Thursday, August 17, 2006

Conference on Discretion

I have been working at posts on the eight deadly sins, but as I worked on this the topics intricacies seemed to deserve a more thorough treatment than I had planned. Here is the conference I gave to the community tonight (in abridged form) that came of my background study.

The monastic fathers begin with an understanding of the human person as both flesh and spirit. As such, the human person is a microcosm of the universe itself, which consists of the seen bodily creatures and the unseen spiritual creatures. This also means that we are able to communicate with spiritual beings by means of our spiritual faculties, namely our imaginations and our wills. When we pray, we can pray by use of images, or in imageless prayer by the simple movement of the will. We can also use words to communicate with God, with angels or saints or with demons. Evagrius, for example, advises us to utter angry words at demons who are disturbing us. St. John Climacus similarly often describes holding a demon and thrashing it, demaning its name. This aggression against a demonic thought gives us distance from it in order to allow us to pray.
Evagrius also notes that we cannot control which demons or thoughts will disturb us. What we can control is whether a thought will linger in us or not. We may not feel like we have that control with especially oppressive thoughts or ones that produce overwhelming emotion in us. In these cases, we should try to accept with humility that we lack the resources at this stage to overcome these temptations ourselves, but we should not despair. Indeed, this is simply the realization that we need a Savior.
Cassian follows Evagrius very closely, and adds his own teaching that thoughts come from God, from ourselves and from the devil. How do we tell the difference? Cassian and Evagrius diverge a bit here, perhaps because their audiences are different. Evargius, writing in the earlier days of the flowering of Egyptian anchoritism, gives pithy teachings about the eight principal temptations, how to identify them and how to combat them. Perhaps because of more experience about the pitfalls of eremetical life, Cassian advises instead that we disclose our thoughts to a spiritual elder. This practice is followed by Saint Benedict as well. What does this mean for us? In some cases, brothers do have spiritual directors in the monastery, and I encourage this practice from my own experience. However, given the demands of our life, it will not always be feasible to go to one’s spiritual director when a thought comes up. We shouldn’t assume thereby to go it alone. Rather, Saint Benedict gives us the directive to follow the example of the seniors of the community and to exercise mutual obedience as the fastest means of going to God.
We should be able to accomplish two things by trying to act according to others’ patterns. First of all, we can be freed up from our personal attachments, from the notion that our way of doing things is better, that things will go badly if we aren’t able to do things the way that seems best to ourselves. By purposely doing something the way someone else wants, we gain a flexibility and a graciousness toward others. By contrast, if we insist on our way being best, we cull a sense of superiority toward the brothers and we become inflexible.
The second advantage to mutual obedience and imitation of the seniors is that it moves our minds to a different perspective on our own discernment. We may discover that someone else in fact has a better idea, or we may come to some enlightenment about our own blindness.
Just to give an example: I have had workshops on incense and serving at Mass. Right now, there are still some discrepancies in how things are done. I would like at some point to go over the customs of the house regarding these liturgical actions, but we could save a lot of time and fuss if each brother tried to observe what other brothers are doing. If everyone holds the Sacramentary one way and I hold it another, I should learn to observe this and conform. This would save time in terms of having to work on it together and it would save me from having to make it an order and a point of obedience.
The same holds with regard to serving at table. Try to notice how other people are doing it and try to fit in. There are brothers who always seem to bring the dish you want when you need it. Watch how they do it and imitate.
There are other ways of assisting ourselves in discernment. The principal means is by compunction of heart. Cassian teaches that this is achieved through our diligent meditation on Scripture, both at set times and throughout the day. Compunction is especially helped by the Psalms, so attentiveness during the Office is needed. The reason that compunction is so important is that it again teaches us to avoid any sense of self-righteousness or self-sufficiency.
We can assist each other in this task not only by acting as spiritual directors, but by creating an atmosphere in which brothers feel able to be themselves, warts and all. First of all, this means not shaming a brother who is struggling with a strong emotion and allowing brothers to make mistakes without getting upset or holding it against them. We can make this easier on ourselves by remembering that people often sin because they are deceived or overpowered by demons and temptations too strong for them. Even hardened sinners began by losing a battle that they could not win. We need to pray for a brother’s conversion and our own before we judge him.
And this assistance is most effectively given not by exuding a confident air of tranquility and imperviousness to slights. Such peace and wisdom can be counterfeited, and Cassian again has very strong warnings against elders who fake the real thing. Rather, what we see in the Apophthegmata and in Cassian is the spiritual father beginning by reassuring the junior monk that we all are tempted by the same thoughts and that we all have the experience of falling and needing to be saved. In our context, we as a community can serve each other by an honest and humble admission of our own limits, weaknesses, failures and sins, not being afraid to appear human to one another. This itself requires an ongoing effort at combating sin inside ourselves: again, we see the necessity of meditation on Scripture, vigils and fasting. Perhaps it also includes the practice of apologizing when someone points out a mistake that we have made. These apologies should be made in a manly way, not cringing or fawning, and not justifying oneself.
I think that too often, we are afraid to show our weaknesses because we simply lack faith, and that we are afraid of what might happen if we let our guard down. If I make an obvious blunder, others might not like me! Perhaps I will let God down (as if God is counting on my virtue for the salvation of the world!). I would encourage a rethinking of this idea. We are all tempted by it. The truth is that we all need a Savior and that means coming to grips with the fact that we are quite lost without Him. This means allowing our darkest parts to receive light. Can we give each other and ourselves permission to do this?
Christine Pohl makes an excellent point related to this when she notes that people with a wealth of resources often make poor hosts because hosting keeps them in a position of power that emphasizes the indignity of those less well-off. Similarly, we can stunt the growth of our brother by projecting an excess of virtue. At the top of the ladder of humility is not a brother who is always right, but one who is always aware of his frailty and neediness, and paradoxically one who is able to love perfectly. Significantly, he is able to love because he has cast out fear: he has nothing to hide.
Certainly this is one reason that monastic tradition includes the chapter of faults. Personally, I do not think this is the answer today. We can even turn that into a self-serving enterprise by confessing more sins and showing more earnest repentance than others do!
This conference has reached a sufficient length. Again, I simply encourage brothers to love one another principally by our dedication to our monastic conversatio and by our efforts at humility, transparency and openness to one another’s failings. We often imagine that we will help by being full of wisdom for another brother, but it is hard to gauge how much help the holy fool can be. Let us ask God for the grace to recognize our need for Him and for one another and strive to enter more deeply into His love.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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