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 2, 2013

ABBA SERAPION - The Eight Principal Vices: Gluttony and Fornication

In this issue, we will continue our study of St. John Cassian's "Conferences" in which we are looking at the teachings of Abba Serapion on "The Eight Principal Vices." In the original text, these teachings are quite long (and incredibly rich in wisdom!), but we will only look at some excerpts here. Last week we read how Jesus is the "new Adam" and we studied the biblical comparisons between Adam and the Messiah. Today, we will look at how the eight vices interrelate and, in particular, at gluttony and fornication.


BEGIN: "Although these eight vices, then, have different origins and varying operations, yet the first six -- namely, gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, and acedia (anxiety, or weariness of the heart) -- are connected among themselves by a certain affinity and, so to speak, interlinking, such that the overflow of the previous one serves as the start of the next one. For from an excess of gluttony there inevitably springs fornication; from fornication, avarice; from avarice, anger; from anger, sadness; and from sadness, acedia. Therefore these must be fought against in a similar way and by the same method, and we must always attack the ones that follow by beginning with those that come before.

-- "For a tree whose width and height are harmful will more easily wither up if the roots which support it are exposed and cut beforehand, and pestilential waters will dry up when their rising source and rushing streams have been stopped up with skillful labor.

-- "In order to conquer acedia, sadness must first be overcome; in order to drive out sadness, anger must be cast out beforehand; in order to extinguish anger, avarice must be trampled on; in order to eradicate avarice, fornication must be repressed; in order to overthrow fornication, the vice of gluttony must be disciplined.

-- "But the two remaining ones, vainglory and pride, are linked in similar fashion, like the vices that we have spoken of, such that growth in the first becomes the start of the second, for an overflow of vainglory begets the beginnings of pride. But these differ wholly from those first six vices and are not leagued with them since they are not only not generated by them but even arise in a contrary manner and order. For when the former have been rooted out these sprout forth all the more, and at the death of the former these spring up and grow more vigorously.

-- "Hence we are also attacked by these two vices in a different way. We fall into one of those six vices when we have been seduced by the one that comes before it, but we are in danger of falling into these two when we are victorious and, indeed, particularly after triumphs. Each vice, then, since it is begotten by an increase in the one that comes before it, is purged away when the one before it is diminished. Therefore vainglory must be suffocated in order for pride to be driven out. Thus, whenever the preceding ones have been overcome, those that follow fall idle, and, with the extinction of the ones that go before, the remaining passions wither away without any effort.

-- "And although the eight vices that we have spoken about are connected and joined among themselves according to the scheme that we have mentioned, yet they are divided more particularly into four couplets. Fornication is allied by a special relationship to gluttony, anger is closely yoked to avarice, acedia to sadness, and pride to vainglory.


-- "Now let us discuss individually the different kinds of each vice. There are three kinds of gluttony. The first impels a monk to hasten to eat before the fixed and lawful hour. The second is pleased with a full stomach and with devouring any edibles whatsoever. And the third desires more refined and delicate foods. These three entail no small loss for a monk unless he struggles to extricate himself from all of them with equal diligence and care. For just as breaking the fast before the canonical hour is never to be dared, so likewise filling one's stomach and the preparation of costly and choice dishes must be avoided. From these three causes different and very bad states of health of the soul are produced.

-- From the first is born hatred for the monastery; with that there grows a dread of the same dwelling place and an inability to endure it; and this is always soon followed by departure and swift flight. From the second the burning pricks of lasciviousness and wanton desire are aroused. The third also fastens the inextricable bonds of avarice on the necks of its captives and never permits the monk to be rooted in Christ's utter deprivation.

-- We notice that the traces of this passion are in us when perchance, having been invited to eat by one of the brothers, we are not content to eat the food with the condiment with which it was seasoned by our host but demand with importunate and unbridled boldness that something be poured on it or added to it.

-- There are three reasons why this must never happen. In the first place, because the mind of the monk must be practiced in the discipline of endurance and moderation and must, according to the Apostle, learn what a sufficiency consists in. For whoever takes offense at a slightly unpleasant taste and is unable to restrain the pleasure of the palate even for a moment will be completely incapable of controlling the hidden and greater desires of the body. Secondly, because it sometimes happens that the particular thing that we are asking for at a given moment is lacking and we would shame our host in his need and frugality by making known this poverty, which he would prefer to be known to God alone. Thirdly, because occasionally the condiment that we ask to have added is unpleasant to others, and we discover that we are annoying many people in trying to cater to our own gormandizing and desire. Therefore this boldness in us is to be disciplined in every respect.

-- "There are three kinds of fornication. The first takes place in the union of the sexes. The second occurs without touching a woman, and for it we read that Onan, the son of the patriarch Judah, was struck down by the Lord (Genesis 38:9-10). This is called impurity in Holy Scripture. About this the Apostle says: 'I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them to stay just as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn' (I Corinthians 7:8-9). The third is that which is conceived in the soul and in the mind, and about which the Lord says in the Gospel: 'Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart' (Matthew 5:28).

-- "The blessed Apostle declares that these three kinds must all be extinguished in the same way when he says: 'Put to death your members that are on earth: fornication, impurity, wantonness,' and so forth (Colossians 3:5). And again he speaks of two of these to the Ephesians: 'Fornication and impurity should not be mentioned among you' (Ephesians 5:3). And again: 'Know this, that no fornicator or impure or avaricious person (which is slavery to idols) has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God' (Ephesians 5:5).

-- "Just as we should guard against these three with equal care, so one is enough to keep us out of the kingdom of Christ." END

from St. John Cassian, "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 189 - 191