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, June 9, 2013

ABBA SERAPION - The Eight Principal Vices: How to Fight Them


Today we will conclude our study of St. John Cassian's "Conferences" in which we are looking at the teachings of Abba Serapion on "The Eight Principal Vices." Next week, we will begin a study of St. John Cassian's other primary work, "The Institutes," which contains guidance more specifically targeted to monastics, but which is nevertheless enlightening reading for us lay people, too.

BEGIN: "Although these eight vices, then, disturb the whole human race, nonetheless they do not assail everyone in the same way. In one person the spirit of fornication is dominant, in another wrath rides roughshod, in a third vainglory tyrannizes, and in still another pride holds sway. And although it is evident that we are all attacked by all of these, yet we each suffer in different ways and manners.

-- "Therefore we must so join battle against them that everyone spies out the vice by which he is particularly besieged and struggles chiefly against it, fixing all the care and attention of his mind on fighting it and keeping watch on it, brandishing the sighs of his heart and the many darts of his groans against it at every moment, employing the effort of his vigils and the mediations of his heart against it, pouring out the unceasing tears of his prayers to God, and insistently and continually demanding an end to the assault on him.

-- "For it is impossible for a person to deserve to triumph over a passion before he has understood that he is not able to obtain victory in the struggle by his own diligence and his own effort, even though in order to be cleansed he must always be careful and attentive, day and night.

-- "When he finds himself freed from it, he should once again and with similar intensity shine light on the hidden places of his heart, locate for himself whatever is still more horrible that he notices remaining, and move against it in particular with all the arms of the Spirit. Thus, when he has consistently overcome more powerful foes, he will have a quick and easy victory over the ones that remain, because the mind too becomes stronger through a succession of triumphs, and subsequent struggles with weaker foes make for readier successes in the battle. So it is with those who are accustomed to fight for prizes against all sorts of beasts in the presence of the kings of this world.

-- "These persons, I say, make their first attack against the beasts that they have noticed are stronger and fiercer, and when these have been killed they more easily destroy the ones that are left, which are less terrible and less aggressive. Likewise, it is always the case that when the more powerful vices have been overthrown and are succeeded by weaker ones we shall obtain a perfect victory without any hardship.

-- "Yet it must not be thought that whoever struggles chiefly against one vice and seemingly does not pay much heed to the darts of others can be more easily wounded at an unexpected moment.

-- "This will never happen. It is impossible for one who is concerned about the purification of his heart and has armed the attention of his mind for fighting any given vice not to have a certain fear of all the other vices and a similar watchfulness with respect to them as well. How indeed will a person deserve to obtain victory over the passion from which he yearns to be freed if he makes himself unworthy of the prize of cleansing by being contaminated with other vices? But when our heart's chief concern has been directed to fighting against one passion in particular, so to speak, we shall pray more intently about it and be especially careful and assiduous in our supplication, so that we may be worthy to watch out for it more diligently and thus obtain a swift victory.

-- "The Lawgiver himself teaches us that we must keep to this plan of battle and not trust in our own strength in these words: 'You shall not fear them, because the Lord your God is in your midst, a God great and terrible. He himself will consume these nations in your sight, little by little and by degrees. You will not be able to destroy them all at once, lest perhaps the beasts of the earth multiply against you. And the Lord your God will deliver them over in your sight, and he will slay them until they are completely destroyed.'

-- "But he likewise warns that we must not be proud of our victory over them: 'Lest after you have eaten and are filled,' he says, 'have built beautiful houses and lived in them, have acquired cattle and flocks of sheep, an abundance of everything, of silver and gold, your heart be lifted up and you not remember the Lord your God, who led you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and was your leader in the great and terrible desert' (Deuteronomy 8:12-15). Solomon also says in Proverbs: 'If your enemy has fallen, do not be glad. Do not be lifted up when he is ruined, lest the Lord see and be displeased and turn away his wrath from him' (Proverbs 24:17-18) -- that is, lest seeing your proud heart he cease to assail him and you be forsaken by him and begin to be troubled once again by the passion that you had previously vanquished by the grace of God.

-- "For the prophet would not have prayed and said: 'O Lord, do not deliver over to the beasts the soul that confesses to you' (Psalms 74:19), unless he had known that, because of their pride of heart, some would be delivered over again to vices that they had overcome, so that they would be humbled.

-- "Therefore we should be certain from experience and have learned from innumerable scriptural texts that we cannot conquer such great enemies by our own strength but only with the support of God's help, and that every day we must attribute to him the sum of our victory. This is recalled thus by the Lord speaking through Moses: 'Do not say in your heart, when the Lord your God has destroyed them in your sight: Because of my righteousness the Lord has led me in to possess this land, while those nations were wiped out because of their sins. For it was not because of your righteous deeds and the uprightness of your heart that you were led in to possess their land, but because they acted wickedly they were destroyed as you entered in' (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).

-- "I ask, what could be said more clearly against that pernicious opinion and presumption of ours, by which we want to attribute everything that we do to our free will and to our own effort? 'Do not say in your heart, when the Lord your God has destroyed them in your sight: Because of my righteousness the Lord has led me in to possess this land.'

-- "Did he not express himself clearly to those whose souls' eyes are open and whose ears hear? Namely, when you have enjoyed a notable success in warring against the carnal vices and you see that you have been freed from their filthiness and from this world's way of life, you should not be puffed up with the success of the struggle and the victory and ascribe this to your own strength and wisdom, believing that you were able to obtain victory over evil spirits and carnal vices through your own efforts and application and free will. There is no doubt that you would never have been able to prevail over these if the Lord's help had not fortified and protected you." END

from St. John Cassian, "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 194 - 196