Sunday, July 12, 2020

Cassian and Merton Part III: Desolation in the Spiritual Life

One of the least advertised parts of the spiritual journey is desolation or spiritual "dryness".  Most people want to sell the consolation at the beginning of the trip or the mystical union down the road yet I think, for most of us, it is 90% desolation and 10% other.  So why bother?  Why not avoid it all, have a party at the beginning and then spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate the "dawn" by staying out of the desert through simulating the "ardent desire for things of the spirit" that seems so real at the start?  Merton speaks to the positive side of desolation, implicitly acknowledging the redemptive option in suffering that Cassian discusses here in Conference IV, the path of freedom to love as God loves, a path that is made clear only in the suffering that comes in desolation.

Desolation in the spiritual life.  And God gives us this desolation, God sends us desolation for a purpose.  What causes desolation in our life in the way he just explained it?  Why does this question of being dragged in both directions cause us desolation?  Well, it's because we want to be carried away in the spiritual direction, we want to be going up to these beautiful things and we feel ourselves dragged down.  Now in the world, with all due respect, with the world being taken out in sort of a bad sense, is the people outside [the monastery] it's not necessarily desolation for them if they are dragged towards pleasures and things like that.  On the contrary, that's consolation to them.  If a person has no particular desire to be dragged in the direction of divine things, he doesn't mind being dragged in the other direction.  But it causes desolation to us because we want to go to God and we find ourselves being dragged in the other direction.  Well, you can work that both ways.  The desolation is lessened, and in a legitimate way, if you have a more realistic conception of your desire of divine things.  I would say this is a basic truth of the spiritual life for everybody here [in the monastery] is that, be careful, of intense desires for divine things, which come especially to novices and not so often to the professed but which are familiar to the novitiate.  That's alright, it's good to have those, but don't think that that is beginning and the end of everything.  These intense desires have their purpose but they're not spiritual perfection and the thing you have to be a little careful of, is don't let yourself because carried away by those and don't push yourself too hard.  The devil can pull you in that direction.  This is one of the points that Cassian makes, that if the devil doesn't get you by giving you an ardent desire for the things of the flesh, he can get you with an excessive desire for the things of the spirit.  And the thing we have to desire is neither one nor the other but the disposition of freedom and enlightenment in the middle, which God gives us.  That's the one thing that the Devil won't give us because that's where we ought to be; he'll give us everything else but that.  If the Devil were to give us the desire for this middle position, there is no point in him doing that, and if he does, accept it, he's giving you something good.  I assure that he won't, according to tradition.

Why does God allow us to suffer this desolation?  Why does he allow us to have a great desire to have spiritual things and to feel ourselves pulled in the other direction?  What good does that do us?  What does that teach us? . . . It gives us purity of intention, and it gives us humility, and it gives us self-knowledge.  The purpose of trial, definitely, is giving us self-knowledge, trust in God, understanding of God's way with us, self-distrust, realization of our total dependence on grace, all those things.  So, if you happen to get into some kind of a trial, remember what it's supposed to do for you.  And, start working on these things a little bit, work in the direction of self-knowledge and self-distrust and trust in God and reliance on grace and total dependence on God.  And, then, the other things that these trials do . . . is to test our perseverance and to test how serious we are about the spiritual life, to test the seriousness of our will, the seriousness of our desire to serve God.  And, especially, not the seriousness of our desire for these concupiscentias spiritus , but it's the seriousness of our desire to stand in the middle and to exercise our freedom for the love of God.  That's what we have to be serious about, that is the thing that we have to be most serious about, because that is the talent that God has given us to develop.  He doesn't ask us to develop concupiscentias spiritus, that's what we think he asks us but it isn't.  He doesn't ask us to develop all kinds of ardor and fire and sensible fervor and that sort of thing.  One has no obligation whatever in the spiritual life to have or develop sensible fervor.  Sensible fervor is there if it comes and you use it if you got it and so forth.  You have no obligation to have it and you are not supposed necessarily to have it.  What you are supposed to have is good will and a certain amount of intelligence and a certain amount of an enlightened of your freedom which makes use of both these things. (24:36)
Transcript from "Ways of Prayer: A Desert Father's Wisdom", lectures by Thomas Merton, Chapter 2.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Cassian and Merton Part II: Dispensation Domini

Let's get back to the beginning of the conference [Chapter Two].  So then they ask this question:
"So then we asked this Blessed Daniel, why it was that as we sat in the cells we were sometimes filled with the utmost gladness of heart together with inexpressible delight and abundance of the holiest feelings so that I will not say speech but even feeling could not follow. See, that is the concupiscentias spiritus, this is what we all desire and this is what we assume, this is the way it ought to be:  this is it!  And Cassian would that say that as well.  "And pure prayers were readily breathed, and the mind being filled with spiritual fruits, praying to God even in sleep could feel that its petitions rose lightly and powerfully to God."  See, that's the way we all want to be.  "and again, why is it that for no reason we were suddenly filled with the utmost grief, and weighed down with unreasonable depression, so that we not only felt as if we ourselves were overcome with such feelings, but also our cell grew dreadful, reading palled upon us, aye and our very prayers were offered up unsteadily and vaguely, and almost as if we were intoxicated".  Do you recognize the symptoms?  "so that while we were groaning and endeavouring to restore ourselves to our former disposition, our mind was unable to do this, and the more earnestly it sought to fix again its gaze upon God, so was it the more vehemently carried away to wandering thoughts by shifting aberrations and so utterly deprived of all spiritual fruits, as not to be capable of being roused from this deadly slumber even by the desire of the kingdom of heaven, or by the fear of hell".  So, in other words, they had their troubles.

So, there's the problem.  Well, now, the way Cassian treats this, or the way Abbot Daniel treats it, he tells them first the causes of this, the immediate causes, what promotes this sort of thing, and, then, by showing what this is for, he leads into this thing that we were just talking about, this concept of a balance, of a purity of heart, of a freedom, an enlightened freedom that stands in between these two things [carnal desires and spiritual desires].  The thing that he says, the thing that he makes clear, is that it is through suffering these things, through this question of being pulled this way and that you learn, by the grace of God, that you learn to maintain the balance in the middle.  So, therefore, what he is saying is that the purpose of trial is to purify our hearts and bring us to this balanced and enlightened condition.  I think this is very practical.

Then he goes into the three causes, these are these immediate causes, and one of them is negligence.  Obviously if my mind is slack I am going to be pulled in all directions.  Another is impunatio diaboli, an attack, . . . he pushes you in all directions.  Then, finally, dispensatio Domini, . . .the way God disposes, the way God provides.  Which of these is the most important?  The third one, so that's the one Cassian is going to study.  So the next time you find yourself dragged in all directions by concupiscentias carnes et spiritus  and so forth, realize that this is something that is part of God's plan for your purification.  That's what we were saying yesterday,  you have to take a constructive view of this, you have to work with this.  So God causes us to be tried, or God allows us to be tried.  This is a very good thing and we should be glad that God allows us to be tried because it has a very good purpose.  He causes, as they say, desolation in the spiritual life.  Everybody seems to recognize this phenomenon, everybody knows exactly what we are talking about. 
(This is from Conference IV of Saint John Cassian, Chapters 2 through 3)
It really is great to sit in one's cell and bliss out.  Been there, done that, but, then, all dries up.  Every time.  I like what Cassian says at the end of Chapter 4:  "For men are generally more careless about keeping whatever they think can be easily replaced."  I never thought I was careless yet it is a helpful way of looking at it because when the bliss comes I forget the source and that it is a gift.

Yes, the consolation of bliss once the spiritual journey is underway is rare.  Instead, we get "trials", day after day after day.  These trials "purify us" by helping us build up our "balance muscles".  Our temptations are to look for consolation rather than do the work of learning to balance our desires.

I think the path is through the Cross, the path of trials, because then as I follow that path I am purified.  I don't attempt to appease my appetite for spiritual fervor, I practice the charismatic and the contemplative in an integrated way because all the time that I am on that path I am suffering redemptively rather than straying into bondage.  JPII talks about "freeing freedom" and I think this is it, to stay on the path of the Cross, regardless of the source of the trials, as it frees me ("redeems me") to maintain this balance.  That's really what the covenant promises (and vows) help us to do, to practice suffering redemptively through voluntary trials.  We can then more and more integrate the apparent opposites and avoid the temptations to the fervor that tempts us to allow ourselves to get dragged off the path, and, thus we are ever more free to love.

Cassian and Merton Part 1: The Balance of Carnal and Spiritual Desires

Why are our thoughts so mobile?  Why can't we control them? . . . Well, yeah, it takes strength that we don't possess, [you] put it that way.  That is a tendency, there, to look at it as a strength that we do not have.  We don't have the power to control it [the distractions of our carnal desires].  I think Cassian looks at it in a slightly different way, though.  See, we think in terms of power, have I got the power to control these things?  Cassian looks at it, rather, from the point of view of balance.  He doesn't so much say that we don't have the power,  it's that we're not in the right "spot".   If we were balanced, properly, that is to say if our nature were not unbalanced, see that's the thing that we're human but we've got an unbalanced human nature.  If our nature were perfectly balanced, we would be able to control our thoughts with much less difficulty.  There would be much less distraction, there would always be some distraction but there would much less.  The explanation of that is this:  see, we say the desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit, normally you would say that it is good to follow one of those sets of desires and bad to follow the other set of desires, what you have to do is follow the good ones and avoid the bad ones.  Which ones are the goods one and which ones are the bad ones?  . . . You shouldn't necessarily follow either, you should follow both in the proper degree.  What Cassian considers is not so much that here we are, completely passive, dragged in the direction of the "flesh" and hoping to be dragged in the direction of the spirit, it's kind of dependent on which way we get dragged.  On the contrary, in between, in the middle between flesh and spirit, see both of these are ardent natural desires.  We've got natural fleshly desires which are perfectly alright, they are good, except that they are a little bit disordered and we've got natural spiritual desires, which are also good.  In the middle, in between these two is placed our freedom and our intelligence.  What Cassian considers is that the important thing is to develop a balance and a stability of the freedom and the intelligence.  One is place in the middle and is able to choose.  Now this is pretty much the concept that the Greek Fathers have of human nature and the human struggle.  They consider the spiritual part of man, they call it the hegemonikum, that is to say the "driver", the controller, the one who is in command, the pilot.  In the depths of one's being there is this illuminated intelligence and freedom which is supposed to make choices and to choose wisely between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit.  One chooses enough of the desires of the flesh to maintain the natural, for example you have to eat, but you don't eat too much, you eat enough, so forth, to keep life going. . . . At the same time, one must also not go overboard in the desires of the spirit, either.  The great thing is to preserve the balance so that one is in command of both and uses both.

Salvation does not consist simply in being carried away by desires of the spirit--that's a very important point. We'll get back to that in a minute. What the implication of this is why are our thoughts so mobile and unstable?  The answer to that is not that we are constantly giving in to the desires of the flesh when we should give in to desires of the spirit but that we are sometimes pulled in the direction of the flesh and sometimes pulled in the direction of the spirit, so that we're swinging like a pendulum from one extreme to the other and, then, therefore, we're in perpetual motion.  Now, this is a very smart way of looking at this and it is the ancient, traditional way of looking at man in the monastic setting and it is the way monks ought to look at things.  It is completely impractical to go through life imagining that we are going to be constantly having spiritual desires whipped up to a white heat and that we are constantly going to be filled with intense conceptions of divine realities.  These come occasionally but that's not what perfection consists in.  Perfection consists in this enlightened freedom which maintains balance in the middle of the two and goes in the direction of God and goes in the direction of truth and love, by means of these things, which are given to us as mean[s].

Each time that I listen to Merton saying the above I think about how one can be monastic and "Charismatic" (in the practice of the Charismatic Renewal).  I find a conflict because I have so much experience of the Charismatic Renewal as very much focused on both "spiritual desires" and on the grace of the Holy Spirit to the exclusion of what I do in the spiritual journey.  I don't think, necessarily, that the monastic is opposed to "life in the Spirit".  I do think that one of the reasons that the renewal faded in the West is that it was focused on fervor, way too much on feelings, which led people away from the Spirit--they were dragged toward "carnal desires" through their emotionalism and "feel-good"ism.

This is why I like the written basis for BSC, which includes the integration of the charismatic and the contemplative through the Cross.  Unless we pass through the suffering (the "Passion") of the Cross of Jesus, through the doorway into the "kingdom of God", we get dragged one way or another.  In the case of the Charismatic Renewal, I think the active decadence of the "West" combined with the practical emphasis on arousing "feelings" left people drifting toward the corrupted appetites of the flesh, like eating one piece of a chocolate bar for the anti-oxidative effect but then wanting and eating another and another and, then, here is gluttony in full bloom.  On the other hand, the desire for spiritual fervor also left people out of balance and, thus, more susceptible to the eight demons.

So, I think the path is through the Cross, because then as I practice the charismatic and the contemplative on that path I stay balanced, I don't attempt to appease my appetite for fervor, as all the time that I am on that path I am suffering redemptively.  JPII talks about "freeing freedom" and I think this is it, to stay on the path of the Cross as it frees me ("redeems me") to maintain this balance.  That's really what the covenant promises (and vows) help us to do, to suffer redemptively so that we can stay balanced, that we can integrate the apparent opposites, and avoid the temptation to the fervor that unbalances us and, thus in the end, enslaves us.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Fiat voluntas tua

I have been listening to Thomas Merton's lectures, Ways of Prayer: A Desert Father's Wisdom, on the Conferences of Saint John Cassian.  Good stuff and lots of humor.  I had heard these cassettes forty years ago at Osage Monastery; their quality was poor and I found it hard to listen for long although I enjoyed them.  This new remastered version is much better!  The sound levels are much improved.

One thing that caught my ear was Merton's second lecture on Saint John Cassian's writing on how to pray, focusing on the Pater Nostra.  Then, of course, what is the next petition?  "Fiat voluntas tua".  Well that calls for a whole--incidentally, where is this in Tertullian? There it is, he's got it back here.  For some reason Tertullian has "Fiat voluntas tua" in front of "Adveniat regnum tuum".  He's just being original, or what?  Actually, he's got some very good things on this "Fiat voluntas tua".  And, what he gets down to is, obviously, what we all get down to sooner or later with "Fiat" is the question of accepting suffering.  But Tertullian says, the word of God is done praedicando, operando, sustinendo--by preaching, by working, by suffering.  So, praedicando, you can change that for confitendo confessio, bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel, which we do where--in choir, at least, and we do a chapter, occasionally, and we do it there.  Operando--by our works and virtue and so forth.  And then sustinendo, which is a significant word, it isn't just patienendo but sustinendo.  What's the difference between patienendo and sustinedo, Brother Basil? . . .  Persevering and bearing it, you see, accepting it.  You can suffer without accepting it. Sometimes we suffer and we don't want to suffer and we have to suffer anyway and there is nothing we can do about it.  But sustinendo means accepting it and bearing with it; courage, bravery, and so forth.  And so, he says, when we say "Fiat voluntas tua", he is saying we have to think this may mean the acceptance of suffering and we should accept suffering and we should accept, well, the frustration of our desires and of all these things which are implied in the idea of suffering.  And we have to accept that, to realize, of course, what goes with that, is the realization that whatever God wills for us is best, even though at the moment it may contradict our desires, nevertheless in the long run it is best, in the long run it does lead to salvation although it may take us off the road for the moment.

Kinda reminds me of the "Fiat" in the Annunciation, "The word “fiat” means an official decree or to give sanction to something. In Latin it means “let there be” or “let it happen/exist."  I never connected the "fiat" of the "Our Father" with the "Fiat" of Mary or, even, the "Fiat" of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene ("non mea voluntas sed tua fiat" Luke 22:42).  I believe this is one of the distinctive aspects of Christianity, that when we pray "thy will be done", when we are praying the "Fiat", we are accepting the suffering that comes from doing God's will.  This contrasts Christianity significantly with the Stoics and the Epicureans in regard to suffering, that we embrace the suffering that is part of the package deal of "thy will be done".