“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’” (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Wisdom tells us we need to know what time it is. Which doesn’t mean we know the time on the clock or our cell phone. It is knowing the right moment, whenever that might occur. It is time, as a deacon says at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, for the Lord to act. St John Climacus writes:
If there is a time for all things under heaven, as the Preacher tells us, and by ‘all things’ we should know it means all things that concern our sacred life, then, if you are willing, let us examine it so that we may attempt to do at each moment what is fitting for that occasion. This is surely the case for those who enter the games, for there is a time for dispassion (I make this remark for the athletes who are doing their apprenticeship). There is a time for weeping. There is a time for hardness of heart. There is a time for obedience. There is a time to give orders. There is a time to fast and a time to eat. There is a time for struggling with our foe, the body, and a time when the fire burns down. There is a time of spiritual tempest, and a time for spiritual peace.
There is a time for profound grief and a time for spiritual gladness. There is a time for instruction and a time for listening. There is a time for corruptions, perhaps from pride, and a time for purifying through meekness. There is a time for battle and a time for secure rest. There is a time for stillness and a time for distraction. There is a time for ceaseless prayer and a time for devout ministry. Therefore may we not be tricked by haughty zeal and pursue, prematurely, what will happen in its time. That is, we should not during winter seek for that which should come in the summer, or at spring for what is due at the harvest. Because there is a time to sow in toil, and a time to harvest the unmentionable graces. For otherwise we will not obtain even in its time what is fitting for that time. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Kindle Location 2383-2394)
Know what time it is! For when spiritually we do not know the seasons and the time, we are subject to despair and despondency.
Despondency—in all its complexity and cunningness—arises from a relationship to time that has become broken. It amounts to no less than a perpetual attempt by the mind to flee from the present moment, to disregard the gift of God’s presence at each juncture of time and space. The path to healing—paved and well trodden by steadfast souls who have gone before us—is one and the same as the path back to the present. (Nicole Roccas , Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, Kindle Location 150-153)
Our Lord Jesus Christ says He is with us always. If we always are in His presence, then the time is right. All around us things can be changing, even for the worse, but when we are in Christ we are in the right moment.
For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)
“The tradition of our Fathers and the authority of Scripture teaches us that there are three kinds of renouncements which each of us must work to carry out with all his strength. The first is to reject all the pleasures and all the riches of this world. This second is to renounce ourselves, our vices, our wicked habits, and all the unruly affections of the spirit and of the flesh; and the third is to withdraw our heart from all things present and visible and apply it only to the eternal and invisible. God teaches us to make these three renounements all at once by what He said to Abraham first of all. “Go out!” he told him, “from your country, from your kindred, from the house of your father; that is, leave the goods of this world and all the riches of the earth. Go out from your ordinary life and from the wicked and vicious inclinations which, attaching themselves to us by our birth and the corruption of flesh and blood, are as it were naturalized and become one thing with ourselves. Go out from the house of your father, that is, lose the memory of all the things of this world and of everything that presents itself to your eyes…”
We shall then arrive at this third renouncement when our spirit, no longer weighed down by the contagion of this animal and earthly body, but purified from the affections of the earth, is raised to heaven by continual meditation on divine things, and is so taken up with the contemplation of the eternal truth that it forgets that it is still enclosed in fragile flesh and, ravished in God, it will find itself so absorbed in His presence that it has no longer ears to hear or eyes to see and it cannot even be struck by the greatest and most perceptible objects.”
(St. John Cassian, in Louis Bouyer’s The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, p. 327)
In preparation for Great Lent, we Orthodox are asked to consider the virtue of humility and the value of repentance for finding one’s way to God. So today’s Gospel, Luke 18:10-14, gives us the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.
St John Cassian offers us a description of how we can tell if the sin of pride is at work in us. We can see in his description many words which describe what today we might call a narcissist, a shallow loud mouth, the stubborn uncooperative person, the bully, the incorrigible. St. John says:
By the following indications, then, that carnal pride of which we have spoken is made manifest.
First of all, a person’s talking will be loud and his silence bitter;
his joy will be marked by noisy and excessive laughter,
his seriousness by irrational sadness,
his replies by rancor,
his speech by glibness,
and his words will burst out helter-skelter for a heed-less heart.
He will be devoid of patience,
quick to inflict abuse,
slow to accept it,
reluctant to obey except when his desire and will anticipate the matter,
implacable in receiving exhortations,
weak in restraining his own will,
very unyielding when submitting to others,
constantly fighting on behalf of his own opinions but never acquiescing or giving in to those of others.
And so, having become unreceptive to salutary advice, he relies on his own judgement in every respect rather than on that of the elders.” (The Institutes, pp. 271-272)
While we might imagine this is a description of many in positions of power, Cassian is talking about each of us. In Lent, it is time to look at my self and my own faults, for the only person I can change is me. Recognizing faults in others is most helpful when it teaches us about our self.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
St John Cassian reminds us to set the right priorities in our spiritual life. Purity of heart is for him, the real goal of the Christian life and discipline. Purity of heart is equal in his teaching to love. Fasting is a tool to help us reach the goal, but as St. John notes, if we vent anger at others, fasting can’t compensate for the damage we do. It will not help our spiritual growth if we keep a strict fast but then rage at others or rail and rave against others. This last week of the Nativity Fast we would do well to work on peace in our hearts and purity – love for others. As St. Paul says in the Epistle read on the 2nd Sunday before Christmas: “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8). That should be what we really fast from this week.
“Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart. This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.
It may be that some good and necessary task prevents us from achieving fully all that we set out to do. Let us not on this account give way to sadness or anger or indignation, since it was precisely to repel these that we would have done what in fact we were compelled to omit. What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger. Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother. We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others.” (John Cassian: Conferences, p. 41-42)
Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalms 73:1)
“A person who, by such love, draws near to the image and likeness of God, will rejoice in the good because of the joy of the good itself. Possessing the same feeling of patience and gentleness, he will not be angered by the faults of sinners, but rather, sympathizing with and co-suffering with their infirmities, he will ask for mercy on them. For he remembers that he was long opposed by the impulses arising from similar passions until he was saved by the mercy of the Lord.” (St. John Cassian, found in Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 139)
“… we are led to give thanks to our Benefactor through the good things of this world, by which I mean
progress in all things,
a peaceful life,
the enjoyment of honors,
all the other supposed blessings of this life.
We are led to love Him and to do what good we can, because we feel we have a natural obligation to repay God for His gifts to us by performing good works. It is of course impossible to repay Him, for our debt always grows larger. On the other hand, through what are regarded as hardships we attain a state of patience, humility and hope of blessings in the age to be; and by these so-called hardships I mean such things as
the fear of loss,
In the quote above, St. Peter of Damascus (whose Namesday it is today, February 9) gives us a long list of blessings which lead us to God. These are blessings in this world and in this life – blessings even monastics, who are not supposed to live for this world alone, recognize and appreciate. Even hardships (of which he also makes a long list, and monastics and non-monastics alike can agree they are things we want to avoid) become a blessing because they can increase certain virtues in us as we deal with them in faith, hope and love.
All of the above was simply an introduction to the good news I can share about my own health. First, let me thank all of your for your continued prayers as indeed the last 4 years have been difficult with 4 major surgeries plus chemotherapy for cancer. This week I had both an oncology appointment and a 3-month post operative appointment with my neurosurgeon. The good news in oncology is no news – labs continue to show no change (I continue to be anemic but that seems expected due to the surgeries and the on-going chemo). I will have my next CT scan in about a month as they keep vigilant watch for any new tumors. There have been none since the lung resection surgery in May of 2015.
The neurosurgeon is totally happy with the spinal fusion which seems to be holding in place. I can walk without a cane and have none of the crippling back pain that led me to accept surgery. I will have to live with a number of physical limits, but I no longer need the back brace (pictured above, in case you can’t recognize what it is). That back brace first hugged me on November 8 and embraced me like a python 23.5/7 ever since. My cane (pictured here) – I was able to lay aside immediately after surgery. It now stands in a corner awaiting a new walking partner. The good news is for the time being I need neither of those devices, though I have a handful of other tools and devices which help me pick up things, reach things, get my socks and shoes on and the like. My back will never be what it was years ago, and will never be “normal” (though it is now a “new normal”) but I am able to continue to function, for which I am grateful daily.
I have learned to rejoice in the blessings of life and to see blessings in the hardships as well. I have learned to admire those who cope with and even overcome disabilities. I am ever thankful for those who have invented the medical devices that made my surgeries possible as well as those who improved them through engineering. I am grateful for all of those who have learned to use technology in the medical sciences – doctors, nurses and technicians.
I give thanks to God that God has entrusted such wisdom in the sciences to help us all. God has made it possible for us humans to remove all obstacles to our being healed by God. Medical science removes the physical obstacles to our healing, and repentance removes the spiritual obstacles to our becoming whole and human. Medicine and confession are thus both gifts from God which make healing possible. Both require human help and intervention.
I have accepted that in this life there are trials and illness. A few have asked me as to why instead of healing us, God doesn’t just prevent disease and injuries in the first place. I can only speak about reality – in this world, we have sickness, sorrow and suffering. Perhaps in some other world it doesn’t exist, but in our world it does, and it can serve a purpose, even be beneficial to us, though it doesn’t always seem so. I can ask why is grass green instead of being orange or purple? Maybe in some other world it is, but in this world, the only reality I know, it is green and must be so of necessity. Photosynthesis requires it, we and animals depend on it for food and oxygen. I also am reminded of a quote from St. John Cassian:
“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me (cf. Luke 22:42). Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.” ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1326-29)
Jesus said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)
The desert fathers understood that we each are tempted by or influenced by demons. They also understood that sometimes “demons” are our own thoughts over which we lose control so that they come to dominate us. Depression is certainly such a demon. It can oppress us and take away from us hope and joy and love. In the modern age, we also realize that sometimes depression is caused by chemical imbalances in our brains and bodies. Knowing these things, we also have many weapons to fight the “demons” of depression. For some, medical treatment, including the use of pharmaceuticals, can help in the fight against depression. For some, counseling can help rid us of false ideas which run like a continuous tape through our minds. The fog can be lifted as we understand what is oppressing us is not real, but false ideas that we believe to be true. For some, prayer along with reading scriptures and the Fathers, and receiving the sacraments, drives from us those demons which suck the life and hope from us. For some, all methods are needed. This is true because as humans we are spiritual and physical beings, we are psychosomatic beings. Whatever affects us spiritually, also affects us mentally and physically. What affects our physical being, lays hold of our minds and spirit. What affects us mentally, touches our bodies and souls. We are one being, and whatever affects one part of us affects our entire being.
We don’t need to see psychological problems, or treatments, as somehow being nonspiritual or unChristian. Healing is a gift from God. Christ used physical means to heal people. Christ healed bodies, minds and souls. Depression is not some kind of spiritual failure, but can be part of the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged, hopefully only occasionally, but sometimes daily.
“St. Cassian wrote about the demon of depression:
It is the evil spirit that causes depression and from that we come to know the fruits of the evil spirit, which are discouragement, anger, impatience, hatred, contentiousness, despair and sluggishness in praying. So let us struggle with the demon of depression, who casts the soul into despair, and drive him away from our hearts.”
(in Holy Joy by Anthony Coniaris, pp 102-103)
St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) was a disciple of St. John Chrysostom and wrote extensively about the monastic life. His comments on fasting and keeping Lenten periods are very instructive as the received Tradition which he taught was not as fixed and rule bound as are some current ideas in Orthodoxy. He did not know of one set of ascetic rules which applied to all monks, let alone all lay people. Fasting was to be kept by a common discipline known in the local community, but these rules were not to be applied to guests and visitors, and in fact were not to be discussed with those outside of the local community. He writes:
“…They also declared that the common discipline of fasting should not casually be disclosed to anyone but should, as far as possible, be hidden and concealed. They were of the opinion, rather, that if some brothers paid a visit it was better to practice the virtue of hospitality and love than to display the strictness of our abstinence and the daily rigor of our chosen orientation […] And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)
For St. John Cassian, fasting, as important and essential as it might be to monks, was voluntary offering, not to be done in fulfillment of some rule or duty. On the other hand, practicing hospitality was clearly taught and commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ. The virtue of hospitality and love outranked the virtue of strict fasting. Christ commanded us to love, He gave no direct commandment to fast. To practice hospitality and charity with others is what Christ demanded of us. To share a meal with family, a visitor or a stranger is to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love one another. His teachings are very much in line with the kind of fasting approved by God in Isaiah 58 and with Christ’s teaching about the Last Judgment Matthew 25.
St. John Cassian is one of my favorite monastic and Patristic writers. I find his thought more accessible to me than many other monastic writers. His teachings often seem to me incredibly relevant to our spiritual sojourns today. His name’s day comes on February 29, so we remember him on the correct day only once every four years. As such, I remember him today in this blog.
“… the grace of the Lord inspires a speaker in direct proportion to the merit and the eagerness of those who are listening to him.”
In other words, it is not my fault if those listening to my sermons or reading my blog aren’t inspired or edified. :) This comes, of course, as a big relief to me. What I need are more worthy and eager listeners. :) [On the other hand, when the listener to my sermon or reader of my blog gets the message, that is also due to them not to me!]
Enough joy from St. John Cassian.
Another quote from him to consider:
“The journey to God follows many routes. So let each person take to the end and with no turning back the way he first chose so that he may be perfect…”
It is the end of the journey that matters, not its length nor its arduousness. The wise thief, for example, attained it in a single moment. Others spend years and decades traversing toward and away from God until finally arriving eternally in God’s presence. Moses wandered the wilderness for 40 years. Good intentions are also no measure of anything, it is results that matter. Whatever we intended, if we don’t find our way to God, we will have failed in life.
We should as St. John says, “take to the end.” That is what we hope for ourselves and pray for ourselves. It is what we hope for others, and pray for others. We don’t need to be critical of the path others take. That is their walk with God. Our task is to make sure we take to the end and remain with God while praying for all others and being a light to them if we are able.