Lord's inspiration, and we waited a short while for the arrival of the old man and for the already approaching hour of the evening synaxis. After we had received him with the customary greeting and the correct number of prayers and psalms had been fulfilled, we sat down once more in our usual fashion on the same mats on which we had composed ourselves for sleep.

IV. Then the venerable Joseph, noticing that we were rather downcast in mind and conjecturing that we were not this way without reason, addressed us in the words of the patriarch Joseph: "Why are your faces sad today?" To which we said, "It is not that we have had a dream and that there is no one to interpret it, as was the case with those imprisoned servants of Pharaoh. But I admit that we have passed a sleepless night, and there is no one to lift the weight of our distress, unless the Lord removes it through your discernment." The he who recalled the patriarch's virtue in both dignity and name said: "Does not the healing of human thoughts come from the Lord? Let them be brought to the fore, for the divine mercy is able, in accordance with your faith, to provide a remedy for them by way of our advice."

V. To this Germanus said: "We thought that, after having seen your blessedness, we were going to return to our coenobium not only abundantly filled with spiritual joy but also having made great progress, and that after our return we were going to adhere to what we had learned from you by the closest imitation. For love for our elders as well obliged us to promise this to them, since we thought that we could imitate to some degree the sublimity of your life and teaching in that coenobium. Hence, having judged that complete joy would be bestowed on us from this, we are contrariwise consumed with unbearable sorrow when we reflect on the fact that in following this arrangement we know that we shall be unable to acquire what is beneficial for ourselves.

"Therefore, we are now pressed on both sides. For if we wish to fulfill the promise that we made in the presence of all the brothers in the cave in which our Lord shone forth from out of the royal court of the Virgin's womb, and to which he himself was a witness, we are incurring the highest loss to our spiritual life. But if we are heedless of our promise and remain in these parts, intending to disregard those vows for the sake of our perfection, we fear the dizzying perils of lying and perjury.

We are unable to relieve our distress even by this plan -- that after the terms of our oath have been accomplished by a hasty return, we quickly come back here again. For although even a slight delay is dangerous and harmful to those who are pursuing progress in spiritual matters and virtue, still we would hold to our promise and our fidelity even by a fretful return, except that we realize that we would be inextricably bound not only by the authority of our elders but also by love of them, such that thenceforth no possibility of coming back here would ever be given us."

VI. At this the blessed Joseph said, after some period of silence: "Are you certain that greater progress in spiritual matters can be conferred on you in this region?"

VII. GERMANUS: "Even though we ought to be extremely grateful for the teaching of those men who have taught us from our youth to attempt great things and who have, by offering a taste of their own goodness, placed in our heart an extraordinary thirst for perfection, nonetheless, if our judgment is to be trusted, we find no comparison between these institutes and the ones that we received there. This is to say nothing of the inimitable purity of your way of life, which we believe was conferred on you not merely by the strictness of your mind and of your chosen orientation but also by the favorable circumstances of the place. Hence we have no doubt that this splendid teaching, which has been hastily passed on, will not suffice for the imitation of your perfection unless we also have the support of actually staying here and the slackness of our heart has been removed by the discipline of daily instruction over a long period of time."

VIII. JOSEPH: "It is indeed good and perfect and altogether in keeping with our profession that we carry adequately the things that we have determined upon in accordance with some promise. For this reason a monk should promise nothing on the spur of the moment, lest either he be forced to carry out what he has carelessly promised or, having reconsidered with a clearer insight, he appear as a breaker of his own promise.

But, inasmuch as our concern now is not so much for the state of your well-being as it is for the healing of your infirmity, what must be submitted to kindly counsel is not what you ought to have done in the first place but rather how you can escape the perils of this dangerous shipwreck.

"When, therefore, no bonds restrain us and no circumstances hinder us, and when advantageous things are placed before us and a choice is offered, we should select what is better. But when some adverse complication stands in the way, and when harmful things are placed before us, we should strive after what is subject to fewer drawbacks.

Accordingly, as your own assertion has made clear, when a thoughtless promise has brought you to this pass, so that in either case you will have to suffer serious loss, the choice should incline in the direction where the damage is more tolerable and may more easily be compensated for by the remedy of reparation.

"If, then, you believe that by staying here a greater gain will be conferred on your spirit than what you found in the way of life of that coenobium, and that the terms of your promise cannot be fulfilled without the loss of very significant goods, it is better for you to assume the damage of a lie or of an unfulfilled promise (which, once it is past, will neither be repeated again nor be able to beget other sins of itself), than to fall into the situation wherein a somewhat lukewarm lifestyle, as you say, will cause you daily and lasting harm.

For a thoughtless promise is pardonably and even praiseworthily altered if it is turned to something better, no should it be believed that it is a betrayal of fidelity rather than a correction of rashness whenever a wicked promise is corrected. It can all be very plainly proven, too, from texts of Scripture, for how many persons the fulfillment of promises has turned out to be a deathly thing, and for how many, on the other hand, breaking them has been useful and beneficial.

IX. "The examples of the holy apostle Peter and of Herod bear very clear witness to each of these situations. For the former, in departing from the words of the promise that he had made with something like the force of an oath when he said: "You shall never wash my feet," was promised undying fellowship with Christ, whereas he would certainly have been deprived of the grace of this blessedness had he clung obstinately to his words. But the latter, very cruelly insisting on holding to his thoughtless oath, was the murderer of the Lord's precursor and, in the vain fear of breaking his oath, brought upon himself damnation and the torment of everlasting death.

"In every case, then, the end is the thing to be taken into account, and in accordance with it the direction of our chosen orientation is to be set. If, thanks to having received better advice, we saw that we were on the wrong course, it would be preferable to eliminate the unsuitable situation and to move toward what was better rather than, by sticking persistently to what we have promised, to involve ourselves in more serious sins. . . .

"As we said before, the aim of the mind either rewards or condemns a person, according to the words: 'Their thoughts within them either accusing or defending them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of men.' And also these: 'I am coming to gather their works and thoughts together with all nations and tongues.' Therefore, as I see it, you bound yourselves by the fetters of this oath out of a desire for perfection, inasmuch as you believed that in this way it could be seized, whereas now, after a fuller reflection, you realize that its heights cannot thus be scaled.

"Whatever differs from that arrangement, then, does not prejudice what may seem to have happened, as long as no change occurs in the principal intention. For changing a tool is not the same as abandoning a project, nor does choosing a shorter and more direct path prove that a traveler is lazy. Likewise, then, the correction of a careless decision must not be judged as if it were a transgression of a spiritual vow. For whatever is done for the sake of the love of God or the love of devotion, which 'holds the promise of the life that now is and of the one that is to come,' is not only blameless but also most praiseworthy, even though it seems to have had a rough and bad start.

Consequently the setting aside of a thoughtless promise is harmless if only in every case the scopos -- that is, the intended religious goal -- is held to. For we do everything in order that we might be able to present a pure heart to God. If the achievement of this is considered easier in this place, the alteration of the promise that was wrested from you will not hurt you as long as the perfection of purity, which is overriding and for which your promise was made, is the more quickly obtained in accordance with the Lord's will." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 587 - 591, 595