John Cassian in the Philokalia: ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ – scopos and telos

StJohnCassian_vice4Allow me to begin with my ecclesiastical historian’s hat on. The second selection from John Cassian in The Philokalia (the first having been about the 8 thoughts, taken from Books 5-8 of The Institutes) is taken from Cassian’s second work, the much longer Conferences or CollationesThe Conferences purport to be the monastic elder’s encounters and conversations from the approximately ten years he and his companion Germanus spent amongst the Desert Fathers of Egypt, adapted for the situation in Gaul and possibly falsely recalled due to the faults of human memory (which he admits). Germanus is the usual interlocutor with Cassian sitting and listening in silence. An argument was made somewhere that here we find the full depth of Cassian’s spiritual theology. Here we certainly meet some his more powerful concepts, and the influence of Evagrius of Pontus, quite palpable in his discussion of the eight thoughts in The Institutes, continues. We’ll get to that in a moment. The Conferences are available online, as well as in an excellent translation with helpful notes by Boniface Ramsey. Ramsey also translated The Institutes.

The first Conference is where Sts Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth gathered the opening material for ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination’. The discussion is created of various excerpts from Conference 1, seamlessly woven together, ending with the paragraph on p. 98 of the English, ‘When the old man saw us marvelling at this…’ In Cassian’s original, the paragraph is used as a way of ending the conference with Abba Moses that day, whereas in its reworked Greek version, it becomes the segue into a discussion of discernment. The rest of ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ is a discussion of discernment/discretion taken from Conference 2. Both Conference 1 and 2 are with the same abba, Moses. I do not know if we are to assume that he is the same Abba Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or not. Throughout both Conferences we encounter an array of biblical verses, examples of biblical persons, and examples from the history of Christian asceticism.

Abba Moses begins the discussion, ‘after much entreaty on our part’, with a question. Every aspect of human endeavour has an immediate purpose and end goal. A farmer clears land of thorns and rocks — an immediate purpose — with the ultimate goal of enjoying the produce of the field. He queries:

Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this [ascetic labour]?

We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’

In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’

… we confessed that we did not know … (Palmer, Sherrard, Ward trans., p. 95)

In the Latin, Cassian actually uses the Greek scopos and telosScopos is glossed as destinatio (which is admissible in this discussion in its English descendant); telos is finis (or end). Clearing the field is the farmer’s scopos, enjoying its fruits is his telos. The scopos, or finis, of the ascetic life is the kingdom of heaven — regnum caelorum. In their English translation of the Greek Philokalia, Palmer, et al., give us purpose for scopos and goal for telos.

Abba Moses says:

The goal [telos] of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose [scopos], however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. (p. 95 in English)

Here we have the original ‘purpose-driven life’! We are called by Cassian (via Abba Moses) to seek purity of heart in all we do. That is the point. The point is not fasting, reading sacred scripture, meditating, praying, studying theology, helping the poor. The point is purity of heart. Abba Moses continues:

It is for the love of our neighbour that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. (p. 95)

For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother. (p. 96)

Abba Moses then says that love of God and of human beings, not ascetic labour, is the purpose. This is the great recurring theme of Christian spirituality, as I have discussed here in the past in relation to St Augustine and the Cistercians. From here, Abba Moses discusses how to achieve purity of heart; as Cassian and Germanus discuss the ascetic life with other Egyptian abbas, they learn more and more; there is a rising up towards this purity, found in the pure prayer of Conference 10 which leads into a discussion of perfection itself in Conference 11.

In The Philokalia, Abba Moses gives some attention to the thoughts (those Evagrian logismoi) before moving into his discussion of discernment.

You can see, I think, why The Conferences make me aware of my inadequacies! I still have no grand answers for questions of how a modern layperson, married, working full-time in a demanding job, is to pursue purity of heart. I guess thinking about it is a start. Praying daily as we do at The Witness Cloud is, undoubtedly, central. Abba Moses counsels Cassian and Germanus to keep their eyes fixed on the knowable actions of God in creation, Scripture, the deeds of the saints.

I guess being an ecclesiastical historian might actually give me some advantage, then?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. -Matthew 5:8

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Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)
Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Our love for God is, at some level, tied up with what the Greeks call eros, as blogged previously. Eros is desire, and it drives us and pulls us and raises us up beyond the darkness and the mire of the world to ascend towards God — to kallisto, the most beautiful one; summum bonum, the highest good.

As guide to what this sort of erotikos love for God looks like, St John of the Cross is one of the more beautiful choices. He paints a picture that so many of us can relate to in these stanzas from his ‘Coplas about the soul which suffers with impatience to see God’:

When thinking to relieve my pain
I in the sacraments behold You
It brings me greater grief again
That to myself I cannot fold You.
And that I cannot see you plain
Augments my sorrow, so that I
Am dying that I do not die.

If in the hope I should delight,
Oh Lord, of seeing you appear,
The thought that I might lose Your sight
Doubles my sorrow and my far.
Living as I do in such fright,
And yearning as I yearn, poor I
Must die because I do not die.

Is not this longing, desirous aspect of divine eros common to us all? We reach for the invisible God, but He seems to us illusory. We want to know Him, but He cannot be touched save in what? Bread? Wine?

Elsewhere, St John describes the relationship between God and the soul in terms inspired by Song of Songs, as of the Bride seeking the Bridegroom and lamenting her inability to find Him, and then they meet, and go up a mountain where He can reveal to her His secrets.

The soul is the Bride, and elsewhere, in the most famous of St John’s poems, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul‘, she steals away from home at night when everyone is sleeping. In secrecy she meets with and is joined to the Lover Who suspends her senses.

It has been years since I read St John of the Cross’ commentary on the poem, but this theme of being wounded by love recurs in his poetry. God reaches into the heart and wounds it for the purposes of cleansing and renewing and healing. We live in an impatient age that sees God in a therapeutic light. But our keen desire for God at times meets with His love in what may be termed ‘tough love’.

Yet we desire Him all the more. Elder Porphyrios refers to this phenomenon as well, and I think it is best thought of as unsatisfied satisfaction. We are satisfied with God when we finally find Him. But we want more. This is because of something I read of St Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses, I think) — we are finite, God is infinite. The more of Him we find, the more will remain to be found. The more perfect we become, the more perfection lies ahead of us.

Today, as I think on our love for God, I want to emphasise — from the many themes of St John’s many poems — the theme of perseverance. The great mystics and holy men & women and spiritual theologians of the church often went through great perseverance to move forward in their lives. Let us persevere in the face of the Unseen God, knowing that He will be faithful and make Himself known to us in the ways that are best for us and that we can handle.

This, then, is a major part of our love for God: to persevere.

Origen on Genuine Love

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

-1 John 4:7-8

I’ve been busy trying to do my research as well as trundling off to London for the British Patristics Conference, so my series about Eros for God is still in need of more thoughts, but this morning I read this in the Ancient Christian Devotional:

I think that any love without God is artificial and not genuine. For God, the Creator of the soul, filled it with the feeling of love, along with the other virutes, so that it might love God and the things which God wants. But if the soul loves something other than God and what God wants, this love is said to be artificial and invented. And if someone loves his neighbour but does not warn him when he sees him going astray or correct him, such is only a pretense of love. -Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, in Ancient Christian Devotional, Year A, p. 200.

But would the above mean that those who are not consciously in communion with God through Christ cannot love? I would say no for the following reasons: a. they are made in God’s image; b. God is love; c. Justin Martyr’s logos spermatikos working within them can keep the image and love of God alive enough to be true love.

However, perhaps what many of us think is love isn’t love? Perhaps it’s some sort of selfish feeling that has little to do with God or the good of the other person but makes us feel nice? Not always. But sometimes.

Love/Eros for God 2: Beyond Commandments

In Matthew 22, Jesus reiterates the Old Testament commandment to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ It is, He says, the first and greatest commandment. But love, I think, should go beyond commandments.

Do you love your friends because you are commanded?

Do you love your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend because you are commanded?

Do you love your children because you are commanded?

Do you love your parents because you are commanded?

No, of course not.

Although the ongoing maintenance of love and the display of love in human relationships may be things that require conscious choices and thoughtful actions, the affection that tends to undergird our love relationships is a spontaneous response to something, usually something ineffable, in the other human person that draws us to them and causes us to wish the best for them, to spend time with them, to help them when they are troubled, to do all the things that love requires.

If we are to love God, then, we must do more than be faithful to the commandment. That is, in order truly to fulfil this commandment, we must move beyond commandments.

Indeed, ‘loving’ God as a commandment may be one of the most terrible things we can do. We go to church because we ‘love’ God, we help the poor because we ‘love’ God, we read the Bible because we ‘love’ God, we go to Bible study because we ‘love’ God, we pray because we ‘love’ God, but actually … actually … sometimes we do these things because we are commanded to. We do them out of obligation. And certainly, obedience to a friend or lover is a sign of love. But joyless obedience is not especially loving.

If we are possessed by divine eros, we do all these same things — but, at least from what I see in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Saints, and the spiritual theologians, we do them because in them we find ourselves spending time with the God we love. God is there, so we are attracted to them.

Eros, as I learned reading Plato’s Symposium in Greek class back in 2007, is not simply ‘love’ or ‘sex’ or ‘romantic love’ or whatever simple and easy translations people have foisted on us in the past. As with all words, it is an idea with shades of nuance. Eros is desire for something. Longing. Passion. In the Symposium, Aristophanes makes it about romance and sex. And Socrates (inevitably?) makes it about to kalo, the Good.

According to Jesus, none is good but God alone (Mk 10:18). He is the ultimate quest of these Greek philosophers — to kallisto, the best, even. The summum bonum of the Latin interpreters.

I think our fulfilment of this commandment goes beyond commandment by urging us to find something better and deeper than commandment — this eros, this powerful love and desire that will pull us beyond ourselves and mere obedience to great joy and love for the God who is as near as our breath, in whom we live and move and have our being. And this is the insight of the mystics, as shall be seen as we move forward.