"The Spirit of Fornication."

from "The Conferences" by St. John Cassian

About St. John Cassian

St. John was born in the 4th century of wealthy parents and received a good education.  While in Palestine with his older friend Germanus went to Bethlehem and assumed the duties of the monastic life.  He spent 7 years in the desert and then spent several years in Egypt.  During his life he wrote to books, "The Conferences" and "The Institutes." The first four books of the "Institutes" described the rules governing monastic life, which he observed in his travels to Egypt and Palestine.  The eight remaining books are devoted to the eight principal passions: gluttony, impurity, covetousness, anger, dejection, accedia (despair), vainglory, and pride. St. John was ordained to the diaconate by St. John Chrysostom and was sent to Rome.  He then was elevated to the priesthood.  He was responsible from bringing Eastern monastic principles to the West. 


 Listen to what the Apostle has to say: "Everyone who fights in the games abstains from everything" (I Corinthians 9:25).  Let us consider what he meant by "everything" so that we can gain instruction about the spiritual contest by comparing it with the fleshly one.  For those who strive to fight lawfully in the visible contest do not have the freedom to use all the foods that their desire for pleasure suggests but only those that the discipline of the games permits.  And they must abstain not only from forbidden foods, drunkenness, and every kind of intoxication but also from all laziness, idleness, and slothfulness, in order that their strength may grow from daily exercises and constant meditation.

Thus they are removed from all worry and sadness and from worldly affairs, as well as from conjugal feelings and activity, so that they may be aware of nothing other than the practice of their discipline and be utterly uninvolved in any sort of mundane concern, hoping only to obtain from him who presides over the games their daily portion of food, the glory of a crown, and worthy prizes as a reward for their victory.  To such an extent do they keep themselves pure from all the contamination of sexual intercourse that, when they are getting ready to contend in the games, they cover their loins with lead sheets lest perchance they be deceived by nocturnal fancies in their dreams and diminish the strength that they have acquired over a long period; the inflexibility of the metal, when applied to the genitals, is able to inhibit the shameful liquid.  They know that they will certainly be overcome and be unable to pursue the contest in question if their strength has been reduced and if a misleading and harmful pleasurable image has ruined the firm chastity that they have provided for.

And so, if we have grasped the discipline of this world's games, which the blessed Apostle used as a model when he wished to instruct us, teaching us how much strictness was involved in it, how much diligence and how much care, what ought we to do, with what purity does it behoove us to watch over the chastity of our body and soul, when we must daily eat the flesh of the all-holy Lamb, which even the commands of the old law permit no one who is unclean to touch!  For in Leviticus it is thus commanded: "Everyone who is clean shall eat flesh, but whatever soul in which there is uncleanness eats of the flesh of the saving sacrifice, which is the Lord's, shall perish before the Lord" (Leviticus 7:19-20).  How great, then, is the gift of integrity, without which even those who were under the Old Testament could not engage in the typical sacrifices and those who desire to strive for this world's corruptible crown cannot be crowned!

-- And so, first of all, the hidden places of our heart must be very carefully purified.  For what those others wish to acquire in terms of purity of body, we must ourselves possess in the depths of our conscience.  It is there that the Lord sits as arbiter and overseer and constantly observes the progress and struggle of our contest.  Thus we shall not, by careless thoughts, permit to take root within us what we shudder to allow in the open, and we shall not be contaminated by a hidden acquiescence in matters that shame us when they are publicly known.  Although they could escape the notice of human beings, nonetheless they cannot be concealed from the knowledge of the holy angels and of almighty God Himself, in regard to which there are no secrets.

-- It will be a clear sign and a full proof of this purity if either no unlawful image occurs to us as we lie at rest and
released in slumber or at lest, when one does surface, it does not arouse any movements of desire.  For although a disturbance of this kind may not be accounted as fully evil and sinful, it is nonetheless the sign of an as yet imperfect mind and an indication of vice that has not been totally purified when this sort of delusion comes about by way of deceiving images.

-- For the character of our thoughts, which is rather negligently paid heed to in the midst of the day's distractions, is made trial of in the calm of night. Consequently, when some delusion of this sort occurs, guilt must not be imputed to sleep.  This is, rather, the result of past negligence and the manifestation of a disease hidden within.  The night was not the first to give it birth, but the relaxation of sleep brought it forth to the surface from the hidden depths of the soul.  It reveals the hidden fevers of seething emotion, which we contract when we have been fed the whole day through with harmful thoughts.  In this respect it is like bodily ill health, which does not usually occur at the moment when it seems to make its appearance but which is contracted as the result of past negligence, when someone has foolishly eaten unhealthful food and has placed himself in contact with evil and deadly humors.1

1St. John Cassian, translated by Boniface Ramsey, O.P., "The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 156 - 158