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I’ve been reading John Cassian’s Conferences lately, a work that along with his Institutes were written at the beginning of the fifth century. Cassian’s goal is to convey to his Latin-speaking readers the spiritual wisdom of early Egyptian monasticism, and he lived with the monks for nearly twenty years . I’m struck by how timeless are these accounts of the afflictions of sin and the pathways toward holiness. For example, the very purpose of the Conferences remains timely. He wrote for an audience of ancient Romans who were not unlike contemporary Americans, which is to say fairly skeptical about the possibilities of disciplining the unruly passions of the soul. His goal: to direct their attention to the real possibility of holiness, and this in spite of our excuses.

Reading Cassian, which I strongly recommend, can stimulate useful self-knowledge. For example, we think fasting as strange and difficult undertaking. Do you know anybody who fasts for spiritual reasons? And yet we mortify our flesh with remarkable rigor in gyms, or we undertake elaborate regimes of dieting to improve our figures. When I was young, for example, I would hitchhike and refrain from eating for two or three days straight in order to save money for my various adventures. I’ve fasted in obedience to myself—but not in obedience to God. Or limiting our diet to save money, which amounts to fasting in obedience to Mammon.

Cassian is right. We’re not incapable of spiritual disciplines. But we are unwilling.

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