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 31, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Lord's Prayer: Part II


In this issue we will complete our two-part study of the greatest prayer of all -- The Lord's Prayer.

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.

Unlike some of the earlier conversations we studied were between Germanus and Abba Joseph; the subject of prayer, however, is from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Isaac. This Isaac, incidentally, was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, and is apparently the first of two "Isaacs" mentioned in "Paradise of the Fathers."

BEGIN:

ON THE LORD'S PRAYER 

XXI.1 "Then: 'Give us this day our "supersubstantial bread," [NOTE: Cassian uses a Greek word here] which another evangelist has referred to as 'daily.' The former indicates the noble quality of this substance, which places it above all other substances and which, in the sublimity of its magnificence and power to sanctify, surpasses every creature, whereas the latter expresses the nature of its use and its goodness. For when it says 'daily' it shows that we are unable to attain the spiritual life on a day without it.

2. When it says 'this day' it shows that it must be taken daily and that yesterday's supply of it is not enough if we have not been given of it today as well. Our daily need for it warns us that we should pour out this prayer constantly, because there is no day on which it is not necessary for us to strengthen the heart of our inner man by eating and receiving this. But the expression 'this day' can also be understood with reference to the present life -- namely: Give us this bread as long as we dwell in this world. For we know that it will also be given in the world to come to those who have deserved it from you, but we beg you to give it to us this day, because unless a person deserves to receive it in this life he will be unable to partake of it in that life.

ON THE WORDS "FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES" AND SO FORTH

XXII.1. "'And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Oh, the unspeakable mercy of God! It has not merely given us a form of prayer and taught us how to act in a manner acceptable to him, uprooting both anger and sadness through the requirements of the formula that he gave, by which he ordered that we should always pray it. It has also conferred on those who pray an opportunity by disclosing to them the way that they may bring upon themselves the merciful and kind judgment of God, and it has conferred a certain power by which we can moderate the sentence of our Judge, persuading him to pardon our sins by the example of our own forgiveness, when we tell him: 'Forgive us as we forgive.'

2. "And so, securely confident in this prayer, a person who has been forgiving to his own debtors and not to his Lord's will ask pardon for his offenses. For some of us -- which is bad -- are accustomed to show ourselves mild and very merciful with respect to things that are committed to God's disadvantage, although they may be great crimes, but to be very harsh and inexorable exactors with respect to the debts of even the slightest offenses committed against ourselves.

3. Whoever, then, does not from his heart forgive the brother who has offended him will, by this entreaty, be asking not for pardon but for condemnation for himself, and by his own say-so he will be requesting a harsher judgment for himself when he says: Forgive me as I also have forgiven. And when he has been dealt with according to his own petition, what else will the consequence be that that, following his own example, he will be punished with an implacable anger and an irremissible condemnation? Therefore, if we wish to be judged mercifully, we must ourselves be merciful toward those who have offended us. For we shall be forgiven to the degree that we have forgiven those who have injured us by any wrongdoing whatsoever.

4. "Some people fear this, and when this prayer is recited together in church by the whole congregation they pass over this line in silence, lest by their own words they obligate rather than excuse themselves. They do not understand that it is in vain that they contrive to quibble in this way with the Judge of all, who wished to show beforehand how he would judge his suppliants. For since he does not wish to be harsh and inexorable toward them, he indicated the form that his judgment would take. Thus, just as we want to be judged by him, so also we should judge our brothers if they have offended us in anything, 'because there is judgment without mercy for the one who has not acted mercifully.'

ON THE WORDS "SUBJECT US NOT TO THE TRIAL"

XXIII.1. "Next there follows: 'And subject us not to the trial. In this regard there arises a question of no small importance. For if we pray not to be allowed to be tried, how will the strength of our steadfastness be tested, according to the words: 'Whoever has not been tried has not been proven?' And again: 'Blessed is the man who undergoes trial?' Therefore, the words 'Subject us not to the trial' do not mean: Do not allow us ever to be tried, but rather: Do not allow us to be overcome when we are tried.

2. For Job was tried, but he was not subjected to the trial. For he did not ascribe folly to God, nor did he as a blasphemer, with wicked tongue, accede to the will of the one trying him, to which he was being drawn. Abraham was tried and Joseph was tried, but neither of them was subjected to the trial, for neither of them consented to the one trying them.

"Then there follows: 'But deliver us from evil.' This means: Do not allow us to be tried by the devil 'beyond our capacity, but with the trial also provide a way out, so that we may be able to endure.'

CONCERNING THE FACT THAT NOTHING ELSE
AT ALL SHOULD BE ASKED FOR EXCEPT WHAT
IS CONTAINED WITHIN THE LIMITS OF
THE LORD'S PRAYER 

XXIV "You see, then, what sort of measure and form for prayer have been proposed to us by the Judge who is to be prayed to by it. In it there is contained no request for riches, no allusion to honors, no demand for power and strength, no mention of bodily health or of temporal existence. For the Creator of eternal things wishes nothing transitory, nothing base, nothing temporal to be asked for from himself. And so, whoever neglects these sempiternal petitions and chooses to ask for something transitory and passing from him does very great injury to his grandeur and largesse, and he offends rather than propitiates his Judge with the paltriness of his prayer. END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 343 - 345

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Lord's Prayer: Part I

Previously, we have looked at the "Four Kinds of Prayer," but in this issue we will begin a two-part study of the greatest prayer of all -- The Lord's Prayer.

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.

Unlike some of the earlier conversations we studied were between Germanus and Abba Joseph; the subject of prayer, however, is from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Isaac. This Isaac, incidentally, was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, and is apparently the first of two "Isaacs" mentioned in "Paradise of the Fathers."

BEGIN:

ON THE LORD'S PRAYER 

XVIII.1. "And so a still more sublime and exalted condition follows upon these kinds of prayer. It is fashioned by the contemplation of God alone and by fervent charity, by which the mind, having been dissolved and flung into love of Him, speaks most familiarly and with particular devotion to God as to its own father.

2. "The schema of the Lord's prayer has taught us that we must tirelessly seek this condition when it says: 'Our Father." When, therefore, we confess with our own voice that the God and Lord of the universe is our Father, we profess that we have in fact been admitted from our servile condition into an adopted sonship.

"Then we add: 'Who art in heaven,' so that, avoiding with utter horror the dwelling place of the present life, wherein we sojourn on this earth as on a journey and are kept at a far distance from our Father, we may instead hasten with great desire to that region in which we say that our Father dwells and do nothing that would make us unworthy of this profession of our and of the nobility of so great an adoption, or that would deprive us as degenerate of our paternal inheritance and cause us to incur the wrath of his justice and severity.

3. "Having advanced to the rank and status of sons, we shall from then on burn constantly with that devotion which is found in good sons, so that we may no longer expend all our energies for our own benefit but for the sake of our Father's glory, saying to him: 'Hallowed be thy name.' Thus we testify that our desire and our joy is the glory of our Father, since we have become imitators of him who said: 'The one who speaks of himself seeks his own glory. But the one who seeks the glory of Him who sent him is true, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

"Finally, the vessel of election, filled with this disposition, wished to become anathema from Christ if only a household many times larger would be gained for him and the salvation of the entire Israelite people would increase the glory of his Father.

4. "For he who knew that no one can die for the sake of life could safely choose to perish for the sake of Christ. And again he says: 'We rejoice when we are weak but you are strong.'

"But what is there so astonishing if the vessel of election chooses to become anathema for the sake of Christ's glory and for the sake of his brothers' conversion and the well-being of the pagans, when the prophet Micah also wished to become a liar and to be removed from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit if only the people of the Jewish nation might avoid the plagues and the ruinous captivity that he had predicted by his prophecy? As he says: 'Would that I were not a man who had the Spirit, and I told a lie instead!' And let us pass over the sentiment of the Lawgiver, who did not refuse to die with his brothers, who were themselves going to die, when he said: 'I beseech you, O Lord; this people has committed a great sin. Either forgive them this evil or, if you do not, wipe me out from the book that you have written.'

5. "The words, 'Hallowed be thy name' can also be quite satisfactorily understood in this way -- namely, that the hallowing of God is our perfection. And so when we say to him: 'Hallowed be thy name,' we are saying in other words: Make us such, Father, that we may deserve to understand and grasp how great your hallowing is and, of course, that you may appear as hallowed in our spiritual way of life. This is effectively fulfilled in us when 'people see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.'

XIX. "The second petition of a most pure mind eagerly desires the kingdom of its Father to come immediately. This means that in which Christ reigns daily in holy persons, which happens when the rule of the devil has been cast out of our hearts by the annihilation of the foul vices and God has begun to hold sway in us through the good fragrance of the virtues; when chastity, peace, and humility reign in our minds, and fornication has been conquered, rage overcome, and pride trampled upon. And of course it means that which was promised universally to all the perfect and to all the sons of God at the appointed time, when it will be said to them by Christ: 'Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.' Desiring and hoping for this with intent and unwavering gaze, we tell him: 'Thy kingdom come.' For we know by the witness of our own conscience that when he appears we shall soon be his companions. No sinner dares to say this or to wish for it, since a person who knows that at his coming he will at once be paid back for his deserts not with a palm or rewards but with punishment has no desire to see the Judge's tribunal.

XX.1."The third petition is of sons: 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' There cannot be a greater prayer than to desire that earthly things should deserve to equal heavenly ones. For what does it mean to say: 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,' if not that human beings should be like angels and that, just as God's will is fulfilled by them in heaven, so also all those who are on earth should do not their own but his will? No one will really be able to say this but him who believes that God regulates all things that are seen, whether fortunate or unfortunate, for the sake of our well- being, and that he is more provident and careful with regard to the salvation and interests of those who are his own than we are for ourselves.

2. "And of course it is to be understood in this way -- namely, that the will of God is the salvation of all, according to the text of blessed Paul: 'Who desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.' Of this will the prophet Isaiah, speaking in the person of God the Fathers, also says: 'All my will shall be done.' When we tell him, then: 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,' we are praying in other words: Father, just as those who are in heaven are saved by the knowledge of you, so also are those who are on earth." END -- To be continued next week . . . .

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 340 - 343

Sunday, March 24, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN and ABBA ISAAC - The Four Kinds of Prayer: Part II


We will continue our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian. Last week, we began a study on prayer which we will continue today. Next week we will study the Lord's Prayer. As we approach the Christmas season and prepare to celebrate our Lord' birth, this is a good time to study once again the ever- important issue of prayer and how to pray. First, though, a bit of St. John Cassian's biography.

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 study of prayer. Unlike the previous conversations we studied between Germanus and Abba Joseph, today's reading is from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Isaac. This Isaac, incidentally, was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, and is apparently the first of two "Isaacs" mentioned in "Paradise of the Fathers." In the interest of completeness (and for the benefit of new subscribers!), the last portion of last week's reading will be repeated here. Now, on to "The Four Kinds of Prayer."

BEGIN:

THE FOUR KINDS OF PRAYER

IX.1 "Therefore once these aspects of the character of prayer have been analyzed -- although not as much as the breadth of the material demands but as much as a brief space of time permits and our feeble intelligence and dull heart can grasp hold of -- there remains to us a still greater difficulty: We must explain one by one the different kinds of prayer that the Apostle [note: "the Apostle," when used by the Desert Fathers, refers to St. Paul] divided in fourfold fashion when he said: 'I urge first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made.' There is not the least doubt that the Apostle established these distinctions in this way for a good reason.

2. "First we must find out what is meant by supplication, what is meant by prayer, what is meant by intercession, and what is meant by thanksgiving. Then we must investigate whether these four kinds are to be used simultaneously by the person praying - - that is whether they should all be joined together in a single act of prayer -- or whether they should be offered one after the other and individually, so that, for example, at one time supplications should be made, at another prayers, at another intercessions or thanksgivings; and whether one person should offer God supplications, another prayers, another intercessions, and another thanksgivings, depending on the maturity to which each mind is progressing according to the intensity of its effort.

THE ORDER OF THESE KINDS WITH RESPECT
TO THE CHARACTER OF PRAYER

X.1 "First, therefore, the very properties of the names and words should be dealt with and the difference between prayer, supplication, and intercession analyzed. Then, in similar fashion, an investigation must be made as to whether they are to be offered separately or together. Third, we must look into whether the very order that was laid down on the authority of the Apostle has deeper implications for the hearer or whether these distinctions should simply be accepted and be considered to have been drawn up by him in an inconsequential manner.

2. "This last suggestion seems quite absurd to me. For it ought not to be believed that the Holy Spirit would have said something through the Apostle in passing and for no reason. And therefore let us treat of them again individually in the same order in which we began, as the Lord permits."

ON SUPPLICATION

XI. "'I urge first of all that supplications be made.' A supplication is an imploring or a petition concerning sins, by which a person who has been struck by compunction begs for pardon for his present or past misdeeds.

ON PRAYER

XII.1. "Prayers are those acts by which we offer or vow something to God . . . that is, a vow. . . . According to the nature of the word this can be expressed as follows: I will make my prayers to the Lord. And what we read in Ecclesiastes: 'If you vow a vow to God, do not delay to pay it,' is written similarly in Greek: . . . that is, "If you make a prayer to the Lord, do not delay to pay it. [NOTE: the missing phrases refer to Greek words and phrases that cannot be typed here]

2. "This will be fulfilled by each one of us in this way. We pray when we renounce this world and pledge that, dead to every earthly deed and to an earthly way of life, we will serve the Lord with utter earnestness of heart. We pray when we promise that, disdaining worldly honor and spurning earthly riches, we will cling to the Lord in complete contrition of heart and poverty of spirit. We pray when we promise that we will always keep the most pure chastity of body and unwavering patience, and when we vow that we will utterly eliminate from our heart the roots of death dealing anger and sadness. When we have been weakened by sloth and are returning to our former vices and are not doing these things, we shall bear guilt for our prayers and vows and it will be said of us: 'It is better not to vow than to vow and not to pay.' According to the Greed this can be said: It is better for you not to pray than to pray and not to pay.

ON INTERCESSION

XIII. "In the third place there are intercessions, which we are also accustomed to make for others when our spirits are fervent, beseeching on behalf of our dear ones and for the peace of the whole world, praying (as I would say in the words of the Apostle himself) 'for kings and for all who are in authority.'

ON THANKSGIVING

XIV. "Finally, in the fourth place there are thanksgivings, which the mind, whether recalling God's past benefits, contemplating his present ones, or foreseeing what great things God has prepared for those who love him, offers to the Lord in unspeakable ecstasies. And with this intensity, too, more copious prayers are sometimes made, when our spirit gazes with most pure eyes upon the rewards of the holy ones that are stored up for the future and is moved to pour out wordless thanks to God with a boundless joy.

WHETHER THE FOUR KINDS OF PRAYER ARE NECESSARY FOR EVERYONE ALL AT ONCE OR INDIVIDUALLY AND BY TURNS

XV.1. "These four kinds sometimes offer opportunities for richer prayers, for from the class of supplication which is born of compunction for sin, and from the state of prayer which flows from faithfulness in our offerings and the keeping of our vows because of a pure conscience, and from intercession which proceeds from fervent charity, and from thanksgiving which is begotten from considering God's benefits and His greatness and lovingkindness, we know that frequently very fervent and fiery prayers arise. This it is clear that all these kinds which we have spoken about appear helpful and necessary to everyone, so that in one and the same man a changing disposition will send forth pure and fervent prayers of supplication at one time, prayer at another, and intercession at another.

"Nonetheless the first kind seems to pertain more especially to beginners who are still being harassed by the stings and by the memory of their vices; the second to those who already occupy a certain elevated position of mind with regard to spiritual progress and virtuous disposition; the third to those who, fulfilling their vows completely by their deeds, are moved to intercede for others also in consideration of their frailty and out of zeal for charity; the fourth to those who, having already torn from their hearts the penal thorn of conscience, now, free from care, consider with a most pure mind the kindnesses and mercies of the Lord that he has bestowed In the past, gives in the present, and prepares for the future, and are rapt by their fervent heart to that fiery prayer which can be neither seized nor expressed by the mouth of man.

2. "Yet sometimes the mind which advances to that true disposition of purity and has already begun to be rooted in it, conceiving all of these at one and the same time and rushing through them all like a kind of ungraspable and devouring flame, pours out to God wordless prayers of the purest vigor. These the Spirit itself makes to God as it intervenes with unutterable groans, unbeknownst to us, conceiving at that moment and pouring forth in wordless prayer such great things that they are not only -- I would say -- cannot pass through the mouth but are unable even to be remembered by the mind later on.

3. "Hence, in whatever state a person is, he sometimes finds himself making pure and intense prayers. For even from that first and lowest sort, which has to do with recalling the future judgment, the one who is still subject to the punishment of terror and the fear of judgment is occasionally so struck with compunction that he is filled with no less joy of spirit from the richness of his supplication than the one who, examining the kindnesses of God and going over them in the purity of his heart, dissolves into unspeakable gladness and delight. For, according to the words of the Lord, the one who realizes that more has been forgiven him begins to love more.

TO WHAT KINDS OF PRAYER WE OUGHT TO DIRECT OURSELVES

XVI. "Yet, as we advance in life and grow perfect in virtue, we should by preference pursue the kinds of prayer that are poured out as a result of contemplating future goods or from an ardent charity, or at least -- to speak in lowly fashion and in conformity with a beginner's standard -- that are produced for the sake of acquiring some virtue or destroying some vice. For we shall be utterly unable to attain to the more sublime types of prayer about which we have spoken if our mind has not been slowly and gradually brought forward through the series of those intercessions." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 337 - 339

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN and ABBA ISAAC - The Four Kinds of Prayer: Part I


We will continue our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian. Although we have looked at 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. Today's topic, in particular, is critical to the spiritual life and John Cassian's work speaks to it as few others do.

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 reading, we will look at several conferences on the general subject of prayer. Unlike the previous conversations we studied between Germanus and Abba Joseph, today's reading is from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Isaac. This Isaac, incidentally, was a contemporary of St. Anthony the Great, and is apparently the first of two "Isaacs" mentioned in "Paradise of the Fathers." Today's topic is the four kinds of prayer.

BEGIN:

A QUESTION ABOUT WHY IT IS MORE DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN GOOD THOUGHTS THAN TO PRODUCE THEM

VII.1 GERMANUS: "If only we were able to enjoy uninterruptedly these spiritual thoughts in the same way and with the same ease that we usually conceive their beginnings. For when they have been conceived in our heart through the recollection of Scripture or through recalling some spiritual deeds or, even more, through a glimpse of the heavenly mysteries, they immediately vanish, having as it were imperceptibly taken flight.

2. "And when our mind finds further occasions for spiritual thoughts, others creep back in and those that had been laid hold of slip rapidly away. Thus the mind has no constancy of its own, nor does it possess of its own power any immutability with regard to holy thoughts even when it seems somehow or other to hold on to them, and it can be believed that it has conceived them by chance and not by its own effort. For how can anyone think that their origin is to be ascribed to our own doing when persevering in them is beyond us?

3. "But let us not, while pursuing this issue, digress any further from the discourse that we began and put off any longer the proposed explanation regarding the nature of prayer. We shall keep this other matter for its own time. Right now we want to be informed about the character of prayer, especially since the Apostle tells us never to cease from it when he says: 'Pray without ceasing.'

4. "Therefore we want to learn about it character first -- that is, about what sort of prayer should always be said -- and then abut how we can possess this very thing, whatever it is, and practice it without ceasing. For daily experience and the words of your holiness, according to which you declared that the end of the monk and the summit of all perfection consisted in perfect prayer, demonstrate that this can be achieved with no small effort of the heart."

THE REPLY, ON THE DIFFERENT CHARACTERISTICS OF PRAYER

VIII.1 ISAAC: "I do not think that all the different kinds of prayer can be grasped without great purity of heart and soul and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. For as many characteristics can be produced as there are conditions in one soul and, indeed, in all souls.

2. "Therefore, although we know that we cannot ascertain all the different kinds of prayer because of our dullness of heart, nonetheless we shall try to analyze them somehow to the extent that our limited experience permits us to do so. According to the degree of purity to which each mind has attained, and according to the nature of the condition either to which it has declined because of what has happened to it or to which it has renewed itself by its own efforts, these change at every moment. Therefore it is absolutely certain that no one's prayers can be uniform.

3. "For a person prays one way when he is happy and another way when he is burdened by a weight of sadness or despair; one way when he is enjoying spiritual successes and another way when he is oppressed by numerous attacks; one way when he is begging pardon for sins and another way when he is asking for grace or some virtue or, of course, for the annihilation of some vice; one way when he is struck with compunction by reflecting on Gehenna and by fear of future judgment and another way when he is inflamed by the hope and desire for future goods; one way when he is needy and in danger and another way he is safe and at peace; one way when he is enlightened by revelations of heavenly mysteries and another way when he is fettered by sterility of virtue and dryness of thought.

THE FOUR KINDS OF PRAYER

IX.1 "Therefore once these aspects of the character of prayer have been analyzed -- although not as much as the breadth of the material demands but as much as a brief space of time permits and our feeble intelligence and dull heart can grasp hold of -- there remains to us a still greater difficulty: We must explain one by one the different kinds of prayer that the Apostle [note: "the Apostle," when used by the Desert Fathers, refers to St. Paul] divided in fourfold fashion when he said: 'I urge first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made.' There is not the least doubt that the Apostle established these distinctions in this way for a good reason.

2. "First we must find out what is meant by supplication, what is meant by prayer, what is meant by intercession, and what is meant by thanksgiving. Then we must investigate whether these four kinds are to be used simultaneously by the person praying - - that is whether they should all be joined together in a single act of prayer -- or whether they should be offered one after the other and individually, so that, for example, at one time supplications should be made, at another prayers, at another intercessions or thanksgivings; and whether one person should offer God supplications, another prayers, another intercessions, and another thanksgivings, depending on the maturity to which each mind is progressing according to the intensity of its effort.

THE ORDER OF THESE KINDS WITH RESPECT TO
THE CHARACTER OF PRAYER

X.1 "First, therefore, the very properties of the names and words should be dealt with and the difference between prayer, supplication, and intercession analyzed. Then, in similar fashion, an investigation must be made as to whether they are to be offered separately or together. Third, we must look into whether the very order that was laid down on the authority of the Apostle has deeper implications for the hearer or whether these distinctions should simply be accepted and be considered to have been drawn up by him in an inconsequential manner.

2. "This last suggestion seems quite absurd to me. For it ought not to be believed that the Holy Spirit would have said something through the Apostle in passing and for no reason. And therefore let us treat of them again individually in the same order in which we began, as the Lord permits." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 334 - 337

Sunday, March 17, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - Gospel "Perfection" Is Not Just Obedience


Our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian continues in this issue. 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 several conferences on the general subject obedience. Like the ones from last week, they come from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Joseph:

BEGIN:

A Question About How Those Who Obey the Commands
of Christ May Fail in Gospel Perfection

GERMANUS: "Why must someone be blamed who carries out the gospel precept and not only does not make retaliation but is even prepared to undergo redoubled mistreatment?"

JOSEPH: 1. "As was said a short while ago, it is not merely the thing itself which is done but also the character of the mind and the intention of the doer that must be looked at. Therefore, if by careful scrutiny you weigh what is accomplished by each person, with what mind it is done and from what inmost disposition it proceeds, you will see that the virtue of patience and mildness can never be exercised by a contrary spirit -- that is, by one of impatience and rage.

2. "Our Lord and Savior instructed us thoroughly in the virtue of patience and mildness -- that is, so that we would not promote it by mere lip service but would lay it up in the deepest recesses of our soul -- and gave us this formula for gospel perfection when he said: 'If anyone strikes you on your right check, offer him the other as well.' [Without doubt one on the right is to be understood, and this other right one cannot be understood except as being, in my estimation, on the face of the inner man.] In so doing he desired to remove completely the dregs of wrath from the inmost depths of the soul. Thus, if your outer right cheek has received a blow from the striker, the inner man should offer his right cheek to be struck as well in humble accord, suffering along with the outer man and as it were submitting and subjecting its own body to the injustice of the striker, so that the inner man may not be disturbed even silently within itself at the blow dealt the outer man.

3. "You see, then, that they are far from that gospel perfection which teaches that patience must be observed not by words but by the inner tranquility of the heart, and which commands that we must hold to it when something adverse occurs in such a way that we not only keep ourselves far from wrathful disturbance but also, by submitting to their mistreatment, urge those who have been aroused by their wickedness to return to calm, now that they are sated with their blow. Thus we shall conquer their rage with our mildness, and thus we shall also fulfill the apostolic words: 'Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'

4. "This can by no means be fulfilled by those who utter words of mildness and humility in a proud spirit. They not only do not calm the fiery rage that has been conceived; on the contrary, they cause it to flare up more in their own mind than in that of their brother who has been aroused. Yet, even if in some way they could remain gentle and calm, they would never receive any fruits of righteousness thereby because they are claiming the glory of patience for themselves by way of their neighbor's loss, and thus they are very far indeed from that apostolic love which 'does not seek what is its own' but rather what belongs to others. For it does not want riches in such a way as to make a profit for itself at its neighbor's expense, nor does it desire to acquire anything to someone else's impoverishment."

That a Person Who Submits to Another's Will is Strong and Sound

"It should certainly be known that, as a rule, he who submits his own will to his brother's will acts the stronger part than he who is more obstinate in defending and holding on to his own opinions. For the former, in putting up with and tolerating his neighbor, obtains the status of one who is healthy and strong, whereas the latter that of one who is somehow weak and sickly, who must be so flattered and coaxed that occasionally it is good that some adjustments be made even with respect to necessary things for the sake of his calm and peace. In this, to be sure, he should not believe that his perfection is at all diminished, although by giving in he has somewhat mitigated his intended strictness. On the contrary he should realize that he has gained much more by his forbearance and patience. For the apostolic precept has it: 'You who are strong should put up with the infirmities of the weak.' And: 'Bear one another's burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.' For one weak person never puts up with another weak person, nor will someone who is sick be able to endure or heal someone else who is ailing in the same way. Rather, it is he who is himself not subject to infirmity who bestows healing on the infirm. Rightly is it said to him: 'Physician, heal yourself.'

That the Weak Mistreat Others and are Unable to Bear Mistreatment

"It should also be noted that the character of the weak is consistently of this sort: They quickly and easily pour out abuse and sow discord, but they themselves do not wish to put up with the slightest mistreatment, and although they carry on violent arguments and get on their high horse without any fear of the consequences, they are unwilling to bear small and indeed very minor things. Therefore, according to the aforesaid opinion of the elders, a stable and unbroken love cannot endure except among men of the same virtue and chosen orientation. For it is bound to be rent at some time or other, however carefully it may be maintained by one of the persons involved." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 570 - 572

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

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.

BEGIN:

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

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - On the Three Things that Exist in This World: the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent


In this issue we will begin a new study from "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.

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 sixth Conference which includes a dialogue "On the Three Things that Exist in this World -- the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent."

BEGIN:

1. "There are three things in this world -- namely, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. We ought to know what, properly speaking, is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent, so that our faith, strengthened by real knowledge, might remain undamaged by any temptation.

"As far as human affairs are concerned, then, nothing should be believed to be the chief good other than the virtue of the soul alone, which leads us to the unchangeable good. On the other hand, nothing should be called bad other than sin alone, which separates us from a good God and joins us to the wicked devil.

2. "Indifferent things are those which can go in either direction depending on the desire and will of the user, such as wealth, power, honor, bodily strength, health, beauty, life itself and death, poverty, bodily sickness, insults, and other things similar to these which can have good or bad consequences according to the character and desire of the user.

"For even wealth frequently has good consequences, in the words of the Apostle who charges "the rich of this world to give freely, to share with the poor, to store up for themselves a good foundation in the future, so that in this way "they may seize the true life." In the words of the Gospel, it is good for those who "make friends for themselves from wicked mammon."

3. It can be turned to bad, again, when it is accumulated only for hoarding or for the sake of luxury and is not distributed for the needs of the poor.

"Likewise, that power and honor and bodily strength and health are indifferent and can veer to either side is clearly proven from the fact that many holy persons in the Old Testament possessed all these things, having been very rich and highly honored and strong in body, and they are also known to have been most acceptable to God.

4. "On the other hand, those who misused these things in bad fashion and turned them to serve their own wickedness were not inappropriately either punished or destroyed, as is frequently indicated in the Book of Kings.

"That life and death themselves are indifferent is shown by the birth of Saint John and of Judas. So advantageous was the life of the one to himself that his birth is also said to have brought joy to others, as it is written: 'Many rejoiced at his birth.' Of the other's life, however, it is said: 'It would have been good for him if that man had not been born.'

5. "It is said of the death of John, as of the death of all the holy ones: 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones.' But of that of Judas and of those like him: 'The death of sinners is very bad.'

"The blessedness of the poor Lazarus, full of sores, shows how useful even bodily sickness can sometimes be. Scripture mentions nothing virtuous about him apart from the mere fact that he very patiently bore deprivation and bodily sickness, and for this he deserved to possess Abraham's bosom as his blessed destiny.'

6. Deprivation and persecutions and insults, which are considered to be bad in the opinion of the crowd, are also clearly shown to be beneficial and necessary from the fact that holy men have not only never desired to avoid them but have even, once having become the friends of God, sought them with all their strength, steadfastly endured them, and pursued them as the price of eternal life. The blessed Apostle says in agreement with this: 'Therefore I am happy in sickness, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distress, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong, for power is made perfect in weakness.'

7. "Therefore, those who are exalted by the greatest wealth and honor and power in this world must not be believed to have thereby obtained the chief good, which is understood in terms of virtue alone, but rather something indifferent. For just as these resources are seen to be beneficial and good to the righteous who use them correctly and unavoidably, since they offer the possibility of a good work and of fruit in eternal life, so likewise they are valueless and bad and offer an occasion of death and sin to those who misuse them in bad fashion." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 218 -- 220

Sunday, March 3, 2013

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM - Lessons on Education: Part IV


We will conclude our reading of St. John Chrysostom's 39 instructions on educating the child today with Part IV. St. John wrote this wonderful treatise as a guide for parents on how to raise up a Christian child whose education would be not only secular, but also spiritual and moral and would thus be a complete person. 

LESSONS BY OUR HOLY FATHER JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
ON EDUCATION -- PART IV

31. Furthermore, wishing to acquaint our children with sciences we not only remove any conflicting teachings, but give them everything that will support it; we thrust mentors and teachers upon them, give them financial support, free them from all other occupations; and even more than trainers at Olympic games, we scream at them about poverty that results from not studying and wealthy from studying. We ourselves and through others do and say everything just to lead them to finishing their studies; and at that, we do not always succeed. But do modest manners and diligence over honorable behavior, in our opinion, come by themselves, regardless of all the many obstacles? What can be worse than this insanity -- spending so much time and energy on what is easy as though it were impossible to succeed in it otherwise, while what is infinitely more difficult seems to us as something empty and insignificant that will come to us even as we sleep? For exercise of the soul in the pious life is so many times more difficult than the study of sciences, so much harder to fulfill than it is possible to say; it is the difference between action and words.

32. "But why," you say, "do our children need such wisdom and strict behavior?" This is the very thing that is so all-destructive -- that such an important matter, the support of our life, is considered extravagant and unnecessary. Having seen your son sick in body, no one would ask why he needs perfect and strong health. To the contrary you would take every measure to return his body to a good condition, so that the illness would not return.

But when children have sick souls, they say that they need no treatment; and after such words they dare to call themselves fathers! "What?" you say, "Shall we only seek after wisdom and let everything earthly fall apart?" No, most respected ones, it is not love of wisdom but the lack of it that has destroyed and disrupted everything. For who, tell me, disrupts the present condition of things -- those who live continently and modestly, or those who invent new and unlawful means of delighting themselves? Those who only try to grab other people's things for themselves, or those who are content with what they have? Those who love mankind, who are meek and do not seek honor, or those who demand honor from their brothers above all obligation, and cause a thousand annoyances for those who do not rise when they enter, do not say the first greeting, do not bow before them, or do not agree with them? Those who love to submit, or those who seek power and positions of authority, and for this are ready to do and endure anything? Those who consider themselves better than everyone, and therefore think that they may say and do anything, or those who consider themselves to be last, and thereby tame their unreasonable self-willed passions? Those who support harlots and defile the marriage beds of others, or those who are continent even with their own wives? Are not the first in human society those who are like tumors on the body and lashing winds over the sea, who with their lack of restraint drown even those who if left alone might have saved themselves? And are not the last those who are like bright lamps amidst thick darkness, calling the shipwrecked to their safety, and, having lit on high in the distance the lamp of wisdom, thus lead those who desire it into the peaceful harbor?

Is it not those others who cause disturbances, wars and fights, and destruction of the cities, and captivity, and slavery, and loss of freedom, and murder, and innumerable catastrophes in life -- catastrophes not only wrought on people by people, but also everything sent from heaven, for example: droughts, floods, earthquakes, inundation of cities, famines, pestilences, and everything that is sent to us from there? They debase the social order and destroy the general good; they bring countless misfortunes on others, obfuscate people who seek peace, draw them in and then tear them apart from all directions. Courts and laws, sentences and all manner of punishment were created for these people.

33. If we wanted to educate our children from the earliest age and give them to those who wished to educate them, our children would of course be able to stand in the very forefront of battle; because God would not disdain such fervency and zeal, but would stretch out His hand to complete the sculpture. When His hand acts, it is impossible not to succeed, or rather, it is impossible not to reach the highest degree of brilliance and glory, if only we fulfilled what depends upon us. If women have been able to incline God's help in the upbringing of children, how much more so could we do the same if we so wanted. In order not to over-stretch this homily, I shall pass over in silence all other women and cite only one, though I could have cited many.

There was a Jewess named Hannah. This Hannah gave birth to a son and no longer hoped to have another, because she was barely able to conceive this one after many tears due to her barrenness. Although her rival often chided her over her barrenness, she did not do as you do, but having received the child she kept him only as long as she needed to feel him milk. As soon as he no longer needed this food, she took him and immediately dedicated him to God, not asking that he ever return to his family's house, but leaving him to live always in the temple of God. And when out of maternal feeling she wished to see him she did not call the child to herself but came herself with the father to him, treating him carefully, like a sacrifice to God. This is why the boy became so valorous and great that when God turned His face from the Jewish people for its extreme impiety and pronounced no prophecies and sent no visions, this boy again attracted God with his virtue and begged Him to grant the Jews what they formerly had -- to renew the prophecy that had ceased. He did this when he was not yet a grown man, but a little child. "And the word of the Lord," says the Scripture, "was precious in those days, there was no distinct vision" (I Kings 3:1); meanwhile, God often revealed His will to Samuel.

That is how beneficial it is to always give your acquisitions to God, and to refuse not only money and things, but even your own children. For is this has been commanded of us with respect to our souls (Matthew 10:37), how much the more to everything else? The Patriarch Abraham also did this, or rather, he did much more than this, and that is why he received a son with great glory. We especially have our children with us when we have given them to the Lord. For He will preserve them much better than we can because He cares more for them. Have you not seen how it happens in the homes of rich people? There the low-born servants who live with their fathers are not so respected or powerful as those whom the master has taken from the parents, appointed to his service and made guardians of treasures, giving them great good will and freedom. If men are so kind and well-disposed toward their servants, much more so will be the Unlimited Goodness, that is, God.

34. Let us allow our children to serve God, leading them not only to the temple, like Samuel, but to the very heavens to serve together with the Angels and Archangels. For anyone can see that one who dedicates himself to love of wisdom really will be serving with the Angels. Furthermore, such children will be representing with great boldness not only themselves, but us also. For if some children have received help from God for their fathers' sake, so much more can fathers receive help for their children's sake; because in the first case the right to help comes only from nature, but in the second case it comes also from upbringing, which is much more important than nature.

I will prove both to you from Divine Scripture. Hezekiah, a virtuous and pious king but having no boldness according to his own deeds to withstand the great danger which threatened him, was saved by God for the sake of his father's virtue, as God Himself said: "And I will defend this city as with a shield, for my own sake, and for my servant David's sake" (IV Kings 19:34). Paul in his epistle to Timothy said about parents: "She (the woman) shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety" (I Timothy 2:15). The Scripture praises Job because he "was true, blameless, righteous and godly, abstaining from everything evil" (Job 1:1), as well as for his care for his children (Job 1:5). This care consisted not in the collection of wealth for them, and not in attempts to make them glorious and famous, but in what? Listen to what the Scripture says: "And when the days of the banquet were completed, Job sent and purified them, having risen up in the morning, and offered sacrifices for them, according to their number, and one calf for a sin-offering for their souls; for Job said, lest peradventure my sons have thought evil in their minds against God. Thus then Job did continually" (Job 1:5). What justification will we have if we behave with such neglect? For if those who lived before the time of grace and the law, who never received any teachings on the upbringing of children, had such great care for their children as to tremble even over their secret sins – who will justify us, who live during the time of grace, have so many teachers, so many examples and instructions, but meanwhile not only do not fear for their secret sins, but even ignore the obvious sins; and not only do we ourselves ignore them, but even cast out those who do not?  And Abraham, as I said before, stood out for this virtue more than for his many other virtues.

35. Thus, having so many examples, let us prepare pious servants and slaves for God.  If those who prepare competitive fighters for cities, or warriors for the king, are vouchsafed great honor, then what gift shall we receive if we prepare for God such valorous and great men, or rather, angels?  We will do everything we can in order to leave them the riches of piety which abide permanently, accompany us even after death and can bring great benefit not only here, but there (in the other world).  Worldly riches do not accompany people into eternity, and they can even perish here before their owners, often even destroying them.  But the riches of piety are permanent in this and the next life, and preserve those who acquire them in great safety.  This is really so; whoever prefers the earthly over the spiritual will lose both, but whoever longs for the spiritual and heavenly will probably also receive the earthly.  These are not my words, but those of the Lord Himself, Who promises to give us this good: "seek," He says, "first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).  What can compare with this honor?  Concern yourself, He says, with the spiritual, and leave everything else to Me.  A loving father takes all cares of the household upon himself, the governing of servants and everything else, but advises the son to concern himself with love of wisdom.  So does God.  Let us be obedient and begin to seek the kingdom of God; then we shall see everywhere reverent children, and we ourselves shall be glorified with them, and delight also in present good things.  Only you must love the future, heavenly things.  If you are obedient, you shall receive a great reward; but if you are contrary and disobedient you will endure terrible punishments.  For we cannot justify ourselves by saying, "No one taught us this."

 36. Untamed youth has need of many instructors and teachers, guides, observers and educators.  Only with this effort can it be reigned in.  An unbroken horse, an untamed beast – that is youth.  Therefore, if we place limits from an early age we will not need to use such great force; to the contrary, habit will become law.  We will not allow them to do what is pleasant but harmful; we will not try to please them because they are children, for this brings more harm than anything to youth.  But most of all we will preserve chastity.  We should concern ourselves with this more than anything else, and pay the most attention to this.  We will take wives for them early, so that they would unite themselves to their brides with pure and incorrupt bodies.  This kind of love is especially ardent.  Whoever was chaste before marriage is more likely to remain so after marriage.  But those who learned before marriage to fornicate will do the same after marriage.  For it is written in the Scriptures: "All bread is sweet to a whoremonger" (Sirach 23:17).  That is why a crown is placed on the head – as a sign of victory, that they are entering the bridal chamber unvanquished, unconquered by lust.  If someone prone to love of pleasure has given himself to harlots, then what reason does he have for wearing a crown on his head, since he has been vanquished?  We will instill this in them, teach it to them and threaten them in various ways.

 37. We have been given an important security – children.  Therefore we shall take care of them, and take every precaution that the evil one may not steal them from us.  Meanwhile, we do everything backward.  We make every effort to ensure that our fields be in good hands.  We seek out the most experienced mule drivers and overseers, but we take no such precautions for what is the most precious to us and through which all other good things come, namely, that we might entrust our son to a man that would preserve his chastity.  We take care to provide him with property, but take no care for him himself.  Do you see what insanity has taken control of us!  First of all educate your son's soul, and he will acquire possessions later.  If his soul is bad he will not receive the slightest benefit from money.  And vice versa, if he has been given the proper upbringing, then poverty will not harm him in the least.  Do you want to leave him wealthy?  Teach him to be good.  For children who have not received the proper upbringing poverty is better than wealth; it will keep them even against their will within the bounds of virtue.  However, wealth, even for one who does not wish it, does not allow one to live a chaste life, but lures him into a countless multitude of crimes.

 38. You, mothers, look after your daughters.  This should not be difficult for you.  Watch that they sit at home.  First of all teach them to be pious, modest, disdaining money, and not worrying too much about fancy dress.  Give them thus to marriage.  If you raise your daughter this way, you will save not only her, but the husband who takes her; and not only her husband, but the children; and not only the children, but the grandchildren.  If the root is good the branches will spread out more beautifully, and you will receive your reward for this.  Therefore let us do everything as though we are caring for the good not of one soul alone, but of many through the one.  For at the time of marriage, they (daughters) should go forth from their father's houses as fighters from the place of competition; that is, they should know precisely the entire science, by which they might, like a leaven, raise all the ingredients to the increase of them.

39. Again, sons should also be so modest that they might be recognized by their good morals and chastity, and might earn great praise from men and from God.  Let them learn to refrain themselves from extravagant possessions, to be thrifty and tenderly loving; let them learn to submit to authority.  For they can in this way obtain a great reward for their parents.  Then everything will be directed towards the glory of God and our salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom with the Father and Holy Spirit be glory, dominion and honor now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.  END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 329 - 335.