Cassian (continued), Book IVChapter 43 (Cassian, Conference 2, chap.5)
"All the things you have mentioned are useful and necessary for anyone thirsting after God. But the countless circumstances and experiences of so many brothers do not allow of us giving precedence to any single one of these virtues. I have often seen brothers who observe certain practices becoming deceived in the end, because they did not observe discretion in the good thing which they had undertaken. The chief cause of their fall has been that far from being governed by their superiors, they failed to grasp the necessity for discretion, which is able to teach a monk a royal road that prevents them from overdoing ascetic practices on the one hand, while safeguarding them from falling into vice on the other. In everything that we do, discretion must come first. We must be quite clear about this: no virtue can be perfectly begun and continued without the grace of discretion."
After what Antony had said, they all agreed that discretion was the way to lead a monk fearlessly to God step by step, for it ensured that none of the virtues they had talked about could ever become harmful. Discretion is the mother and guardian and governor of every virtue.
Some definite examples may help to reinforce this, so I remind you of a certain old man called Heron, who by paying no attention to discretion brought to nothing all his earlier labours and, what is more, came to a miserable end. A few days ago by the tricks of the devil he was cast down from the heights to the very depths. For he had spent fifty years in the desert, maintaining an extremely strict way of life, preserving the hiddenness of solitude more than anyone else. He worked so very hard, and yet he has been deceived by the deceiver, coming to disaster by such a grievous fall that he has plunged all the desert-dwellers into the deepest grief. He would have run much less risk of falling if he had only practised the wisdom of discretion. Instead, he always practised fasting with such a rigorous spirit and kept so immutably to the hidden solitude of his cell that he would not even relax his strict abstinence on Easter Day. For such a great feast as Easter all the hermits would come together in church, all except him alone, lest he should be seen to have relaxed his rule simply by taking a little extra food. Chapter 44 (Cassian, Conference 2, chap.6)
Such presumption led him into mistaking the angel of Satan for an Angel of light, whom he welcomed with the deepest veneration. He obeyed the angel's commands and cast himself headlong into a very deep well, thinking that he was about to demonstrate how greatly his virtues were going to be rewarded by coming out of the well unharmed. The brothers with great difficulty managed to get him out of the well half dead, but he died three days afterwards. And what was even worse, he persisted obstinately in his delusions, and no one could convince him that he had been led astray by the devil.
Two monks travelling through the desert who decided that they would not partake of any food unless God himself brought it to them.
What can I say about those two brothers who lived in the distant desert where Antony used to live, and who, casting discretion to the winds, went for a long journey through the desert having decided that on no account would they take any food unless it were given them by God himself? As they were wandering through the desert, half dead with hunger they saw in the distance some Mazices, a race of people more savage and cruel than any other. They shed blood not only in pursuit of plunder, but simply because of their ferocious nature. Chapter 45 (Cassian, Conference 2, chap.7)
But contrary to their reputation for ferocity, they came forward offering the two brothers bread. One of the brothers, guided by discretion, accepted it thankfully as if from the hand of God. He reckoned that the food was divinely provided, for it must have been by an act of God that these bloodthirsty people were now offering fainting people the means of sustaining life. But the other one refused the food because it had been offered to him by human beings. Weakened by lack of food, he died.
However blameworthy their original decision may have been, one of them, guided by discretion, can be seen to have put right what he started foolishly. The other persisted in his stubborn presumption, and brought upon himself the death which the Lord had wanted to save him from.
The monk who was deceived by the devil and wanted to sacrifice his own son
What also should I say about another monk, whose name I shall not mention, seeing that he is still alive? Over quite a long period he had been visited by a demon of angelic brightness, and was often led astray by his revelations, believing him to be a messenger of righteousness. For every night the devil caused a light to shine in his cell without the agency of any lantern. At last he ordered him to show his devotion to God by offering up in sacrifice his own son, who was with him in the monastery. This sacrifice would make him equal in merit to the patriarch Abraham. He was instantly led astray by these words, and would have carried out the deed without delay, had not the son slipped through his hands and fled from the cell at full speed.Chapter 46 (Cassian, Conference 2, chap.8)
The monk to whom the devil showed the armies of the Christians and the armies of the Jews.
There was another monk who fasted very severely, shut up alone in his cell for many years. Hardly anybody was able to rival his abstinence. After many years of virtuous labour, in which he exceeded all other monks, he was in the end so deceived by the revelations of the devil that he regrettably converted to Judaism and the circumcision of the flesh. For the devil, posing as a messenger of truth in dreams and in other false displays, had often showed him an army of Christian monks, dark and loathsome, deformed and emaciated, and on the other hand the Jewish people dancing for joy, and shining with brilliant light. The devil warned him that if he wished to share in their blessedness he should get himself circumcised as quickly as possible. Chapter 47 (Cassian, Conference 2, chap.11)
From the examples of these men that we have mentioned it can easily be seen that none of them would have been so easily deceived had they laboured to acquire the virtue of discretion. The downfall of so many in what they tried to do shows how dangerous it is to be without the grace of discretion.
Abba Serapion in giving instructions to the junior brothers, often used to draw on his own experience:Chapter 48 (Cassian, Conference 6, chap.1)
(Also in V.iv.25) When I was young (he would say) and living with abba Theonas, after eating with the old man at the ninth hour, the devil got me into the habit of taking a bread roll and hiding it under my habit so that I could eat it later without the old man knowing. I committed this theft daily, but as soon as this greedy deception had been brought to a conclusion, the torture of knowing that I was a thief was much keener than the pleasure that the food had given me. But I had a compulsion every day to commit this dreadful deed, even though it made me feel bad, nor could I bring myself to tell the old man about these secret thefts.
But by the providence of God certain brothers came eagerly to the old man's cell for instruction one day, and after the meal was over they all began to take part in a spiritual conference. They were asking him about the vice of gluttony and hidden thoughts, and he replied to their questions, finishing up by saying:
"Nothing is more harmful to the monk and more pleasing to the demons than to conceal his thoughts from his spiritual father."
Conscience-stricken, I thought that the old man must have already read the secrets of my heart. I sighed inwardly; then, as compunction grew in my heart, I burst forth openly into sobs and tears. I wept bitterly, and suddenly pulled out of my habit the bread roll which I had been secretly prepared to devour according to my depraved custom. I showed it to everyone, confessing that I had been involved in eating one in secret every day. I threw myself down on the floor to ask pardon, and pouring forth copious tears, I begged for their prayers that God might forgive me.
"You can be quite sure," the old man said, "that your confession has freed you from this thing which has had such a hold over you. Today you are victorious, you have triumphed over your adversary. You have come out stronger now by making your confession than you were when your silence had allowed him to cast you down to the depths. Your openness will result in this evil spirit no longer having dominion over you. The foul serpent from now on will no longer be able to take possession of you secretly, for he has been driven out of the darkness of your heart."
He had hardly finished speaking when, like a lamp suddenly bursting into flame, the cell was filled with such a terrible smell coming from my clothing that we could hardly bear to stay there.
"See," the old man said, "the Lord has given his approval to what I have been saying. With the eye of faith you can see that the devil who made the Lord's passion necessary has been driven out of your heart by your life-saving confession. Now you can be quite sure that he has been obviously expelled. It is manifestly clear that the enemy will no longer find a resting place in you."
And, as the old man said, the mastery of the devil over me was crushed by the power of my confession, since when the enemy has never attempted to arouse in me a single thought of being greedy.
Monks killed by Saracens
In the region of Palestine near Tekoa, which rejoices in being the birthplace of the prophet Amos (Amos 1.1), there is a vast desert stretching far and wide as far as Arabia and the Dead Sea, into which the river Jordan flows and is swallowed up. Here also are the ashes of Sodom. For a long time there were some monks of the greatest sanctity living here, until without warning they were murdered by invading Saracens. Their bodies were held in such reverence by the people of that region, as well as by the whole Arab race, that crowds of people gathered together from all sides, quarrelling violently over their remains, piously endeavouring to seize them, disputing as to who was more entitled to bury them and possess them as relics. Some claimed because they lived nearby, others because they were near the place of their birth.Chapter 49 (Cassian, Conference 4, chap.1)
Among the other hermits we also knew Daniel, the equal of everybody in all the virtues, but especially famed for the grace of humility. Because of the purity and gentleness of his life he was chosen for the office of deacon by Paphnutius, a presbyter in the same desert. The blessed Paphnutius rejoiced in Daniel's virtues, and recognising him as his equal in the grace and merit of his life, sought for his ordination as presbyter, making him the same rank as himself. It was because he wanted to have a worthy successor already in existence that he had him ordained as presbyter. But, humble as ever, as long as Paphnutius was present, Daniel never claimed for himself the privilege of belonging to the higher order, but always acted in his previous role of deacon whenever abba Paphnutius was making the spiritual offering. In the end, however, Paphnutius was frustrated in his hope of choosing a successor, even though he was a great man such that in many things he had the gift of seeing the future. For, not long afterwards, this man who he was hoping would be his successor went to the Lord before him. Chapter 50 (Cassian, Conference 7, chap.1)
Chapter 51 (Cassian, Conference 7, chap.23)
We had a greater admiration for abba Serenus than for anyone else. He was a mirror of his own name because of his great sanctity and continence. His virtues shone forth not only in his deeds and his whole way of life, but even, by the grace of God, in his face. More than anything else he had been blessed with a special gift of chastity, in that he was never troubled by natural urges, not even in sleep. That would seem to be beyond the powers of human nature, so I think I must try and explain how he arrived at such bodily purity.
(ibid. chap.2) This blessed Serenus, then, begged day and night, by means of prayers, fasts and vigils, for inward chastity of heart and body. He realised that his prayers had been answered when he felt that all the heats of concupiscence in his heart had been extinguished. He felt as if set on fire with this most sweet awareness of purity, and in the zeal of his chastity he burned with an even greater desire. By even more intense fasts and prayers he began to beg that the mortification of his passions which had been given to his inner spirit solely by the grace of God might also be extended as far as the outer man also. By this he desired that he would no longer be troubled by any of the simple and natural movements of the flesh which even children and small infants are subject to. He persevered untiringly in these prayers with copious tears, until an Angel came to him in a vision of the night. It seemed as if the Angel opened his belly, and drew out from his entrails a sort of fiery fleshly tumour and threw it away. He then put all his intestines back as they were before.
"See," said the Angel, "all your fleshly urges have been cut out. You know now that you have obtained this day perpetual purity of body, which is what you have been faithfully asking for."
Let this be a brief but sufficient indication of the special grace of God attributed to this memorable man.
But we also came to see him in Lent and asked him a number of questions. Especially we wanted to know about the attacks of the demons. With his usual serene expression he replied:
"The demons have no power to harm anybody, as the example of Job manifestly shows, for he cannot tempt anyone more than is allowed him by the dispensation of God" (Job. 2, 1-6).
The demons do not have the same power against monks nowadays as they did in former times.
It is quite obvious, not only from our own experience but from what the seniors tell us, that the demons nowadays do not have the same power over monks as they used to do in the time of the first anchorites, when there were very few monks dwelling in the desert. Their ferocity in those days was such that it was almost impossible to live in the desert at all. In coenobia of ten or twelve people, therefore, they approached so viciously with attacks that were almost visible, that the monks did not dare to go to sleep all together but took it in turns to stay awake while the others kept vigil with psalms and prayers and readings. When the demands of nature at last bade them sleep, they awoke the others and handed over to them the task of keeping vigil while they themselves retired to bed. Chapter 52 (Cassian, Conference 7, chap.26)
The present state of affairs is undoubtedly due to one of two things: either the power of the cross has permeated the desert and with its shining grace has blunted the devil's weapons, or our own negligence means that they do not have to fight so hard as they formerly did against those most valiant soldiers of Christ.
(ibid. chap.25) But we know that even the most saintly men have been handed over into the power of Satan and to great afflictions for even the slightest faults, so that the divine mercy may find no sin or stain in them on the day of judgment. Like gold purified in the fire they will be taken into the perpetual glory without any need for purifying punishment, in accordance with the saying, 'The just man is purified in the furnace of humiliation' (Eclesiasticus 27.5) and 'Whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every child who comes to him' (Proverbs 3.12 & Hebrews 12.6).
(ibid. chap.26) And in our own times abba Paul and abba Moyses have provided clear and indisputable proof of this when they lived in that part of the desert called Calamus. Now Paul had been living near the city of Panephysis, in the desert which we know had been created by being flooded with salt water. And whenever the north wind blew the water was driven from the marshes and poured out over the land next to it, so that it covered the face of the whole region. All the ancient villages had long since been deserted for this very reason, making them look like little islands.
This abba Paulus had arrived at such a degree of purity of heart in the silence of his desert that he could not bear the sight of a woman's clothing, let alone a woman's face. He was on his way to the cell of another senior one day when he happened to meet a woman coming towards him. When he saw her he cut short his journey and fled back to his own monastery faster than he would flee from any lion or dragon. Chapter 53 (Cassian, Conference 7, chap.27)
Now although he acted like this because of his ardent zeal for chastity and purity, it was because he was attached to a rigid discipline; it was not true spiritual knowledge that governed his actions. As a result, his excesses were given a buffeting lest he be overcome with self-conceit, for he was forthwith struck by an illness which left his whole body paralysed. He lost control over every part of his body, not just his arms and legs. He was unable to use his tongue, and his ears lost their ability to hear. Indeed there was no longer anything human about him; he was simply like an immoveable statue. He was reduced to such a state that the men were no longer able to cope with his infirmity, and only the tender care of women would be able to help. So they carried him to a monastery of holy virgins, who not only brought him his food and drink, but ministered to his every natural need. They did this for four years, right up until the end of his life.
And yet, although his members were so affected that there was no lively movement in any of his joints, the grace of God worked so powerfully in him that when other sick people were anointed with oil that had touched his body they were restored to health immediately. And thus it became clear that the debility of his body was all within the providence of the love of God, and the grace of healings had been prepared by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to his merits and make them manifest.
Moyses was the other man we have mentioned as living in this desert [of Calamus]. He was an exceptional person second to none, and yet he was punished by a very wicked demon for having uttered a casual word of severe criticism against abba Macarius. The demon filled his mouth with human excrement. This purging chastisement was brought upon by divine dispensation, so that no stain of even the most momentary sin might remain in him, as is shown by the speed with which he was cured. For abba Macarius had immediately prostrated himself in prayer, and the evil spirit departed, put to flight by his command.
It must be clearly understood by all these happenings that we should not loathe or despise anyone who we can see are in the power of various temptations and evil spirits. There are two things which we must firmly hold fast to: firstly that nothing at all ever happens without the permission of God, secondly that everything God sends us comes from a loving and merciful doctor, and is intended for our benefit.
Home List of Contents Next Top of Page