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

John Cassian in The Philokalia – Purity of Heart

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)First things first — my brother has blogged at our shared blog about how Cassian has shifted his paradigm for ministry as an Anglican priest. This is what these blogs are all about — that one is about our dispersed community that prays the office and strives for holiness. If you want to find at least a digital community that seeks prayer in these old ways, check us out — we’re called The Witness Cloud (and this link is our homepage).

Reading the Fathers, studying Scripture, getting down and dirty with monks, thinking through theology — the point of all this endeavour, as far away as it may seem sometimes, is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to be converted, conformed to the likeness of the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Not that this is actually easy, mind you.

I am not a monk. I am not a priest. I am not, professionally, a theologian.

I am a classicist and ecclesiastical historian, an ancient historian. I interpret texts and study their manuscripts.

This is not the same thing as living them.

My job and my devotional life do overlap, but this means that sometimes, although I can wax poetic and prosodic about the spiritual world of ancient Christianity, and exhort my readers even to take up their challenges, much of the time the challenges are unmet — even unattempted — by me.

I first read John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus for a Master’s dissertation (I am, however, now reading them devotionally); saints’ lives were likewise for graduate study. My work brings me into contact with bishops of Rome from the fourth through sixth and seventh centuries — and beyond. For my research I read Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Severus of Antioch. For my teaching, I read Eusebius of Caesarea, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus.

It is easy for it not to change the way one lives.

To turn, then, to the second selection of Cassian in The Philokalia, what can this do for me, here and now?

It’s kind of like doing to Cassian what he claims to have done with the Desert Fathers — take their teachings from one setting, one time, one culture, one language, and transplant them to a new one. Adapted from the hot desert of Egypt to the somewhat colder world of southern Gaul to the long, dark nights of an Edinburgh winter.

Well, straight up, what does this selection present us?

Questions of our purpose, our goal, our end. For Cassian and Germanus, what is the purpose of the monastic life? For us, what is the purpose of Christian living, of my lay spiritual life in the 21st century?

Germanus says to Abba Moses: The Kingdom of Heaven.

Abba Moses says: But what closer goal can you reach?

That closer goal, in Cassian’s rewriting of Evagrius, is purity of heart.

I’ll leave this discussion here for now. But this moment in Cassian’s Conferences is one that has challenged me every time. What is purity of heart? How do I live it here, now? How much frivolity is too much? Is this life I’ve chosen really worth the effort? Could I make something more of my life for the sake of a pure heart, for the sake of the Kingdom of God?

John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

St. Antony and St. Paul
St. Antony and St. Paul

My brother and I have been slowly working our way through The Philokalia. The last part we finished was the selections from St John Cassian. Those of you who have put up with my musings long enough know that I wrote a Master’s thesis on Cassian’s reception of Evagrius’ demonology. He’s a character I enjoy, a teacher I appreciate, a spiritual teacher who challenges me every time I read him.

There are two selections from Cassian adapted by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios in The Philokalia, one from The Institutes and the other from The Conferences. These are Cassian’s two major works, written in Latin in Gaul in the first half of the fifth century — John Cassian has the distinction of being the only Latin author represented in The Philokalia.

The climax and crowning moment of Cassian’s Institutes is a discussion of the eight vices, adapted from his never-named spiritual father, Evagrius of Pontus (‘the Solitary’) who immediately precedes him in this Athonite anthology. This is excerpted in The Philokalia. I’ve blogged about the eight thoughts before. Today I’ll briefly summarise the version in The Philokalia with some of my own thoughts.

The ‘Eight Thoughts’ (precursors to St Gregory the Great’s seven deadly sins) are: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, self-esteem, and pride.

Gluttony

Frankly — more than just overeating. I’ve talked about this once before.

Unchastity

More than just sex (an idea I’ve talked about as well). Both of these first two logismoi, or thoughts, are battled by fasting. Cassian reminds us, however, that it is more than the bodily discipline that we need:

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour. (p. 75 in Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation)

Cassian tries to get at the root of the problem — the human heart.

Amidst the advice associated with this section is, ‘It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above.’ (p. 77)

Avarice

I’ve mentioned Evagrius and avarice here before. Cassian argues that, while some passions are natural to us, avarice is, in fact, foreign to our nature, so we must do our best to keep it from taking root in our soul. I found most of his advice on avarice unhelpful to the non-monk, unfortunately.

However, there is this good passage on the passions:

Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder. (p. 78)

Anger

As you may know, I sometimes struggle with anger, and have enlisted the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in the past. Anger is considered part of our nature, and is not of itself evil. It exists to help us fight against sin, temptation, the other passions. However, it can easily cause us to go astray, even when we are angered about things that it is right be angry about — gold leaves blind the eyes just as well as lead ones (p. 83).

Dejection

This is the one where we feel discouraged and blame everyone else for our own failings. Says Cassian,

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. (p. 87)

That idea, in fact, comes from Stoicism and is very prevalent in Seneca.

Listlessnessaccedia

This is the vice of getting a bit bored and frustrated, then dissatisfied with your own work or monastery. It is called the noon-day demon in Cassian’s Latin original. It is cured by hard work and forcing yourself to stay put.

Some years ago another blogger related this vice with the modern evangelical tendency to church hop. An interesting thought.

Self-esteem

This is seeking to be recognised by other people for being good at something — for monks, obviously the question is virtue. For the rest of us, no doubt it is whatever our occupation is. A job well done is not reward enough. Recognition of the self must follow.

Pride

This is the most subtle and serpentine vice of all. It can only strike you once you are holy, but is enough to drive you to the pit. This is the over-weening belief in your own holiness, an awareness of goodness — or rather, a false awareness, that leads you to believe yourself better than others.

These eight are intimately linked. And they are best fought by the cultivation of virtue. It is easier not to overeat by eating moderately than by fasting excessively. It is easier not to lust by consciously reading the Scriptures than simply trying not to lust. And so forth.

Next time, Cassian’s thoughts on discernment and the goal of the monastic life as excerpted in the next section of The Philokalia. The question is: How can we apply this to ourselves as non-monks, as laypeople?

Salvation, justification, and the use of apt words 1: Evagrius

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

My priest brother and I are (very) slowly making our way through The Philokalia, Vol. 1, right now. As those of you who have been with me since this blog’s inception (oh so many years ago), I have a long-standing interest in Evagrius Ponticus and demonology. Evagrius is the second author in vol. 1.

The second Evagrian text in The Philokalia is ‘Texts on Discrimination in Respect of Passions and Thoughts’. Chapter 9 of this text begins:

Hatred against the demons contributes greatly to our salvation and helps our growth in holiness. But we do not of ourselves have the power to nourish this hatred into a strong plant, because the pleasure-loving spirits restrict it and encourage the soul again to indulge in its old habitual loves. But this indulgence — or rather this gangrene that is so hard to cure — the Physician of souls heals by abandoning us. For He permits us to undergo some fearful suffering night and day, and then the soul returns again to its original hatred, and learns like David to say to the Lord: ‘I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them my enemies’ (Ps. 139:22). For a man hates his enemies with perfect hatred when he sins neither in act nor in thought — which is a sign of complete dispassion. (p. 44, English trans.)

The first sentence is very un-Protestant, isn’t it?

Πάνυ τὸ μῖσος τὸ κατὰ δαιμόνων, ἣμιν πρὸς σωτηρίαν συμβάλλεται … (apologies for accents, I hate my Greek keyboard)

And, of course, we shouldn’t expect Evagrius to be Protestant. But many of a Protestant mindset will be turned off by anything contributing to our salvation except the grace of God alone. Our hatred against demons cannot, by Protestant calculations, contribute to our salvation.

As the Greek quotation above shows, Evagrius uses the Greek word σωτηρία to mean salvation — it is a simple movement from σωτηρία to salvation, isn’t it? But in what context might we refer to salvation? What is salvation here?

Well, first of all, what on earth do we mean when we say salvation? Basing my answer entirely upon anecdotes and personal conversations, it is clear that Protestants, at least, mean something called justification almost every time we say salvation.

For Anglicans who actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion, justification is our being made righteous before God — being considered righteous by God. By justification we enter into a right relationship with God:

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification. (Article XI)

Article XII is quick to point out that, although good works be the fruit of justification, they do not contribute thereto. Thus, the Evagrian statement above, that ‘Hatred against the demons contributes greatly to our salvation,’ is entirely out — with salvation being justification and justification understood in a Protestant/Anglican way.

But is σωτηρία in Evagrius the same thing as justification in the 39 Articles, or even δικαιοσύνη — that Pauline word usually Englished as justification?

I think not. This form of salvation is something else; this is what one evangelical friend referred to as ‘process justification’ once. The Evagrian salvation here is not us being rescued from the fires of Hell, or entering into a right relationship with God, or being considered holy because of Christ’s holiness and our faith — it is us being saved from the ongoing and enduring effects of the Fall.

In this case, it is our salvation from the power of the demons, with the goal of us becoming holier. This is us being saved from the presence of sin in our lives. Bishop Eddie Marsh once stated that justification is being saved from the penalty of sin; sanctification is being saved from the power of sin; and glorification is being saved from the presence of sin. All three involved being saved, so all three could be consider aspects of the ongoing salvation, σωτηρία, of the human person, through the grace of God.

When I quoted the Evagrius passage above, I went on beyond the initial sentence because it is clear that Evagrius sees Christ the Physician as taking an active role in our salvation. Our own efforts are not what truly cleanse us. We become dispassionate because of the grace of God, and God, in His grace, may choose to help us along in the path of holiness using our own efforts as the instruments of his good and gracious will.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus

John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality)John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in Eastertide 2015. I’ve been meaning to write about it for about a year, now! Sorry about that. I felt today would be a good day since yesterday was his commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyway, The Ladder of Divine Ascent is one of the most popular works of spiritual writing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its popularity in the Christian East is similar to St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ — this latter being the most copied, printed, and translated book of western Christendom next to the Bible. It is read in every Eastern Orthodox monastery in Lent as well as by many of the laity.

St John ‘of the Ladder’ (translating klimakos) was the late sixth-century abbot of the monastery at Sinai, now known as St Catherine’s. In this book, he distills the wisdom he has acquired through his own long years as a monk, a solitary, and a spiritual guide.

It is hard when reviewing such a classic as this to find the right words (I used this same cop-out in my review of City of God, I know). I found much of value in it, but it was hard-going. It is not an easy book. Books by monks for monks rarely are. Nonetheless, there is much here even for the lay Anglican. That may not be the strongest recommendation. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for the determined inquirer in the spiritual reality of the Triune God.

A friend on Facebook asked me if this was a good guide to the via negativa. The answer is that this book is not a work of mystical theology. It is mainly a guide to praktike, the external practices that one must couple to theoria (or contemplation) in order to ascent the ladder to God. A great number of the steps are about how to do battle against the passions, using a slightly different schema of their division from the more famous Evagrian one that made its way into the 7 deadly sins via St Gregory the Great.

This is not to say that theoria is completely ignored by any means. Theoria is the point of the ascent. This text lies historically near the beginning of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as we see in this quotation:

“Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.”

St John’s Ladder is about the heart of monastic spirituality. It is about the quest for apatheia — dispassion, that elusive state of being where the unclean logismoi of our flesh or of the demons, stirred up in our fallen hearts, break against our armour, as we storm the gates of Hell armed with prayer and the Holy Name of Jesus on our lips. In this, St John stands with Evagrian apatheia and St John Cassian’s purity of heart.

As the topics of discussion listed below show us, the ascetic practices of the Ladder are not restricted to those of prayer or those of daily life. They embrace the whole of our situation. This is in accord with Archimandrite Sophrony’s warnings in His Life Is Mine against engaging in spiritual practices without the rest of the virtuous life and the doctrine of the Church to uphold us. It resonates also with the introductory remarks to The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text, where the translators remind us of so many people who get caught up in the externals of Christian life, forgetting the better part of Mary of Bethany.

The 30 steps of the Ladder are:

1. On renunciation of the world
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison (this is about a monastery he visited in Alexandria where monks guilty of certain offences were sent to a “prison”)
6. On remembrance of death
7. On mourning which causes joy
8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
9. On remembrance of wrongs
10. On slander or calumny
11. On talkativeness and silence
12. On lying
13. On despondency (akkedia
14. On the clamorous, yet wicked master—the stomach
15. On incorruptible purity and chastity to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
16. On love of money or avarice
17. On poverty (that hastens heavenwards)
18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
19. On sleep, prayer, and psalm-singing in chapel
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil and how to practise it
21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
22. On the many forms of vainglory
23. On mad pride, and, in the same Step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts
24. On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
27. On holy solitude of body and soul
28. On holy and blessed prayer, mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
29. Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues

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Concupiscence beyond sex – a trip to the Desert

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

In Patristic anthropology, concupiscence is an important aspect of the inner workings of the human soul. Concupiscence is usually mentioned in the context either of the battle over grace & free will or of the early monastic movement. For a number of reasons I don’t have the time or energy or, in fact, will, to go into, concupiscence has a tendency in modern contexts to be framed mostly or only in terms of human sexuality.

I think we need to look first at the Desert.

The astute psychological readings of humanity provided by Evagrius Ponticus and the Desert Fathers, as well as the highly Evagrian author John Cassian, see our interior life dominated by concupiscence, irascibility, and reason. We have desires — concupiscence; we get hot/impassioned/angry/indignant about things — irascibility; we have intellect and rational thought — reason.

As I write this, it passes through my mind that these are the three parts of the human person/human society in Plato. In Plato, the goal is to have reason ruling the other two. St Augustine would certainly agree, and Evagrius might, but not strictly the way we typically imagine someone arguing for it.

What ‘reason’ or the intellective part of the human spirit means to Evagrius is a question for another day, though.

I’m here to discuss concupiscence.

Concupiscence and anger are both tied directly to the passions, on which I’ve blogged before. Concupiscence is swayed by the passions in terms of desire. According to St Augustine, our disordered desires, our desires that act independent of and even contrary to reason, are part of the evidence of the Fall. If the intellective part of a human is the highest part, Augustine cannot see how in the Adamic state something that is clearly concupiscible — the membrum virile and male desire for intercourse — would be so beyond the control of reason.

One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion, says G K Chesteron. St Augustine would also observe that one cannot simply have an erection because reason dictates that it is time to procreate with one’s wife. That’s not how it works.

Thus, because of this Augustinian tradition that is picked up St Thomas Aquinas, when we hear ‘concupiscence’, we think immediately of sex and the human appetite for sex that is not tied directly to the reasoning part of the human soul.

However, concupiscence goes beyond sex.

We need to remember that in our hyper-sexualised culture. A lot of us would think that our job was done if we achieved apatheia — dispassion — in matters of non-legimitate sexuality. That concupiscence had been tamed in such a case.

However, fornication is not the only temptation, not the only logismos in Evagrius’ terms, not the only passion associated with concupiscence. Most obviously, there is gluttony. And greed/avarice. And vainglory and pride, which involve concupiscence for less tangible things.

Because everything can lead back to St Leo the Great, this wider reality of concupiscence — and its less material manifestations — came to me this week as I was reading Ep. 106 in a manuscript. In this letter, Leo rebukes Anatolius, Bishop of Constantinople for concupiscentia. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), it was approved that Constantinople would have honour second only to Rome and gain rights above those of several local metropolitans. Leo saw this as a breach of the Canons of Nicaea, and believed (if we are to take his letters at face value) that Anatolius was filled with his own pride and was seeking his own gain, to the detriment — most particularly — of the Apostolic See. By which I mean Antioch, which was second city to Rome and, when the terminology developed, was one of the Patriarchates, besides being a church founded by Apostles.

Concupiscentia, to Leo, is not about sex, most obviously. It is about grasping after honours — and, to quote Leo, Ep. 14 to Anastasius, Bishop of Antioch, ‘honor inflat superbium’: honour(s) (in this case, technically high office) inflates pride.

Pride. One of the most deadly of the deadly thoughts/logismoi in Evagrius.

The goal of the disciplined Christian life is to overcome these logismoi in order to know Christ better and live for him better. Therefore, we need to learn to control our desires, to make our concupiscence seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. As Abba Alonius said:

If only a man desired it for a single day from morning till night, he would be able to come to the measure of God.

Fasting – because Lent is only a month away

StJohnCassian_vice4We’ve just cleared the Christmas season, today being the First Sunday After the Epiphany. You might be thinking that now it’s time for your church leaders to kick back and relax. You’d be wrong, though! Even if all they’re doing is Lenten liturgies, and not organising special studies or thematic sermons, your clergy and lay leaders are probably already engaged in preparing for Lent. Easter is early this year, March 27, so Lent is early, too. Ash Wednesday comes on February 10. One month away.

My friend at the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, which I’ve mentioned before, graciously included me in their Lenten preparations, asking:

do you have some resources you would suggest for a six week preaching series on the role of fasting, and how it relates to Lent- even some crucial, often overlooked aspects- or simply put, what would you focus on?

I’ve been too busy preparing for a job interview to have given it a lot of thought, unfortunately. The interview has passed, though. So here I am, blogging about fasting. I still have to think more about this for my friend, though…

The first resource I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is my dear friend John Cassian (d. ca 435). In Book 5 of his Institutes, John Cassian discusses the ‘Spirit of Gluttony’ as part of his analysis of the Eight Deadly Thoughts/Spirits (these are an adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus that will be modified by Gregory the Great into the Seven Deadly Sins).

One of the themes running through both of Cassian’s major works (The Institutes and The Conferences) is discernment. Discernment is central to the disciplined life. It keeps you from doing more ascetic things than you can reasonably handle — a problem for ancient monks — as well as from being too lax (if a discipline is doing you no good at all or is really, really easy, is it really evidence of your sanctity?). Discernment is also helpful in our relationships with others — we cannot judge others if their rule of fasting or prayer is different, or if they are sore tempted by things we barely feel.1

Therefore, the first rule of fasting that comes out of Cassian is not to obsess over what others do. The second is related to it — set a fast that will challenge you (one meal, two meals, three meals, 24 hours, two days, a week, 40 days, or maybe two days out of a week or whatever). On a few occasions in Book 5 of the Institutes, the difference of the rule of fasting in different monastic or ecclesial communities addressed, as is the issue that a lot of monks break their rule of fasting in order to show hospitality to Cassian and his friend Germanus as they travel around the famous ascetics of Egypt.

The third rule is to remember what the purpose of fasting is.

Fasting is not an end in itself. As Cassian discusses in the first Conference, the point of all ascetic effort, of all the disciplines, is purity of heart. The goal of purity of heart is to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). In Institues Book 5, the argument is set forth that we cannot attain to spiritual purity until we have learned to control our bodies. The spirit of gluttony lies at the root of many of our problems; if we can tame the stomach, we can start to tame the thoughts that run through our heads.

We need to remember that we humans are, indeed, spiritual beings, but that we are also a psychosomatic unity. Everything we do is embodied. The embodied reality of human life means that Christian disciplines are not simply spiritual and intellectual — prayer, Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, praise of our God — but they are also physical — fasting, kneeling, prostrations, Eucharist, baptism, sexual purity.

As Sergei Bulgakov says, we mortify the flesh in order to gain a body.

I hope these thoughts help as we look forward to the Lenten season.


1. One of the stories out of the Egyptian desert is about a young monk who was struggling with the spirit of fornication to a very high degree. He went to seek the advice and wisdom of one of the elders, and explained his thoughts and desires and temptations about fornication. The elder had never really suffered from strong temptations to fornication and was horrified at what he heard and berate the young monk so such an extent that the younger monk was on the verge of giving it up. An angel was watching and was not well-pleased, so he opened the elder monk up to just a small fraction of what temptations the younger monk was suffering, and the elder monk could barely handle it. The moral of the story is that you don’t know another person’s suffering and temptations; what they need from you are your advice, your prayers, and your love, not your judgement. That’s the role of discernment.