Sunday, January 26, 2020

Path to Perfection - Saint John Cassian

Jesus came to save us. From what? Eternal damnation, separation from God, showing us the path to victory over death, eternal life in Paradise. The ultimate aim is to love God, finding unity in His embrace.

These two element of salvation point to the starting point for our spiritual journey to theosis. Saint John Cassian points out the following:
There are three things that restrain people from vice—namely, the fear of Gehenna or of present laws; or hope and desire for the kingdom of heaven; or a disposition for the good itself and a love of virtue. (411)
Vice, or sin, not living up to the ideal way of life that Christ showed us is eventually tamed with God's help. To take heed of His advice we begin our walk with Christ having a fear of the possibility of having our life end in death, nothing beyond, or even worse in eternal punishment as is described in Scripture.

Saint John points out that there is this three step process. He says further,
For the first two belong properly to those who are tending toward perfection and have not yet acquired a love of virtue, but the third particularity belongs to God and to those who have received in themselves the image and likeness of God. (412)
The beginning, he points out, is fear. We tend to promote the idea of love, but for those who have not embraced the seriousness of the meaning of life, love of God does not have a deep meaning as this can only come from an intimate relationship. Emphasizing the fear of God is most useful for those who may have been baptized as children, who have been brought up in the church, but have a shallow faith based more on family or cultural traditions, and who participate more out of obedience. Reminding them about the reality of death and the judgement that takes place may help them awaken to the seriousness about the way they live their life and the true reason fo Jesus coming for our salvation.

Fear is only the beginning and this will not be sufficient for continued growth or for those already awake in faith. In this fist phase we are like servants following the direction of our master. The next phase is to be freed as slave and become a hired hand. At this next stage is the emphasis on the reward, our the payment we receive, a place in Heaven, eternal life with bliss. 
Here is how Saint Cassian describes it.
If a person is tending to perfection, then, he will mount from that first degree of fear—which we have properly designated as servile and about which it is said: “When you have done everything say: We are useless slaves.” —to the higher level of hope, progressing by degree. Here the comparison is not with a slave but with a hireling, because now the person looks forward to the payment of a wage and as it were untroubled by the absolution of his sins and fear of punishment and is conscious of his own good works. (412)
The next level is when we reach toward perfection, the love of virtue and a disposition toward the good. This requires the grace of God. With His grace and our ascesis we can rid ourselves, motivated by the first to levels of understanding, of all evil or sinful tendencies, our passions.
We shall, then, be unable to mount to that pure perfection unless, just as he first loved us for no other reason than our salvation, we also love him for no other reason than sheer love of him. Hence we must strive to mount, in perfect ardor of mind, from this fear to hope and from hope to the love of God and the love of virtue itself, so we may attain to a disposition for the good itself and, to the extent possible to human nature, hold firmly to what is good. (413)
We are challenged by the Lord to go from the heights to still higher places in such a way that the one who is blessed and perfect in the fear of God and who proceeds, as it is written, “from strength to strength,“ (Ps 84:7) and from one perfection to another—that is, who mounts with eager mind from fear to hope—is invited again to a more blessed state, which is love, and the one who was a “faithful and prudent servant” (Mt 45:25) passes over to the intimacy of friendship and to adopted sonship. (418-419)
Eventually we come to the realization that love in the final aim. Motivated by the fear of the judgement and the promised reward in heave, we begin to experience Gods grace in a real way. We come to know his love. Not the the intellectual understanding that God sent His only Son to us out of love but an experience of this unbounded love that comes from his grace penetrating our soul. This love grows so strong that there is nothing we would not change in our way of life to become united with our lover forever.

Saint Cassian says,
It is in this sense, then, that our words should be understood—not that we declare that an awareness of everlasting punishment or of the blessed reward which is promised to the holy ones is of no importance. These things are helpful and introduce those who reflect on them to the beginning of blessedness. But, love, in which there is a fuller confidence and already enduring joy, takes them from a servile fear and hireling’s hope, brings them to the love of God and to adopted sonship, and, from being perfect, makes then somehow more perfect. (419)

Apostle Paul call this love the best of gifts
But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift ofprophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1Cor 12:31-13:3)

Reference: The Conferences of John Cassian, trans, Boniface Ramsey, OP, Paulist Press.

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