The Greatest Prize of Divine Grace

From “The Second Conference of Abbot Moses,” Conferences 2.1-2 (ca, 398-399)

Abbot Moses said, “Discernment is no ordinary virtue nor one which can be freely gained by merely human efforts, unless they are aided by the divine blessing, for we read that this is also reckoned among the noblest gifts of the Spirit by the apostle: “To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another the gift of healing by the same Spirit, and shortly after, to another the discerning of spirits.”  Then after the complete catalogue of spiritual gifts he subjoins: “But all these works one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:8-11).

You see then that the gift of discernment is no earthly thing and no slight matter, but the greatest prize of divine grace. And unless a monk has pursued it with all zeal, and secured a power of discerning with unerring judgment the spirits that rise up in him, he is sure to go wrong, as if in the darkness of night and dense blackness, and not merely to fall down dangerous pits and precipices, but also to make frequent mistakes in matters that are plain and straightforward.

And so I remember that while I was still a boy, in the region of Thebaid, where the blessed Antony lived, the elders came to him to inquire about perfection. And though the conference lasted from evening until morning, the greatest part of the night was taken up with this question. For it was discussed at great length what virtue or observance could preserve a monk always unharmed by the snares and deceits of the devil, and carry him forward on a sure and right path, and with firm step to the heights of perfection.

Each one gave his opinion [of which gift is most important for a monk]. Some made it consist in zeal in fasting and vigils, because a soul that has been brought low by these, and so obtained purity of heart and body will be the more easily united to God. Others said it lay in despising all things, because if the mind were utterly deprived of them, it would come the more freely to God. Others thought that withdrawal from the world was the thing needful, i.e., solitude and the secrecy of the hermit’s life; in which life a man may more readily commune with God, and cling more especially to him. Ohers laid down that the duties of charity, i.e., of kindness should be practiced, because the Lord in the gospel promised more especially to give the kingdom to these; when he said “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink” (Matt. 25:35-36)

When in this way they declared that by means of different virtues a more certain approach to God could be secured, and the greater part of the night had been spent in this discussion, then at last the blessed Antony spoke and said: “All these things which you have mentioned are indeed needful, and helpful to those who are thirsting for God, and desirous to approach him. But countless accidents and the experience of many people will not allow us to make the most important of gifts consist in them. For often when men are most strict in fasting or in vigils, and nobly withdraw into solitude, and aim at depriving themselves of all their goods so absolutely that they do not suffer even a day’s allowance of food or a single penny to remain to them; and when they fulfil all the duties of kindness with the utmost devotion, yet still we have seen them suddenly deceived, so that they could not bring the work they had entered upon to a suitable close, but brought their exalted fervor and praiseworthy manner of life to a terrible end. We can clearly recognize what it is which mainly leads to God, if we trace out with greater care the reason of their downfall and deception.

For when the works of the above-mentioned virtues were abounding in them, discernment alone was wanting, and allowed them not to continue even to the end. Nor can any other reason for their falling off be discovered except that as they were not sufficiently instructed by their elders they could not obtain judgment and discernment, which passing by excess on either side, teaches a monk always to walk along the royal road, and does not allow him to be puffed up on the right hand of virtue ( i.e., from excess of zeal to transgress the bounds of due moderation in foolish presumption), nor allows him to be enamored of slackness and turn aside to the vices on the left hand, (i.e., under pretext of controlling the body, to grow slack with the opposite spirit of luke-warmness).

For this is discernment, which is termed in the gospel the eye, and light of the body, according to the Savior’s saying: “The light of your body is your eye: but if your eye be single, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye be evil, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matt, 6:22-23) because as it discerns all the thoughts and actions of men, it sees and overlooks all things which should be done.

But if in any man this is evil, (i.e., not fortified by sound judgment and knowledge, or deceived by some error and presumption), it will make our whole body full of darkness, (i.e., it will darken all our mental vision and our actions, as they will be involved in the darkness of vices and the gloom of disturbances). For, says he, “if the light which is in you be darkness, how great will that darkness be!” (Matt. 6:22-23) For no one can doubt that when the judgment of our heart goes wrong, and is overwhelmed by the night of ignorance, our thoughts and deeds, which are the result of deliberation and discernment must be involved in the darkness of still greater sins.”

St. John Cassian (ca. 360-433) was a monk and spiritual theologian, who writings deeply influenced Eastern and Western moral and spiritual theology. He was probably an Eastern European, and traveled extensively among the earliest monastic communities in Palestine and Egypt. He founded the Monastery of St. Vincent in Southern France in 415, one of the first in the West. His Conferences are a series of dialogues, which recount the teachings of the Egyptian Desert Fathers. The work deeply influenced Benedict, who insisted on it as a primary text of monastic formation. His feast day is February 29 in the East and July 23 in the Episcopal Church. This text has been slightly edited for modern readers.

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