March 4, 2019

Which is the Greatest Virtue? (St. John Cassian)

By St. John Cassian

On the Holy Fathers of Sketis
And on Discrimination

Written for Abba Leontios

I remember how in my youth, when I was in the Thebaid, where the blessed Anthony used to live, some elders came to see him, to enquire with him into the question of perfection in virtue. They asked him: "Which is the greatest of all virtues - we mean the virtue capable of keeping a monk from being harmed by the nets of the devil and his deceit?" Each one then gave his opinion according to his understanding. Some said that fasting and the keeping of vigils make it easier to come near to God, because these refine and purify the mind. Others said that voluntary poverty and detachment from personal possessions make it easier, since through these the mind is released from the intricate threads of worldly care. Others judged acts of compassion to be the most important, since in the Gospel the Lord says: "Come, you whom my Father has blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food" and so on (Matt. 25: 34-36). The best part of the night was passed in this manner, taken up with a discussion in which each expressed his opinion as to which virtue makes it easiest for a man to come near to God.

Last of all the blessed Anthony gave his reply: "All that you have said is both necessary and helpful for those who are searching for God and wish to come to Him. But we cannot award the first place to any of these virtues; for there are many among us who have endured fasting and vigils, or have withdrawn into the desert, or have practiced poverty to such an extent that they have not left themselves enough for their daily sustenance, or have performed acts of compassion so generously that they no longer have anything to give; and yet these same monks, having done all this, have nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice.

What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as is said in the gospel passage: "The light of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness' (Matt. 6:22-3). And this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and sets aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion.

We can see this in what is said in the Holy Scriptures. Saul, the first to be entrusted with the kingship of Israel, did not have the eye of discrimination; so his mind was darkened and he was unable to perceive that it was more pleasing to God that he should obey the commandment of Samuel than that he should offer sacrifices. He gave offense through the very things with which he thought to serve God, and because of them he was deposed. This would not have happened had he possessed the light of discrimination (cf 1 Sam. 1 3: 8-9).

The Apostle calls this virtue 'the sun', as we can see from his saying: 'Do not let the sun go down upon your anger' (Eph. 4:26). It is also called 'the guidance' of our lives, as when it is written: "Those who have no guidance fell like leaves' (Prov. 11:14. LXX). Scripture also refers to it as the 'discernment' without which we must do nothing - not even drink the spiritual wine that 'makes glad the heart of man' (Ps. 104:15. LXX); for it is said: 'Drink with discernment' (Prov. 31:3. LXX); and: 'He that does not do all things with discernment is like a city that is broken down and without walls' (Prov. 25:28. LXX). Wisdom, intellection and perceptiveness are united in discrimination: and without these our inner house cannot be built, nor can we gather spiritual wealth; for it is written: 'Through wisdom a house is built, through understanding it is established, and through good judgment its storehouses will be filled with wealth' (Prov. 24:3-4. LXX). Discrimination is also called the 'solid food' that 'is suitable for those who have their organs of perception trained by practice to discriminate between good and evil' (Heb. 5:14). These passages show very clearly that without the gift of discrimination no virtue can stand or remain firm to the end, for it is the mother of all the virtues and their guardian."

This was Anthony's statement, and it was approved by the other fathers.