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)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - When Is It Okay to Lie?

In this issue we will 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 continue our 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. Last week we studied Abba Joseph's teaching as a basis for understanding promises in our own lives. Today, we will learn from Abba Joseph when it is permitted to lie. 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. Of necessity, we can only offer you a part of this wonderful treatise as it is quite long in the original; we urge you to read this wonderful book in its entirety.

BEGIN (continuing from the previous reading):

XVII. 1. JOSEPH: "And so a lie is to be thought of and used as if it were a hellebore. If it is taken when a deadly disease is imminent it has a healthful effect, but taken when there is no urgent need it is the cause of immediate death. For we read that even men who were holy and most approved by God made such good use of lying that they not only did not commit sin thereby but even acquired the highest righteousness. If deceit were capable of conferring glory on them, would truth, on the other hand, have brought them anything but condemnation?

"This was the case with Rahab. Scripture not only recalls nothing virtuous about her but even speaks of her immorality. Yet for her lie alone, whereby she chose to conceal the spies rather than betray them, she deserved to share an eternal blessing with the people of God.

2. If she had chosen to speak the truth or to be concerned for the safety of her people, there is no doubt that she and her whole household would not have escaped the approaching destruction and that she would not have deserved to be included among those responsible for the Lord's birth, to be numbered on the roll of the patriarchs, and, through her offspring, to beget the Savior of all. Then there is Delilah, who was concerned for the well-being of her people and who betrayed the truth that she had spied out. She obtained everlasting perdition in exchange for this, and left to everyone nothing but the memory of her sin.

3. "When some grave danger is connected with speaking the truth, therefore, the refuge of lying must be resorted to, yet in such a way that we are bitten by the healthful guilt of a humbled conscience. But when no circumstance of great urgency presses, every precaution must be taken to avoid lying as if it were something deadly. It is like the potion of hellebore that we were speaking of, which is healthful indeed if it is only taken when an unavoidable and deadly sickness is imminent. But if it is taken when the body is enjoying complete and undisturbed health, its destructive force immediately seeks out and possesses the vitals.

4. "This is very clearly evident with respect to Rahab of Jericho and the patriarch Jacob. Of the two of them, she would have been unable to escape death and he to attain the blessing of the firstborn otherwise than by this remedy. For God is not the overseer and judge of our words and deeds alone but also the one who looks into our intention and aim.

5. If he sees that something has been done or promised by someone for the sake of eternal salvation or with a view to divine contemplation, even if it appears to human beings to be hard and wicked, he nonetheless perceives the inner devotion of the heart and judges not the sound of the words, but the intent of the will, because it is the end of the work and the disposition of the doer that must be considered. In accordance with this, as has already been said, one person can be justified even when lying, whereas another can commit a sin deserving everlasting death by telling the truth.

"With this in mind the patriarch Jacob himself was not afraid to counterfeit his brother's hairy body by wrapping himself up in skins, praiseworthily going along with the lie that his mother inspired.

6. For he saw that in this way greater benefits would be conferred on him -- those of a blessing and of righteousness -- than by holding to candor. He had no doubt that the stain of this lie would be instantly washed away by the outpouring of his father's blessing, that it would be quickly removed like a kind of little cloud by the breath of the Holy Spirit, and that more abundant and worthy rewards would be conferred on him by this dissimulation than by the unvarnished truth."

XXVII. GERMANUS: "In view of what has been laid out, which has been clearly and lengthily discussed, a monk should not make a promise, lest he be found either a transgressor or obstinate. But how shall we view the word of the psalmist: 'I have sworn and have determined to keep the judgments of your righteousness?' What does it mean to swear and to determine other than to hold unyieldingly to what has been promised?"

XXVIII JOSEPH: 1. "We are not laying down these things with respect to the principal commands without which we can never be saved, but with respect to what we are able to let go or to keep hold of without endangering our situation -- for example, unbroken and strict fasting, perpetual abstinence from wine or oil, absolute confinement in one's cell, and unceasing reading or meditation. These can be practiced at will without harming our profession and our chosen orientation, and they can be blamelessly omitted if necessary.

2. "But a very firm promise is to be made concerning those principal commands, and for their sake even death, if need be, must be avoided. With regard to them it must be said in unalterable fashion: 'I have sworn and have determined.' This we must do for the maintaining of love, for which all things are to be disdained, lest the good of tranquility and its perfection be blemished. We must likewise swear for the sake of the purity of chastity, and it behooves us to do the same for the sake of faith, sobriety, and righteousness, all of which are to be held to with an unchangeable perseverance, and to withdraw from which even slightly is worthy of condemnation.

3. "Concerning those bodily disciplines, however, which are spoken of as beneficial for a few things, decisions must be made in such a way that, as we have said, if a more realistic possibility for goodness occurs which suggests that they should be let go, we should not be bound by any rule in their regard but should leave them behind and freely move on to what is more beneficial. For there is no danger in leaving off these bodily disciplines for a while, but it is fatal to cease from the others even for a moment.

XXIX: "Precaution should likewise be taken so that, if perchance a word that you wish to be hidden has slipped from your mouth, no obligation to secrecy may trouble your hearer. For a thing will be better concealed if it is carelessly and unobtrusively let pass, because the brother, whoever he may be, will not be racked by a temptation to divulge it. He will consider it an insignificant matter that has been revealed in a passing conversation, which is not important precisely because it has not been presented to the ears of the listener in the context of a need to be specially careful. For if you bind him to an oath, you may be certain that it will be betrayed all the more quickly, inasmuch as the force of the diabolical onslaught that w2ill attack him will be greater, so that you will be saddened and betrayed on the one hand and he will more speedily transgress his oath on the other.

XXX.1: "Therefore a monk should never promise anything hastily with regard to what pertains to bodily disciplines, lest instead he incite the enemy to attack the things that he is holding to as it were under the obligation of law and be quickly forced to violate them. For whoever lives under the grace of liberty and sets up a law for himself binds himself to a ruinous slavery, with the result that he is compelled to observe, as a transgressor and in a state of sin, things that he would have been able to undertake lawfully and even praiseworthily, with thanksgiving, whenever the need arose. 'For where there is no law, neither is there transgression.'"

2. Strengthened as by a divine oracle by this instruction and teaching of the most blessed Joseph, we chose to reamin in Egypt. But although from then on we were not particularly troubled by our promise, nonetheless we fulfilled our promise gladly at the end of seven years. For we hastened to our coenobium at a time when we were confident of obtaining a retun to the desert, and first we paid our due respects to our elders. Then we restored their former love to the should of those who, out of an ardent love, had not in the least been appeased by the frequent excuses contained in our letters. And at length, after the sting of our promise had been completely plucked out, we returned to the depths of the desert of Skete, while they urged us on with joy.

3. Our ignorance, O holy brothers, has cast as much light for you as it could on the knowledge and teaching of the illustrious fathers. Even if perchance our unskilled language has confused it instead of clarifying it, I pray that our blameworthy rudeness not nullify the renown of these remarkable men. For it seemed safer to us in the sight of our Judge to lay bare this magnificent teaching, even in awkward language, than to keep silent about it. Indeed, if one reflects upon its sublime insights, the offensive boorishness of our words cannot hinder the reader's profit. And we ourselves are concerned more about usefulness than renown. To be sure, I advise all into whose hands these little works may fall to realize that whatever is pleasing in them is from the fathers, whereas whatever is displeasing is ours. END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 595 - 596, 611 - 613