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 30, 2013

ABBA EVAGRIUS - Various Teachings on Spirituality


Abba Evagrius was a monk in Scetis. He was born in the middle of the fourth century, the son of a priest. Because of his background and obvious capabilities, he caught the attention of such notable contemporaries as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian. St. Basil anointed him reader, St. Gregory of Nyssa ordained him as deacon, and then took him to Constantinople. He eventually left there to escape temptation and went to Jerusalem where he took monastic vows. Shortly after that, he went to Egypt where he settled in Nitria for two years and finally in Scetis where he apparently spent the rest of his life. He died in 399.

Today's reading is a bit shorter than usual, but it is very strong and full of good spiritual guidance for all of us. It is a collection from the Philokalia of several sayings of Abba Evagrius whose work we studied last week. These teachings are especially good for the beginning struggler, but also good for even the most advanced spiritual guides. Enjoy!

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MISCELLANEOUS SAYINGS FROM VARIOUS TEXTS
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-- Hell is the darkness of ignorance, which envelops sentient creatures, when they have lost the contemplation of God.

-- It is unseemly for the man who seeks honors to shirk the efforts for which honors are given.

-- Do you wish to know God? Learn first to know yourself.

-- It is inconsistent to think highly of oneself, while one's actions are base.

-- In every man self-opinion prevents self-knowledge.

-- He is pious who is not at variance with himself.

-- A soul pure in God is God.

-- If you wish to be free from discontent, strive to please God.

-- If you wish to know who you are, do not look at what you have been, but at what you were originally created.

-- A proud soul is a den or robbers; it cannot bear the voice of knowledge.

-- Without temptations no one would be saved.

-- Pray without ceasing and remember Christ, Who has regenerated you.

from E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (trans), "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 109

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

ABBA EVAGRIUS - The Acting LIfe of the Monk


Abba Evagrius was a monk in Scetis. He was born in the middle of the fourth century, the son of a priest. Because of his background and obvious capabilities, he caught the attention of such notable contemporaries as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian. St. Basil anointed him reader, St. Gregory of Nyssa ordained him as deacon, and then took him to Constantinople. He eventually left there to escape temptation and went to Jerusalem where he took monastic vows. Shortly after that, he went to Egypt where he settled in Nitria for two years and finally in Scetis where he apparently spent the rest of his life. He died in 399.

In today's reading, we will study a short text of Abba Evagrius on "the active life," written as part of a longer text of spiritual instruction for monks.

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ABBA EVAGRIUS: CENTURY ON ACTIVE LIFE
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-- Our holy and most experienced teacher used to say: a monk should be attuned in himself, as if he had to die tomorrow; and he should deal with his body as though he had to live many years. For, as he said, the first stops despondent thoughts and makes a monk more zealous, and the second keeps the body healthy and makes it always preserve an even temperance.

-- It is necessary to distinguish the differences between demons and to note their times. From thoughts we learn which demons are rare but grievous, which are constant but lighter, which jump on one suddenly and entice the mind to blasphemy. It is also important to observe when thoughts begin to bring forward their objects, so that, before quitting our usual state, we may have time to say something against them and to notice who is in them. For in this way we shall succeed with God's help and shall force them to turn away from us with vexation, marveling at us.

-- When the demons become exhausted in their struggle with monks, they withdraw a little and watch which virtue will be neglected during that interval; then, suddenly attacking this side they pillage the poor soul.

-- With laymen the demons fight rather by means of actual things, but with monks mostly by means of thoughts; for in the wilderness they have no things. But as it is easier and quicker to sin in thought then in deed, so mental warfare is more arduous than that waged by means of things. The mind is something extremely mobile and unrestrainable, susceptible to sinful fantasies.

-- We are not commanded to work, keep vigil and fast unceasingly; but we are commanded to pray without ceasing. For the former efforts, directed towards healing the lustful part of the soul, have need of the body for their action; and the body cannot exist in constant work and privations without support. Prayer, however, purifies and renders strong in battle the mind, which is created to pray even without this body, and to fight the demons for the protection of all the powers of the soul.

-- Let us discern the signs of passionlessness during daytime by means of thoughts, and at night by means of dreams. Let us call passionlessness the health of the soul, and knowledge its food; because it alone unites us with the holy powers, since union with the incorporeal beings is possible only when our state corresponds to theirs.

-- There are two peaceable states of the soul: one comes of the weakening and drying up of natural juices, the other is due to withdrawal of the demons. The first is accompanied by humility with contrition of heart -- tears and a measureless desire of the Divine; the second is followed by vainglory and pride, which take possession of a monk when other demons have withdrawn. He who protects the realm of the first state can more easily discern the attacks and wiles of the demons.

-- The demon of vainglory is opposed to the demon of fornication; it is not feasible for the two to attack the soul together, for one promises honors and the other casts into dishonor. Therefore if one of them approaches and begins to disturb you, bring to your mind the thoughts of the opposing demon. If you succeed, as the saying goes, in driving out one nail with another, know that you are close to the realm of passionless; for your mind has proved able to drive away the demon's suggestions by human thoughts. But of course, to banish the thought of vainglory by humility, or the thought of fornication by chastity, would be a sign of the deepest passionlessness. Try to act thus in relation to all demons and their opposites. Doing this you will also learn what passion was filling you. Yet beg God with all your strength to teach you and help you to drive away the enemies by the second method.

-- The further the soul progresses, the more powerful are the enemies who attack it. I do not think that the demons who surround it are always the same. This is known best to those who watch sharply the temptations which attack them, and see that their customary passionlessness is being shaken more violently than before by new demons, successors of the old.

-- Perfect passionlessness comes to the soul when all the demons who oppose active life are overcome. Passionlessness is called imperfect when the soul still wages war as much as it can with the demon who attacks it, without, however, giving ground.

-- The mind will not pass through, will not complete safely this passionate way (of trials) and will not enter the realm of the incorporeal, unless it sets right what is within. Domestic disorder is bound to turn it back to things it has left behind.

-- Both virtues and vices make the mind blind: with the first it does not see vices, and with the second, virtues. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (trans), "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 106 - 108

Sunday, June 23, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Struggle Against Sadness


In this issue, we will continue our study of St. John Cassian's other book, the "Institutes." Together with the "Conferences," these two books are perhaps the two most important books of guidance on the monastic life available.

This great monastic saint of the both the eastern and western churches was born in what is now Romania around the year 360. He left his homeland as a young man, apparently in his 20s or 30s, and joined a monastery in Bethlehem with his friend, Germanus. The two of them visited Egypt twice in order to learn the riches of Egyptian monasticism. From there, they traveled to Constantinople where St. John was ordained to the diaconate by none other than St. John Chrysostom in about the year 400. He then went to Rome on a mission for St. John Chrysostom and was ordained there to the priesthood by Pope Innocent I and eventually ended up in Marseilles. There he founded two monasteries and wrote his two great works, along with a smaller third work against the heretic Nestorius. St. John Cassian then died around 430.

In today's text, we will look at the struggle against "sadness" and both the positive and negative roles sadness can play in one's spiritual development.

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THE SPIRIT OF SADNESS
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-- In the fifth struggle we must restrain the urges of a consuming sadness. If through separate and random attacks and as a result of fleeting and changing happenstance it has gained control of our soul, it cuts us off totally from the vision of divine contemplation and weakens and oppresses the mind itself, once it has been utterly cast down from the state of purity that it had held to in its entirety. It does not permit it to carry out its prayers with its customary eagerness of heart, nor does it allow it to dwell upon the remedies of the sacred readings. It does not suffer it to be peaceable and gentle with the brothers, makes it impatient and abrupt with regard to every duty of work and worship, and, having destroyed all salutary counsel and driven out steadfastness of heart, crazes as it were and stupefies the intellect, breaking and overwhelming it with a punishing despair.

-- Hence, if we wish to engage lawfully in the struggle of the spiritual contest, we must with no less foresight cure this disease as well. For "as a moth with a garment and a worm with wood, so sadness does harm to a man's heart" (Proverbs 15:20). Quite clearly and appositely has the divine Spirit expressed the force of this hurtful and pernicious vice.

-- For a moth-eaten garment no longer has any value or good use, and likewise worm-eaten wood deserves to be consigned to the flames rather than to be used for furnishing even an insignificant building. In the same way, then, the soul that is eaten away and devoured by sadness is certainly useless for that priestly garment which, according to the prophecy of holy David, is said habitually to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, coming down from heaven first to Aaron's beard and then to the edge of his garment. As it says: "Like oil on the head, which ran down to Aaron's beard, which ran down to the edge of his garment" (Psalm 133:2). Neither can it be part of the structure or furnishing of that spiritual temple whose foundations the wise architect Paul laid when he said: "You are the temple of God" (II Corinthians 6:16) and "the Spirit of God dwells in you" (I Corinthians 3:16). What its woodwork is like the bride describes in the Song of Songs when she says: "Our rafters are of cypress, the beams of our houses are of cedar" (Song of Solomon 1:16). Hence wood of this sort, which is fragrant and incorruptible and cannot succumb to the decay of age or to being eaten by worms, is selected for the temple of God.

-- But sometimes it follows upon the vice of anger, which precedes it, or arises out of the desire for some gain that has not been achieved, when a person sees that he has failed in his hope of acquiring the things that his mind was set on. Occasionally we are even provoked to fall into this misfortune for no apparent reason, when we are suddenly weighed down with great sorrow at the instigation of the clever for, so that we are unable to welcome with our usual courtesy the arrival even of these who are dear to us and our kinfolk, and we consider whatever they say in innocuous conversation to be inappropriate and unnecessary and do not give them a gracious response, since the recesses of our heart are all filled with the gall of bitterness.

-- Hence it is very clear that disturbing urges are not always aroused in us by other people's faults. Rather, we are to blame -- we who have stored up within ourselves the causes of our offenses and the seeds of our vices that, when the rain shower of temptation drenches our mind, at once break forth into buds and fruits.

-- For a person who is irritated by someone else's vices is never compelled to sin if he does not have the stuff of wrongdoing stored away in his heart. Neither should anyone be believed to have been deceived all at once when, upon having seen a woman, he has fallen into an abyss of wicked desire; rather, at the sight there rose to the surface diseases that had been hidden and concealed deep within.

-- Therefore God, the Creator of all things, knowing better than anyone else how to right his handiwork and that the roots and causes of our offenses lie not in others but in ourselves, commanded that the company of the brothers should not be forsaken and that those persons should not be avoided who have been hurt by us or by whom we think that we have been offended. Instead he orders that they be won over, for he knows that perfection of heart is attained not by separation from human beings but by the virtue of patience. When this is firmly possessed it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace. By the same token, if it has not been acquired, we find ourselves constantly at odds even with those who are perfect and better than us. For occasions of irritation, on account of which we strive to flee from those to whom we are joined, can never be missing from human affairs, and therefore we do not escape from but only change the causes of sadness because of which we have separated ourselves from our former companions.

-- And so it is incumbent upon us to strive, rather, to correct our faults and to improve our behavior. Without a doubt, once these have been set straight, we shall get along very well even with wild animals and beasts, to say nothing of human beings. This is in accordance with what is said in the book of blessed Job: "Wild beasts will be at peace with you" (Job 5:23). We shall not fear offenses coming from without, nor shall any stumbling blocks from outside be able to have an effect on us, if their roots have not been let in and planted within us. For "there is much peace for those who love your name, and for them there is no stumbling block" (Psalm 119:165).

-- There is another kind of sadness as well, which is more detestable. It inspires in the wrongdoer not amendment of life or correction of vice but the most pernicious despair of soul. It did not cause Cain to repent after his brother's murder (Genesis 4:8) or Judas to hasten to healing and reparation after the betrayal; instead it drew him to hang himself with a noose in his despair (Matthew 27:5).

-- Hence sadness is to be judged beneficial for us in one instance alone -- when we conceive it out of repentance for our sins and are inflamed by a desire for perfection, and by the contemplation of future blessedness. Of this the blessed Apostle himself says: "The sadness that is in accordance with God works repentance unto a lasting salvation, but the world's sadness works death" (II Corinthians 7:10).

-- The sadness that "works repentance unto a lasting salvation," likewise, is obedient, courteous, humble, mild, gracious, and patient, inasmuch as it comes from the love of God. It stretches itself out tirelessly, in its desire for perfection, to every bodily pain and to contrition of spirit. With a kind of joy, and quickened by the hope of its own progress, it retains all its gracious courtesy and forbearance, having in itself all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which the same Apostle enumerates: "The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, kindness, faith, mildness, continence" (Galatians 5:22-23). But the other is very harsh, impatient, rough, full of rancor and barren grief and punishing despair, crushing the one whom it has embraced and drawing him away from any effort and from salutary sorrow, since it is irrational. Too, it not only removes the efficacy of prayer but also eliminates all the spiritual fruits that we have spoken of and that the first is capable of bestowing.

-- Hence, apart from that which is taken up for the sake of a salutary repentance or in the pursuit of perfection or out of a desire for things to come, all sadness is to be equally rejected as this-worldly and death-dealing, and it is to be immediately cast out from our hearts, just like the spirit of fornication or avarice or anger.

-- We shall, therefore, be able to expel this most pernicious passion from ourselves once our mind is occupied constantly with spiritual meditation; then we may raise it up with a hope of things to come and by contemplation of promised blessedness. For we shall be able to overcome every kind of sadness -- whether that which derives from previous anger, or that which befalls us when a loss of money or some other disadvantage strikes us, or that which occurs when some injury has been inflicted on us, or that which proceeds from an irrational turn of mind, or that which brings upon us a deadly despair -- when we are ever rejoicing at the sight of things eternal and to come and when we remain steadfast and are neither cast down by present events nor carried away by good fortune, viewing both as empty and soon to pass. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 211 - 214

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - Teachings on Renunciation


In this issue, we will continue our study of St. John Cassian's other book, "The Institutes." Together with the "Conferences," these two books are perhaps the two most important books of guidance on the monastic life available.

This great monastic saint of the both the eastern and western churches was born in what is now Romania around the year 360. He left his homeland as a young man, apparently in his 20s or 30s, and joined a monastery in Bethlehem with his friend, Germanus. The two of them visited Egypt twice in order to learn the riches of Egyptian monasticism. From there, they traveled to Constantinople where St. John was ordained to the diaconate by none other than St. John Chrysostom in about the year 400. He then went to Rome on a mission for St. John Chrysostom and was ordained there to the priesthood by Pope Innocent I and eventually ended up in Marseilles. There he founded two monasteries and wrote his two great works, along with a smaller third work against the heretic Nestorius. St. John Cassian then died around 430.

Today we will look at St. John's teachings on "renunciation," that is, "the instruction of him who renounces the world." As with all the writings from St. John's voluminous works, we can only look at a part of his great teaching, but we will look at enough to give a good overview of how a person became a monk in ancient times (and still today in many monasteries!) and what it means from a spiritual perspective to renounce the world. This text is especially interesting because it explains how strict the procedures were in ancient times for a man to become a monk (we can assume, I think, that the procedure was the same, or at least very similar, for women renunciants) and the seriousness with which monastic communities took the issue of property and material goods. Next week, we will follow up with a look at how the common life was conducted in the monasteries of that time.

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THE INSTITUTES OF THE RENUNCIANTS
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-- Before anything else I think we ought to touch upon how the great perseverance and humility and subjection of these men is so enduring and by what training it is shaped, such that they persevere in the cenobium until they are bent with age. For it is of a kind that we do not recall anyone who has joined our monasteries to have maintained even for a full year. Then, when we have seen the initial stages of their renunciation, we shall understand how, as a consequence, the foundations of these beginnings rose to such lofty heights of perfection.

-- So, then, whoever seeks to be received into the discipline of the cenobium is never admitted until, by lying outside for ten days or more, he has given an indication of his perseverance and desire, as well as of his humility and patience. And when he has embraced the knees of all the brothers passing by and has been purposely rebuked and disdained by everyone, as if he wished to enter the monastery not out of devotion but out of necessity, and has been visited with numerous insults and reproaches and has given proof of his constancy, and by putting up with taunts has shown what he will be like in time of trial, and when the ardor of his intention has been proven and he has thus been received, he is asked with the utmost earnestness if, from his former possessions, the contamination of even a single copper coin clings to him.

-- For they know that he could not remain subject to the discipline of the monastery for any length of time, nor indeed grasp hold of the virtue of humility and obedience or be content with the poverty and strictness of the cenobium, if some amount of money, however small, lay hidden on his conscience; rather, when the first disturbance arose for any reason whatsoever, he would be encouraged by the security of that sum and would flee the monastery as fast as a whirring sling stone.

-- Therefore they do not even agree to accept money from him that would be for the needs of the cenobium. The reason for this is that, first, he might be puffed up with self-confidence from having made this offering and would never deign to be on a par with his poorer brothers; and that then, as a result of this pride, he would never stoop to the lowliness of Christ, and when he was unable to remain under the discipline of the cenobium he would leave and would with sacrilegious spirit endeavor, now having grown lukewarm, to take back and claim what he had brought in at the beginning of his renunciation, when he was inflamed with spiritual fervor, and this would be injurious to the monastery. They have often been taught by numerous experiences that this observance must always be maintained. For in other less cautious monasteries some who were admitted without any ado have afterwards most blasphemously attempted to demand the return of what they had brought in and had been spent on the work of God.

-- Hence, when someone has been received, all his former possessions are removed from him, such that he is not even permitted to have the clothing that he wore. He is brought to the council of the brothers, stripped of what is his in their midst, and clothed in the garb of the monastery at the hands of the abba. Thus he may know not only that he has been despoiled of all his former things but also that he has put off all worldly pride and has stooped to the poverty and want of Christ, and that now he is to be supported not by wealth obtained in worldly fashion or stored up by his former lack of faith but that he will receive the pay for his soldiering from the holy and gracious supplies of the monastery. Thenceforth, knowing that he will be clothed and fed from there, he will learn both to possess nothing and ever to be worried about the morrow, according to the words of the Gospel, and he will not be ashamed to be on a par with the poor -- that is, with the body of the brotherhood -- among whom Christ was not ashamed to be numbered and who brother he did not blush to call himself; rather he will glory in having become the companion of his servants.

-- When, therefore, a person has been admitted, has been proven in the perseverance about which we have spoken, and has put aside his own garments and been clothed in the monastic habit, he is not permitted to join the community of the brothers immediately but is assigned to an elder who dwells not very far from the entrance of the monastery, who is responsible for travelers and strangers and is particularly devoted to welcoming them and to being hospitable to them. And when he has served for a full year there and has without any complaining waited upon travelers, having in this way been exposed to his first training in humility and patience and having been recognized for his long practice therein, and he is about to be admitted from this to the community of the brothers, he is given over to another elder who is responsible for ten younger men, who have been entrusted to him by the abba and whom he both teaches and rules, in accordance with what we read in Exodus was established by Moses (Exodus 18:25).

-- The chief concern and instruction of this man, whereby the young man who was brought to him may be able to ascend even to the loftiest heights of perfection, will be, first of all, to teach him to conquer his desires. In order to exercise him assiduously and diligently in this respect, he will purposely see to it that he always demands of him things that he would consider repulsive. For, taught by numerous experiences, they declare that a monk, and especially the younger men, cannot restrain their yearning for pleasure unless they have first learned to mortify their desires through obedience. And so they assert that someone who has not first learned to overcome his desires can never extinguish anger or sadness or the spirit of fornication, nor can he maintain true humility of heart or unbroken unity with his brothers or a solid and enduring peace, nor can he even stay in the cenobium for any length of time. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 79 - 82

Sunday, June 16, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Canonical Method of Nighttime Prayers


Today we will continue our study of St. John Cassian's other book, "The Institutes." Together with the "Conferences," these two books are perhaps the two most important books of guidance on the monastic life available.

This great monastic saint of the both the eastern and western churches was born in what is now Romania around the year 360. He left his homeland as a young man, apparently in his 20s or 30s, and joined a monastery in Bethlehem with his friend, Germanus. The two of them visited Egypt twice in order to learn the riches of Egyptian monasticism. From there, they traveled to Constantinople where St. John was ordained to the diaconate by none other than St. John Chrysostom in about the year 400. He then went to Rome on a mission for St. John Chrysostom and was ordained there to the priesthood by Pope Innocent I and eventually ended up in Marseilles. There he founded two monasteries and wrote his two great works, along with a smaller third work against the heretic Nestorius. St. John Cassian then died around 430.

In today's study, we will look at St. John's teachings on the establishment of monastic discipline and the rule of prayer. While this history applies to the development of monastic rules in the Church (e.g., the Rule of St. Benedict or the Rule of St. Pachomius), it is also very useful for us as individuals in developing our own "rule" for use in our own life, guided by the teachings of the Church. It is important to have discipline, but a discipline developed without the guidance of a spiritual father is not necessarily the best discipline. Today's reading from St. John Cassian is instructive in how to develop a rule appropriate for one's life circumstances.

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THE CANONICAL METHOD OF THE NIGHTTIME PRAYERS AND PSALMS
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-- . . . in the early days of the faith few indeed - but they were very upright -- were regarded as monks, and they had received that form of life from the evangelist Mark of blessed memory, who was the first to rule as bishop over the city of Alexandria. They not only retained then those magnificent qualities that we read in the Acts of the Apostles were originally cultivated by the Church and by the throngs of believers (namely, "The multitude of believers had one heart and one soul, and none of them said that anything that he possessed was his own, but all things were common to them. For as many as owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of what they sold and laid it at the feet of the apostles, and this was distributed to each just as each had need" - Acts 4:32, 34-35) but to these they even added things far more lofty.

-- For they went off to quite secluded places on the outskirts of the city and led a strict life of such rigorous abstinence that even those who did not share their religion were astonished at the arduous profession of their way of life. For day and night they gave themselves over to the reading of Holy Scripture, to prayer, and to manual labor with such fervor that the very appetite for and memory of food only disturbed them every second or third day, when their bodies felt hunger, and they would take food and drink not so much out of desire as out of necessity. Indeed, they would not do this before sunset, so as to link the daytime with the pursuit of spiritual meditation but the care of the body with the night. And other things they did that were far more lofty than these.

-- Whoever has heard less about these matters from the telling of those who are familiar with them can be taught by the Church's history. At that time, then, when the perfection of the primitive Church remained inviolate and was still fresh in the memory of succeeding generations and when the faith of the few had not yet been spread among the multitude and grown lukewarm, the venerable fathers, reflecting with unceasing concern on those who would follow them, came together to discuss what form daily worship should take throughout the whole body of the brotherhood. Thus they would transmit to their successors a legacy of devotion and peace that was free of any contentious strife, for they feared that in the daily services, among men who were participating in the same worship, some discord or difference might arise and that sometime thereafter it would burst forth into error or rivalry or hurtful schism.

-- And as each one was recommending, in accordance with his own fervor and heedless of his neighbor's weakness, that what he judged easiest for himself in view of his faith and strength should be mandated, taking little account of what would be most possible for all the brothers (necessarily including a very large proportion of the sick also), and as they were contending in various ways to settle upon an enormous number of psalms, each one in keeping with his ability, some fifty and others sixty psalms, while still others who were not even content with this number were suggesting that it should be surpassed, there was among them such a holy division in their pious struggle on behalf of the rules of religion that the moment for the most sacred evening service intruded upon the discussion. As they were getting ready to carry out the daily rites of prayer, someone in their midst arose to sing the psalms to the Lord.

-- And when all were seated, as is still the custom throughout Egypt, and had fixed the full attention of their hearts upon the cantor's words, he sang eleven psalms that were separated by the interposition of prayers, all the verses being pronounced in the same tone of voice. Having finished the twelfth with an Alleluia as a response, he suddenly withdrew from the eyes of all, thus concluding both the discussion and the ceremony.

-- Thereupon the venerable gathering of fathers understood that, at the Lord's willing, a universal rule had been established for the groups of the brothers through the teaching of an angel, and they determined that this number was to be observed at both the evening and the morning assemblies. To this they joined two readings -- that is, one from the Old and another from the New Testament; this was their own doing and as it were optional, and they added them only for those who wished and who were eager to reflect on Holy Scripture by assiduous meditation. But on Saturday and Sunday they do both readings from the New Testament -- that is, one from the Apostle or the Acts of the Apostles and another from the Gospels. On all the days of Pentecost this is also done by those whose concern is the reading and recalling of Scripture.

-- . . . When the Psalms are finished, then, and the daily gathering, as we noted previously, has broken up, none of them dares to linger or to chat for a while with anyone else. Nor, indeed, does anyone presume during the course of the day to leave his cell or to quit the work that he is accustomed to do in it, unless perhaps they are called out for the performance of some kind of urgent task. Once they have gone outside they accomplish this in such a way that hardly any conversation is carried on among them, but each one does his assigned task while going over a psalm or some scriptural meditation.

-- For the greatest care is taken that no one, and especially the young men, be seen even for a short while lingering with or going off anywhere with someone else or holding hands together. But if, contrary to the discipline of this rule, any persons are discovered to have committed one of these forbidden acts, they are declared to be insolent, breakers of the law, and guilty of no small fault, and they may even be under suspicion of wickedly scheming and plotting. Unless they have absolved this fault by a public repentance in the presence of all the brothers, none of them is allowed to take part in the brothers' prayer. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 39 - 47

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Spirituality of Monastic Clothing


In this issue, we will begin a new study of St. John Cassian's other book, the "Institutes." Together with the "Conferences," these two books are perhaps the two most important books of guidance on the monastic life available.

This great monastic saint of the both the eastern and western churches was born in what is now Romania around the year 360. He left his homeland as a young man, apparently in his 20s or 30s, and joined a monastery in Bethlehem with his friend, Germanus. The two of them visited Egypt twice in order to learn the riches of Egyptian monasticism. From there, they traveled to Constantinople where St. John was ordained to the diaconate by none other than St. John Chrysostom in about the year 400. He then went to Rome on a mission for St. John Chrysostom and was ordained there to the priesthood by Pope Innocent I and eventually ended up in Marseilles. There he founded two monasteries and wrote his two great works, along with a smaller third work against the heretic Nestorius. St. John Cassian then died around 430.

In today's study, we will look at St. John's teachings on monastic clothing. This treatise is especially enlightening as it shows us how the righteous consider even the clothing they wear as a spiritual act and use each item of clothing to teach something of the spiritual. It is also a valuable lesson for all of us in these fashionable times about modesty in dress and a spiritual approach to dressing. Although most monks in the Eastern Orthodox and the Western churches no longer wear the garb exactly as described by St. John, you will see great similarities with the garb of Coptic monks today. You can see this clothing as it is worn today by visiting our gallery.

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THE GARB OF THE MONKS
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-- As we start to speak of the institutes and rules of monasteries, where could we better begin, with God's help, than with the very garb of the monks? After having exposed their outward appearance to view we shall then be able to discuss, in logical sequence, their inner worship. And so, it is proper for a monk always to dress like a soldier of Christ, every ready for battle, his loins girded.

-- . . . the monk's garment should only be such that it covers the body, countering the shame of nakedness, and prevents the cold from doing harm, not such that it nurtures seeds of vanity or pride. In the words of the same Apostle: "having food and covering, let them be satisfied with these" (I Timothy 6:8). He says "covering" and not "vesture," which some Latin editions say incorrectly. This means only what may cover the body, not what may flatter it by its splendid style. Thus it should be commonplace, so as to be indistinguishable in terms of novelty of color and cut from what is worn by other men of this chosen orientation; in no respect should it be self-consciously meticulous, but neither, on the other hand, should it be grimy with filth accumulated by neglect; finally, it should be different from the apparent of this world in that it is kept completely in common for the use of the servants of God.

-- There are some other things in the garb of the Egyptians that pertain not so much to the well-being of the body as to the regulation of behavior, so that the observance of simplicity and innocence may be maintained even in the very character of their clothing. Thus, day and night they always wear small hoods that extend to the neck and the shoulders and that only cover the head. In this way they are reminded to hold constantly to the innocence and simplicity of small children even by imitating their dress itself. Those who have returned to their infancy repeat to Christ at every moment with warmth and vigor: "Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are my eyes lifted up. Neither have I walked in great things nor in marvels beyond me. If I thought not humbly but exalted my soul, like a weaned child upon its mother" (Psalms 131:1-2).

-- They also wear linen colobia that barely reach the elbows and, for the rest, leave the hands free. The cutting off of their sleeves is to suggest that they have cut off the deeds and works of this world, and the wearing of linen clothing is to teach them that they have utterly died to a worldly way of life, that thus they may hear the Apostle addressing them daily: "Put to death your members that are on earth" (Colossians 3:5). Their very dress proclaims this as well: "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians3:3). And: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). And: "The world has been crucified to me and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).

-- They wear thin ropes, too, which are braided with a double thickness of wool. . . . They descend from the top of the neck, separate on either side of the neck, go around the folds at the armpits, and are tucked on both sides, so that when they are tightened the garment's fullness may be gathered close to the body. Thus their arms are freed, and they are unimpeded and ready for any activity as they strive wholeheartedly to fulfill the Apostle's precept: "These hands have labored not only for me but also for those who are with me" (Acts 20:34). "Nor do we eat anyone's bread for free, but we worked night and day in labor and weariness, lest we burden any of you" (II Thessalonians 3:8). And: "If anyone does not wish to work, neither should he eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10).

-- After this they cover their necks and also their shoulders with a short cape, striving after both modest style and cheapness and economy. In this way, they avoid the cost of coats and cloaks as well as any showiness. These are called "mafortes" in both our language and theirs.

-- The last pieces of their outfit are a goatskin, which is called a "melotis" or a "pera," and a staff. These they carry in imitation of those who already in the Old Testament prefigured the thrust of this profession. Of them the Apostle says: "They went about in melotis and goatskin, needy, in distress, afflicted, the world unworthy of them, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and caverns of the earth" (Hebrews 11:37-38). This garment of goatskin signifies that, once all the turbulence of their carnal passions has been put to death, they must abide in the most elevated virtue and no willfulness or wantonness of their youth and of former fickleness must remain in their bodies.

-- But they refuse shoes as being forbidden by gospel precept (Matthew 10:10), even when bodily infirmity or a winter morning's chill or the intense midday heat demands them, and they only put sandals on their feet. They understand that this use of them, with the Lord's permission, means that if, once having been placed in this world, we cannot be utterly removed from the care and worry of this flesh and are unable to be completely rid of it, we should at least provide for the necessities of the body with a minimum of preoccupation and involvement. Thus we should not allow the feet of our soul, which must always be ready for the spiritual race and for preaching the peace of the Gospel . . . to be entangled in the deadly cares of this world -- namely, by thinking of what caters not to the needs of nature but to superfluous and harmful pleasure.

-- This we shall accomplish if, in the words of the Apostle, "we do not make provision for the flesh in its desires" (Romans 13:14). But although they legitimately use sandals, since they were conceded by the Lord's decree, they nonetheless do not allow them on their feet when they approach to celebrate or to receive the most holy mysteries, considering that they must keep literally what was said to Moses and to Joshua the son of Nun: "Undo the strap of your sandal, for the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5 and Joshua 5:15).

-- We have said all of this so that it might not seem that we have left out anything concerning the Egyptians' garb. But we ourselves should keep only those things that the situation of the place and the custom of the region permit. For the harshness of the winter does not allow us to be satisfied with sandals or colobia or a single tunic, and wearing a little hood and having a "melotis" would evoke derision rather than edification in the beholder. Hence we are of the opinion that, of the things we have mentioned above, we should wear only what is in keeping with the humility of our profession and the character of the climate, so that the whole point of our clothing may not consist in strangeness of apparel, which might be offensive to persons of this world, but in decent simplicity. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 21 - 26

Sunday, June 9, 2013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

ABBA SERAPION - Avarice and Anger


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 studied gluttony and fornication and the relationship between them. Today, we will look at avarice and anger, and then at vainglory. By the way, today's text in the original has some Greek words spelled out using the Greek alphabet, which we are unable to transliterate. Our apologies.

BEGIN: "There are three kinds of avarice. The first does not permit renunciants to be deprived of their wealth and property. The second persuades us by a still greater covetousness to take back what we have dispersed and distributed to the poor. The third demands that we long for and acquire what in face we did not possess before.

-- "There are three kinds of anger. One blazes up interiorly . . . . Another breaks out in word and deed and effect . . . . About these the Apostle says: 'Now, put all these things away -- anger, indignation' (Colossians 3:8). The third, unlike that which flares up, is not finished in a short space of time but is held over for days and seasons . . . . All of these must be condemned by us with an equal horror.

-- "There are two kinds of sadness. The first is begotten once anger has ceased, or from some hurt that has been suffered or from a desire that has been thwarted and brought to naught. The other comes from unreasonable mental anguish or from despair. There are two kinds of acedia (NOTE: this means "anxiety or weariness of heart"). One makes those who are seething with emotion fall asleep. The other encourages a person to abandon his cell and to flee.

-- "Although vainglory is multiform and multifarious and exists in many subdivisions, nonetheless it is of two kinds. The first is that by which we are uplifted because of carnal and external things. The second is that by which we are inflamed with the desire for empty praise because of spiritual and hidden things.

-- "Yet in one way vainglory is beneficial for beginners, for those who are still stirred up by carnal vices. If, thanks to a word spoken at the time when they happen to be harassed by the spirit of fornication, they should think of the dignity of the priestly office or of the opinion of people who might believe that they are holy and blameless, and if only because of this consideration they should reject the impure urges of desire, judging them as base and unworthy either of their own good name or of that rank, they are restraining the greater evil with a lesser one. For it is better for a person to be troubled by the vice of vainglory than for him to fall into the fire of fornication, from which he could not or could barely be saved once he had been ruined.

-- "One of the prophets expresses this sense very well when he speaks in the person of God: 'On my account I will remove my wrath afar off, and with my praise I will bridle you lest you perish' (Isaiah 48:9). That is to say: As long as you are shackled by the praises of vainglory, you will never rush into the depths of hell and sink irretrievably by the commission of deadly sins.

-- "It is not surprising that this passion is so strong that it can hold back someone who is hastening to the destruction of fornication, since the frequent experience of many people shows that once someone has been poisoned by this disease he becomes so tireless that he does not even feel fasts of two or three days.

-- "Even in this desert we have often seen some people admit that when they were living in the cenobia of Syria they were easily able to go without eating for five days, whereas now they are so hungry at the third that they can hardly keep the daily fast until the ninth hour. When someone asked why, after having lived in a cenobium where he felt no hunger and often disdained to eat for whole weeks, he should now be hungry at the third hour. Macarius replied pointedly: 'Because here there is no one to see you fasting and to support and sustain you with his praises. But there the attention of others and the food of vainglory filled you to repletion." END

from St. John Cassian, "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 191 - 193

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.

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THE INTERLINKING OF THE EIGHT VICES
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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.

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THE FIRST EVIL PAIR: GLUTTONY AND FORNICATION
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-- "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