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, May 26, 2013

ABBA SERAPION - The Eight Principal Vices

-- In that community of very old men there was a man by the name of Serapion who was particularly adorned with the grace of discretion and whose conference I think is worth the effort to put down in writing. When we had begged him to say something about the assault of the vices that would cast light on their origins and causes, he began in this way:

-- "There are eight principal vices that attack humankind. The first is gluttony, which means the voraciousness of the belly; the second is fornication; the third is filargyria, which is avarice or love of money; the fourth is anger; the fifth is sadness; the sixth acedia, which is anxiety or weariness of heart; the seventh is cenodoxia, which is boastfulness or vainglory; and the eighth is pride.

-- "Of these vices there are two kinds. They are either natural like gluttony or unnatural like avarice. But they have four kinds of operation. Certain ones cannot be consummated without bodily action, such as gluttony and fornication. Certain others, however, can be completed without any bodily action whatsoever, such as pride and vainglory. Some take their motivating causes from without, such as avarice and anger. Others, however, are aroused from within, such as acedia and sorrow.

-- "Let us make this still clearer not only by a short discussion as well as we are able, but also by scriptural texts.

-- "Gluttony and fornication, although they are in us naturally (for sometimes they also arise without any provocation from the mind but solely due to the instigation and itching of the flesh), nonetheless require external matter in order to be consummated, and thus they operate through bodily action. For 'everyone is tempted by his own lust. When lust has been conceived it gives birth to sin, but when sin has been consummated it brings forth death' (James 1:14-15).

-- "The first Adam would not have been able to be deceived by gluttony had he not had something to eat and immediately and lawlessly misused it, nor was the second tempted without the enticement of some substance, when it was said to him: 'If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread' (Matthew 4:3). It is clear to everyone that fornication also is not committed except by means of the body, as God says to the blessed Job with reference to this spirit: 'Its strength is in the loins, and its power in the navel of the belly' (Job 40:11).

-- "Therefore these two in particular, which are exercised by means of the flesh, more especially require not only the spiritual concern of the soul but also bodily abstinence, since the mind's attentiveness is not enough of itself to check their urgings (as it sometimes does in the case of anger or sadness and other passions, which it can expel by mental effort alone and without chastising the flesh). Bodily discipline must come to its assistance, and this is accomplished by fasting, vigils, and works of penance, and to these is added living in a remote place, because just as they are generated through the fault of both soul and body, so they cannot be overcome except by the toil of both.

-- "Although the blessed Apostle has declared that all the vices in general are carnal, since he has numbered enmity and anger and heresies among the other works of the flesh (Galatians 5:18- 21), nonetheless we make a distinction based on a twofold division for the sake of a more refined understanding of their remedies and their natures. For we say that some of them are carnal, while some others are spiritual. The carnal ones pertain especially to the enjoyment and feelings of the flesh; by them it is so delighted and gratified that it sometimes even arouses peaceful minds and drags them reluctantly to acquiesce in its will.

-- "About these the Apostle says: 'In which all of us at one time walked in the desires of the flesh, doing the will of our flesh and of our thoughts, and we were by nature children of wrath like the rest (Ephesians 2:3).

"But we call spiritual those that, having arisen at the prompting of the soul alone, not only give no pleasure to the flesh but even inflict it with serious sufferings and merely provide the sick soul with the food of a miserable enjoyment. Therefore these have need of the medicine of a simple heart, whereas those that are carnal are only remedied by a twofold cure, as we have said. Hence it is important to those who strive for purity first of all to remove from themselves the very stuff of these carnal passions, by which either an occasion for or the memory of those same passions can be aroused in the soul that is still sick.

-- "For a twofold sickness necessarily requires a twofold cure. Seductive images and matter need to be removed from the body, lest lust attempt to break out into deeds, and by the same token a more careful medication on Scripture, constant watchfulness, and solitude must be applied to the soul, lest it so much as conceive this in thought. In the case of the other vices, however, human companionship is of no harm, and indeed it is even of great help to those who really want to be rid of them, since they are frequently rebuked by the presence of other people, and although aggravations more readily appear, they are quickly remedied.

-- "Therefore our Lord Jesus Christ, although he was declared by the Apostle to have been tempted 'in every respect as we are,' is nonetheless said to have been 'without sin' (Hebrews 4:15). That is, he was without the contagion of this passion, having had no experience whatsoever of the pricks of fleshly lust by which we are inevitably stung, even unwittingly and unwillingly, for in his regard there was nothing like our own insemination and conception, as the archangel said in announcing how his conception would take place: 'The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. Therefore the holy one that is to be born of you shall be called the Son of God' (Luke 1:35).

from St. John Cassian, "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 183 - 185