Can we really be one with God? by Saint John Cassian

St. John Cassian and his traveling companion, the monk Germanus, were visiting Abba Moses in Scetis. Germanus’s question here gets to the heart of the contemplative life — how to concentrate on God and not be distracted by worldly affairs.

Germanus: “But, given the frailty of the flesh, who can ever be so intent on contemplation that his thoughts will never settle on the coming of a brother, the visit to a patient, the duties of hospitality which must be extended to travelers and to all passers-by? Who will not be turned aside by the requirements and need of his own body? What we really want to learn is the extent to which the spirit can actually be at one with the invisible, ungraspable God.”

Moses: “As you say, a man surrounded by the frailty of the flesh cannot cling totally to God or be joined to Him in unbroken contemplation. Yet we certainly need to know the direction in which our mind must always go. We must be aware of the destination toward which we must always summon our spirit. And whenever the mind can succeed in this let it rejoice, and whenever it is distracted let it grieve and sigh, knowing that as often as it is turned aside from contemplation it has been cut off from the ultimate good, knowing that to veer for even a moment from beholding Christ is to be guilty of impurity. When our gaze has wandered even a little from Christ let us immediately turn the eyes of our heart back to Him and let our vision be directed to Him as though along the straightest line.

“For everything lies at the innermost recess of the soul. When the devil has been chased away from it and when sin is no longer in charge of it, then the kingdom of God is established there. This is what the evangelist conveys to us when he says, ‘The kingdom of God will not come as something to be observed nor will people cry “Here it is! There it is!” Amen, I tell you the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17:20-21).

“Now there can be nothing else within us except the knowledge or unawareness of truth, the love of sin or of virtue, and with these we make a kingdom in the heart for the devil or for Christ. And what this kingdom is like is set out by the apostle when he says, ‘The kingdom of God does not consist of eating and drinking, but in righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17). If the kingdom of God is within us and
that is a kingdom of justice, of peace, and of joy then whoever remains with these virtues is certainly in the kingdom of God. By contrast, all who deal in unrighteousness, in discord, and in death-bearing gloom have taken their stand in the kingdom of the devil, in hell and in lifelessness. It is by these tokens that the kingdom of God or of the devil is recognized.

“Actually, if we gaze upward in spirit to that condition enjoyed by the heavenly and celestial virtues who are truly in the kingdom of God, how else is this to be reckoned except as everlasting, continuous joy? What is more suitable and appropriate to true blessedness than an eternity of peace and joy?

“Do not imagine that what I am saying is simply my own point of view. Take it on the certain authority of the Lord Himself. Listen to Him as He gives a most luminous description of the character and condition of that world. ‘Look, I am creating new heavens and a new earth. The past will not remain in the memory nor will it rise up over the heart. But you will delight and rejoice forever in these things which I bring forth’ (Isaiah 65:17-18). Or again, ‘Joy and happiness will be found in this, a blessing and a voice of praise. And it will be so month after month, from Sabbath to Sabbath’ (Isaiah 51:3, 66:23). And again, ‘They will have joy and gladness; pain and lamentation shall flee’ (Isaiah 35:10). If you want to have some clearer knowledge of that abode and realm of the saints, listen to the voice of the Lord speaking to the heavenly Jerusalem: ‘I will give you peace for a visitor and will put justice as your judges. Iniquity shall no longer be heard of in your country nor ravage and ruin within your frontiers. Salvation will hold your walls and praise will be at your gates. No more will the sun light your day and the splendor of the moon will not shine upon you. You shall have the Lord for your everlasting light and your God for your glory. Your sun will set no more and your moon will not diminish. For you the Lord will be light eternal and the days of your mourning will be at an end’ (Isaiah 60:17-20).

“Accordingly, the blessed apostle does not describe joy in general or a particular joy as the kingdom of God but specifically and specially he points only to the joy in the Holy Spirit. He knows that there is another kind of joy, one which is blameworthy and of which it said ‘this world shall rejoice’ (John 16:20) and ‘woe to you who laugh because you shall weep’ (Luke 6:25).

“The kingdom of heaven can be understood in three ways. First, the heavens, that is to say, the saints shall rule over all the other men made subject to them, in accordance with the words, ‘You! Rule over five cities. And you! Rule over ten’ (Luke 19:17, 19). And there is the statement to the apostles: ‘You will sit on twelve thrones and you shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matthew 19:28). Or, second, the skies themselves shall become the kingdom of Christ when all things have been put under His authority and when God shall be ‘all in all’ (I Corinthians 15:28). Or, third, the blessed in heaven shall rule together with the Lord.

“Let everybody know this. He shall be assigned to the place and to the service to which he gave and devoted himself in this life and he can be sure that in eternity he will have as his lot the service and the companionship which he preferred in this life. This is what the Lord means when He says, ‘If anyone is my servant let him follow me and where I am he will be there as my servant’ (John 12:26).

“Just as the kingdom of the devil is raised up by the concourse of sin, the kingdom of God is possessed by way of the practice of virtue in purity of heart and in spiritual knowledge. Where the kingdom of God is, there certainly is eternal life, where the kingdom of the devil is, there surely is death and damnation, and there, in the words of the prophet, one cannot praise the Lord. ‘The dead will not praise you, Lord, nor those who have gone down into hell’ — sinners no doubt — ‘but we who live’ — not in sin, nor in the world, but in God — ‘we bless the Lord now and forever. No one who is dead remembers God, and in hell (i.e., sin) who shall utter his confession to the Lord?’ (Psalms 6:6). No one. Anyone who sins does not offer praise to the Lord, not even if he proclaims himself a thousand times to be a Christian and a monk. No one doing what the Lord abhors is mindful of God. Falsely he calls himself the servant of the One whose commands he rashly and contemptuously spurns. This is the kind of death of which the blessed apostle speaks when he refers to the widow who lives in luxury. ‘The widow who lives for pleasure is in living death’ (I Timothy 5:6).

“There are many indeed living in the body but actually dead. They live in hell and cannot praise God.

“By contrast there are those who are dead to the body but who praise God in spirit and praise Him in accordance with the saying, ‘Spirits and souls of the just, give praise to the Lord’ (Daniel 3:86), and ‘Let every spirit offer praise to the Lord’ (Psalms 150:6). In the Apocalypse the souls of those who have been killed are said not only to praise God but to cry out to Him. And in the gospel there is the clearer statement of the Lord when He says, ‘Have you not read the utterance of God in the words “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” He is not the God of the dead but of the living’ (Matthew 22:31-32).

“Everyone therefore has life in him and regarding these the apostle says, ‘That is why God was not ashamed to be called their God, since He has made ready a city for them’ (Hebrews 11).

“The gospel parable of the poor man Lazarus and of the rich man clothed in purple shows us that souls separated from the body are neither inactive nor bereft of feeling. The one man wins as his blessed abode the peace that exists in the bosom of Abraham; the other is subjected to the unbearable scorchings of eternal fire. And if we wish to ponder what was said to the thief, namely, ‘Today you shall be with me in paradise,’ what other obvious meaning is there to this if not that souls continue to have their former sense of awareness and, further, that their lot is in keeping with their merits and with what they have done? The Lord would never have made this promise to the thief if He knew that the soul, once separated from the body, must lose all feeling and be turned into nothing. For it was the soul and not the body which would go with Christ to paradise.

“Now we must beware utterly of that most detestable distinction made by the heretics who do not wish to believe that Christ could not have been in heaven on the same day that he descended into hell. They break the sentence in two and have ‘Amen, I say to you today’ and then ‘you shall be with me in paradise.’ Hence the promise could not be considered to have been immediately fulfilled upon passing away from this life but rather after the resurrection. They do not understand what he said, quite some time before His resurrection, when speaking to the Jews who considered that He, like themselves, was locked into the limits and the fragility of human flesh: ‘No one rises up to heaven except He who came down from heaven, the Son of man’ (John 3:13).

“All of this clearly shows that not only are the souls of the dead not deprived of their intellectual faculties but that they also are not lacking in feelings such as hope and sadness, joy and fear. They already have a foretaste of what is in store for them after the general judgment. Nor does it happen, as some unbelievers would hold, that upon leaving this world they are turned to nothing. Actually they live more intensely and they concentrate more on the praises of God.

“If one might leave aside for a moment the evidence in Scripture and if I myself may be permitted to think a little about the nature of the soul, doing so to the extent possible to my poor intelligence, is it not the ultimate in stupidity, indeed of madness, to have a lightweight opinion of what is in fact the more valuable part of man? Here, as the blessed apostle says, is the image and likeness of God. Could this become devoid of awareness after having shed the corporeal burden by which it is held back in this life? All the power of reason lies here and gives consciousness to the dumb, unfeeling stuff of the flesh. It must surely follow, it must certainly happen that when the mind has shed the inhibiting grossness of the flesh it recovers in improved form its intellectual
capacities, that it gathers, not loses, these in a purer and more penetrating condition.

“The blessed apostle is so convinced of what I am now saying that he goes so far as to long to depart from the flesh in order that by virtue of this separation he may be enabled to enter into the closest union with the Lord. ‘I have a longing to be gone,’ he says, ‘and to be with Christ, which would be better’ (Philemon 1:23), ‘because as long as we are in the body we are roaming from the Lord’ (II Corinthians 5:8-9). Thus, he is saying that the sojourn of spirit in this body is an exile from the Lord, and absence from Christ, and he believes totally that the separation and the departure from the body means a coming into the presence of Christ. And, more knowledgeably, the apostle has this to say about the most intense life of souls: ‘But you have come to Mount Sion, to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the gathering of many millions of angels, to the
church of the first-born who are enrolled as citizens of heaven, and to the spirits of the just who have been made perfect’ (Hebrews 12:22-23). About these spirits he says elsewhere, ‘Our fathers in the flesh have been our teachers and we have revered them. Should we not be all the more obedient to the father of the spirits and thereby have life?’ (Hebrews 12:9).

“Contemplation of God can be understood in more than one fashion. For God is not solely known by way of that astonished gaze at His ungraspable nature, something hidden thus far in the hope that comes with what has been promised us. He can also be sensed in the magnificence of His creation, in the spectacle of His justice, and in the help He extends each day to the running of the world. He can be sensed too when with well-purified minds we consider what He has achieved in each generation by means of His saints. He can be sensed when we gaze with trembling hearts at that power of His which controls, guides, and rules everything, when we contemplate His immense knowledge and His knowing look which the secrets of the heart cannot evade. His presence is known when we meditate on the fact that the sands of the sea are numbered by Him, that He keeps count of the waves. Astounded, we reflect that every drop of rain, every day and every hour of all the centuries, everything past and everything to come are all facts of which He is aware. Overwhelmed with wonder we think of that unspeakable mercy of His which allows Him to endure with unfailing patience the numberless crimes committed at every moment while He watches. We think of how in His pity for us He has called us to Him, though we had done nothing previously to deserve it. We think of all the times when He made it possible for us to be saved as His adopted sons. He ordained that our birth was to be such that His grace and the knowledge of His Law would be available to us from the cradle. And having overcome the adversary within us He offers us, in return merely for our goodwill, an eternity of happiness and of rewards. We think too of the incarnation, which He arranged for our salvation, and we think of how he spread to all the people the wonder of His mysteries.

“There are innumerable other considerations of this kind. They surface within our sensibilities — depending on the quality of our living and purity of our hearts. By means of them God is seen and beheld in immaculate visions. And it is certain that none of them will be in the uninterrupted keeping of anyone who keeps alive in himself any of the desires of the flesh. ‘You will not be able to look upon my face,’ says the Lord, ‘for a man will not look upon me and live’ (Exodus 33:20). Live, that is, in this world and amid earthly longings.”

from St. John Cassian’s “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 46-51.

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