In chapter 19 of the first conferences of St. John Cassian, it is noted that our thoughts have three origins. That the thoughts we perceive come from God, Satan, or ourselves. Discernment is then of crucial importance. What does Abba Moses (the desert ascetic whom St. John is interviewing in the Conferences) say about discretion? Well, he says quite a bit, for he finds that one of the most important virtue for a Christian. One of the things he says is (chapter 10 of the 2nd conference):

The answer how true discretion may be gained.

THEN Moses: True discretion, said he, is only secured by true humility. And of this humility the first proof is given by reserving everything (not only what you do but also what you think), for the scrutiny of the elders, so as not to trust at all in your own judgment but to acquiesce in their decisions in all points, and to acknowledge what ought to be considered good or bad by their traditions. And this habit will not only teach a young man to walk in the right path through the true way of discretion, but will also keep him unhurt by all the crafts and deceits of the enemy. For a man cannot possibly be deceived, who lives not by his own judgment but according to the example of the elders, nor will our crafty foe be able to abuse the ignorance of one who is not accustomed from false modesty to conceal all the thoughts which rise in his heart, but either checks them or suffers them to remain, in accordance with the ripened judgment of the elders. For a wrong thought is enfeebled at the moment that it is discovered: and even before the sentence of discretion has been given, the foul serpent is by the power of confession dragged out, so to speak, from his dark under-ground cavern, and in some sense shown up and sent away in disgrace. For evil thoughts will hold sway in us just so long as they are hidden in the heart: and that you may gather still more effectually the power of this judgment I will tell you what Abbot Serapion did, and what he used often to tell to the younger brethren for their edification.

This is counter to much of protestant praxis, which relies heavily on trusting in your own personal abilities of discernment. The practice of confession, of the spiritual guide/father is one largely lost in the modern Roman church and in even more in the American protestant with the Yankee tradition of self-reliance. Even in Orthodoxy there is a lot of latitude regarding confession and spirtual guidance and traditions widely vary. For myself, I have discovered that the sacrament of confession to be a great joy and help in feeding and strengthening my spirtual life and journey.

My question for my readers is this. Take as granted that discretion is of crucial importance. Then is Abba Moses wrong in what he says about discretion? Is the virtue of humility a prerequisite for discretion? If not, where is Abba Moses error?  And if so … does how your tradition seeks and strengthen your personal virtue of true humility?

Historically, in the Christian church there were “eight grevious or deadly sins” … which Pope Gregory (the Great) the the 6th century dropped the 7th to prune the list to 7. The one dropped ironically can be translated as “self-esteem.” This is ironic in view of the public school’s emphasis on self-esteem as a virtue. It should, I would think, give us today pause to consider that what was for 600 years in the Christian tradition one of the cardinal sins is in the “wisdom”  of our age thought a virtue. Who do you think more Godly, the Coptic ascetics or the modern west?

Commenter Don Trabue had remarked earlier that he had never heard of St. John Chrysostom. It’s likely he, and many other protestant readers, are not aware of St. John Cassian either. His writings, life, and works. Wikipedia has this to say. In part it was the writings of St. John Cassian as excerpted in the Philokalia (and the pdf linked above) that cemented my sojourn from my Western Protestant roots and into Eastern Orthodoxy. Unless I am discouraged by comments or email  I will (sporadically) post entries like this in an attempt to educate and inform readers in the West of Eastern traditions and their Patristic roots.

Filed under: ChristianityEthics & MoralityMark O.OrthodoxReligion

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