The Body and the Four Humors,
BNF FR 135, f. 5
Sel. fr. Ch. 11 and 19 on: The Monastic Understanding of Sexuality, Cassian and Augustine
Part Two: Asceticism and Society in
the Eastern Empire,
THERE was only one sure way to break the hard earth of the heart: “The Fathers say that to sit in one’s cell is half, and to throw oneself before the Old Men is another half.
The total dependence of small groups of disciples on a spiritual father, or on a group of spiritual fathers, was the sine qua non of survival and spiritual growth in the desert. It was through dependence on his [p.228] spiritual father that the monk learned to understand his own heart, and to open that heart to others:
It is a universal and unambiguous symptom that a chain of thought is from the Devil, if we feel shame in bringing it out into the open before an Old Man.
For nothing displeases the demon of fornication more than to reveal his works, and nothing gives him greater pleasure than to keep one’s thoughts to oneself.
The model of the person first made explicit by Origen lay at the back of this insistence on dependence on a spiritual guide. The “heart” was the center of the person:
The heart is the meeting point between body and soul, between the subconscious, the conscious and the supraconscious, between the human and the divine. 
Prolonged streams of thought, inspirations, and unshakable obsessions were invariably treated as symptomatic. The way they arose in the heart was thought to betray the guiding presence of the many impalpable beings who clustered along the fringes of the self. The “language of the Holy Spirit” might rise in the monk’s heart, or his thought flow might slowly take on the quality of a demonic obsession.
The good disciple sat in his cell, “twisting ropes while meditation floweth on as running water.” But the Devil, too, was a master-weaver: given the loose end of one sinful or unconsidered thought, he could plait a whole rope from it. There was always a moment, then, when the thoughts of the monk could be sensed as no longer belonging wholly to the human mind, but to the demons or to the angels whose subtle presences were registered in the unaccustomed force of the flow, through the heart, of powerful trains of thought—the logismoi. Hence the crucial importance of the gift of discernment, of diakrisis, among [p.229] the Desert Fathers. This meant far more than self-knowledge and good sense, though it might, in fact, often include a large measure of both. It meant the rare spiritual gift of being able to see clearly what one could no longer call one’s own in one’s own stream of consciousness. It was the ability to heed a warning signal to depend on others.
[1.1] Reading the Book of the Heart
As a result, the desert became the powerhouse of a new culture. For all his interest in such matters, Origen’s spirituality had remained the spirituality of an urban study-group. The greatest powers of spiritual discernment were not directed to the heart: they were deployed in the long labor with which Origen and his disciples searched out the meaning of the sacred text. It was the precise meaning of Scripture, pondered by highly literate men and women, that caused the heart of the Christian “to burn.” The discipline of meditation on the holy text often assumed philological resources that could be found only in upper-class circles, in close proximity to great cities. In the Life of Anthony, and in successive layers of monastic spiritual guidance, we can detect the emergence of an alternative. The monk’s own heart was the new book. What required infinitely skilled exegesis and long spiritual experience were the “movements of the heart,” and the strategies and snares that the Devil laid within it.
Such movements were best conveyed orally to a spiritual father. It was a situation which tended to give priority to the languages closest to the heart, that is, the vernaculars of Egypt and the Near East—Coptic, Syriac, and demotic Greek. The deepest relief of the soul came now, not from the written page, but from that tap of the Old Man’s fingers on his disciple’s chest, which assuaged the heart beneath. The shift from a culture of the book to a cultura Dei, based largely on the nonliterate, verbal interchange of a monastic “art of thought,” was rightly hailed as the greatest and the most peculiar achievement of the Old Men of Egypt: it amounted to nothing less than the discovery of a new alphabet of the heart.
The abiding presence of sexual desire, and of sexual feeling in the [p.230] mind of the monk, took on a new meaning. Sexuality became, as it were, a privileged ideogram. This did not mean that most ascetic spiritual guides treated sexual temptation as uniquely alarming. Far from it: sexual desire was frequently overshadowed, as a source of spiritual danger, by the dull aches of pride and resentment and by dread onslaughts of immoderate spiritual ambition. These could rock whole monasteries, destroying lives and littering the literature of the desert with chilling accounts of pathological cases of hatred, hallucination, and dire ego-inflation. Regrettable though they were, sexual lapses were a fact of desert life. Monks were known to have become the fathers of sons: the hero of one such anecdote eventually brought his child back with him to the cell, resuming his handicraft just as he had left it before his escapade into the world. Older men harassed the novices: “With wine and boys around, the monks have no need of the Devil to tempt them.” Bestiality with the monastery’s donkeys could not be ruled out.
[1.2] The Possibility of Slow but Real Progress
What mattered, rather, was a sharpened awareness of the permanence of sexual fantasy. Because of this observed quality of permanence, sexual desire was now treated as effectively coextensive with human nature. Abiding awareness of the self as a sexual being, forever subject to sexual longings, and troubled—even in dreams—by sexual fantasies highlighted the areas of intractability in the human person. But this intractability was not simply physical. It pointed into the very depths of the soul. Sexual desire revealed the knot of unsurrendered privacy that lay at the very heart of fallen man. Thus, in the new language of the desert, sexuality became, as it were, an ideogram of the unopened heart. As a result, the abatement of sexual fantasy in the heart of the monk—an abatement that was held to be accompanied, quite concretely, with a cessation of the monk’s night emissions—signaled, in the body, the ascetic’s final victory over the closed heart. Only the hand of Christ Himself, reaching down from heaven—as in the marginal illuminations of Byzantine copies of The Ladder of Divine Ascent [p.231] of John Climacus—could snatch the monk out of the tomb of his private will, by overcoming in him that most ineradicably private of his drives. To receive from Christ the grace of a transparent chastity was to shatter the last weapons of the unsurrendered will: it was to complete the transformation of the heart.
Come now and look upon the works of the Lord, What awesome things He has done on the earth. It is He who makes war to cease in all the world; He breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.
So intense a preoccupation with the monk’s sexual thought-flow developed in ascetic circles because the aim of spiritual guidance had been the total expropriation of the inner world of the disciple. The inner world must be turned inside out. Nothing must linger in it that could not be placed unhesitatingly before others. In the words of Anthony:
I tell you, that every man who delights in his own will, and is subdued to his own thoughts, and takes up the things sown in his heart, and rejoices in them, and supposes in his heart that these are some great mystery, and justifies himself in what he does—the soul of such a man is a lair of evil spirits, counselling him to evil, and his body a store of evil mysteries in which it hides itself. 
The “thoughts” to which Anthony referred were not invariably sexual thoughts. But sexual thoughts had a pervasiveness and a resilience that soon led exponents of the desert tradition to place special emphasis upon them. They served as barium-traces, by which the Desert Fathers mapped out the deepest and most private recesses of the will.
[1.3] The Body as Witness to Spiritual Transformation
Speaking to John Cassian at the end of the fourth century, Apa Chaeremon expatiated lovingly on the gift of God, bestowed on the few who enjoyed perfect “purity of heart.” They had been freed from sexual fantasies in dreams associated with nocturnal emissions. For the continuance of sexual dreams and emissions served to warn the monk, in a mercifully concrete manner, of the presence within his heart of a more faceless, lingering desire—the wish to possess experiences of his own. The sexuality of the emission created a disjunction between his public, daylight self and a last oasis of incommunicable, privatized [p.232] experience. When such dreams ceased, the last fissure between the private person and his fellows could be assumed to have closed: “And so he should be found in the night as he is in the day, in bed as when at prayer, alone as when surrounded by a crowd. For you have possessed my inward parts.”
Quia to possedisti renes meos: the “inmost parts” were the kidneys. These had been one of the traditional loci of sexual energy. In monastic thought, they became the place where the shadows lingered longest in the private man. There is nothing strange, therefore, in the manner with which Apa Chaeremon opened his discourse on this delicate topic with a reference to the state of the first Christians of the Jerusalem community after the coming of the Holy Ghost: holding all things in common there was among them one heart and one soul. The total expropriation associated with the life of the desert had begun, as in the case of Anthony, with the surrender of private wealth. It ended with the surrender of the last traces of sexual fantasy. This was a sure symptom, in Cassian’s mind and in that of his Egyptian informants, that the dispersal of the last, most hidden treasures of the private will had taken place.
Cassian, as we shall see in a later chapter, was a theorist, writing to persuade Latin readers who did not necessarily share his views. The most searching and humane material on monastic sexuality comes from a later age, and from a slightly different region—from the monasteries of Gaza and of Sinai in the sixth and early seventh centuries. Here we are no longer in a world of rugged pioneers. Rather, we see the sons of the local gentry, now turned monks, fighting the long battle for the will, with two centuries of ascetic experience behind them.
Part Three: Ambrose to Augustine,
[2.1] For Augustine, Sexuality is no more “Fallen” than any other Human Faculty or Drive
[...] AUGUSTINE presented [sexual disorders], for the first time, as psychosomatic symptoms whose causes lay deep within the self. Sexuality was effectively taken from its physiological context and made to mirror an abiding, unhealed fissure in the soul.
The uncontrollable elements in sexual desire revealed the working in the human person of a concupiscentia carnis, of a permanent flaw in the soul that tilted it irrevocably towards the flesh. Unlike the hasty Jerome, and even unlike Ambrose, Augustine was exceptionally careful to point out, in frequent, patient expositions of the Letters of Paul, that the flesh was not simply the body: it was all that led the self to prefer its own will to that of God.
The concupiscentia carnis, indeed, was such a peculiarly tragic affliction to Augustine precisely because it had so little to do with the body. It originated in a lasting distortion of the soul itself. With Adam’s Fall, the soul lost the ability to summon up all of itself, in an undivided act of will, to love and praise God in all created things. Concupiscence was a dark drive to control, to appropriate, and to turn to one’s private ends, all the good things that had been created by God to be accepted with gratitude and shared with others. It lay at the root of the inescapable misery that afflicted mankind. Sexual desire was no more tainted with this tragic, faceless concupiscence than was any other form of human activity. But the very incongruities associated with sexual feelings used the human body as a tiny mirror, in which men and women could catch a glimpse of themselves. They saw themselves, from this unexpected angle, as God had first seen the fallen Adam and Eve. They were beings estranged from Him and from each other as surely as their own sexual feelings were now estranged from their own conscious selves. At no other time in the history of the early Church had the opaque and somewhat banal facts of sex been held for so long in a single, searching light, as in Augustine’s invocation of them to express the poena reciproca that lay so heavy on the human race.
The indirect and momentous result of Augustine’s emphasis on the psychological momentum behind the sexual drive was to destroy the neat compartments with which Christians of an earlier age had tended [p.419] to contain the anxieties raised by the sexual components of the human person. Sexuality could no longer be taken for granted as a problem that mainly concerned the young. Unlike Julian’s calor genitalis, Augustine’s concupiscentia carnis was not a physiological drive, safely con-fined to the body. It was not a physical reserve of heat that might be expected to burn off with the passing of age, permitting the old to sink back, without undue anxiety, into the postmarital celibacy that had been the normal form of male continence in earlier centuries.
As a result, the ascetic struggle seemed that much more uncertain. No one could gauge his own capacity to resist so subtle and continuous a source of temptation. For all his shrill sense of sexual danger, Jerome, for instance, had been a monk of the old school. The intense physicality of his descriptions of the ascetic life contained an unadmitted optimism. He was confident that the body was directly amenable to diet: long fasting, the studious avoidance of wine and of mixed company would cause the sexual drive to slacken. Contemporary doctors had said as much. Augustine could never allow himself to be so certain. As the manifestation of an impalpable concupiscence, sexuality was a disturbingly ageless adversary:
For when I had this work in hand, it was announced to us that an old man of eighty-three, who had lived with his wife in continence for twenty five years, had just now purchased a lyre girl for his pleasures.
It was a disturbing doctrine, also, for the married laity. In the covering letter that Augustine sent to Count Valerius, along with his book On Marriage and Concupiscence, he praised Valerius for the “chastity” of his married life. Such chastity was more than the avoidance of blatant infidelities. It was closer to the sharply honed notion of marital restraint that Ambrose had propounded to the church at Vercelli in 396. It involved a personal struggle with desire that could be known only to the Count’s most intimate spiritual advisers. A sense of the lingering force of concupiscence, which had been more usually associated with the lonely struggles of the Desert Fathers, now tinged Augustine’s view of the marital relations of every Catholic. [p.420]
[2.2] Sexuality: Is it a Mirror of Estrangement (Augustine); or an Indicator of Spiritual Progress (Cassian)?
For this reason, it is singularly appropriate that the most discreet and authoritative rebuttal of Augustine’s views came from an authentic representative of the desert tradition. John Cassian had been a disciple of Evagrius in Egypt and, later, of John Chrysostom in Constantinople. He was a member of the monastic diaspora that had been scattered from Egypt and Constantinople as a result of the Origenist controversy. Settled in Lérins, a deserted island opposite Cannes, within sight of the sun-scarred slopes of the Alpes Maritimes, Cassian wrote his Collationes, his Conferences, and his Institutes of the Monastic Life, in the period from about 420 to 426. Cast in the form of extensive inter-views with the Old Men of Egypt, he wished to bring the still voice of the desert into a Western Mediterranean lashed by the storms of the Pelagian controversy. In his Thirteenth Conference, he had at-tempted, with the utmost tact, to modify what he thought was a dangerous denial of the freedom of the will implied in Augustine’s notion of grace and predestination. The indirect criticism was immediately recognized for what it was by Augustine’s supporters in southern Gaul.
Cassian’s rebuttal of Augustine’s notion of concupiscence, in his other Conferences, was indirect but equally firm. The war with sexual temptation, the Old Men agreed, was indeed a conflict “woven into the very fibers of our being.”
When a thing exists in all persons without exception [Apa Paphnutius assured him] we can only think that it must belong to the very substance of human nature, since the fall, as if it were “natural” to man.
But the conclusions that the Old Man drew from this observation were not those that readers of Augustine had come to expect: for
when a thing is found to be congenital . . . how can we fail to believe that it was implanted by the will of the Lord, not to injure us, but to help us. [p.421]
Through his continued exposure to temptation, the monk was held in the merciful tardiness of the flesh. Only the icy demons were exempt from the battle with concupiscence. For they were beyond God’s mercy. Unlike the monk, they did not suffer from occasional wet dreams:
And from this fact we can clearly gather that the struggle of the flesh and the spirit against each other is not merely harmless, but is, in fact, extremely useful to us. . . . These are the nations that the Lord has left in the land, that He might instruct Israel through them.
The lingering presence of the sexual drive did more than save the monk from pride, by imposing on him the intermittent shame of nocturnal emissions. Sexual fantasies were like signals on a screen. They registered processes that lay out of sight, in the depths of the self. They informed the monk of the movement of forces in himself that lay beyond his immediate consciousness. Only when the more faceless drives of egotism and rage were stilled would the monk come to sense a delicious freedom from sexual fantasy, associated with the state of total purity of heart. Until that time, sexual temptations continued to warn him that these drives still lingered, unconsciously, within his soul.
Cassian deliberately chose the medical terminology of his age in order to express his sense of psychic powers that burned like subcutaneous fevers within the unconscious self. Sullen resentments, unacknowledged egotism, and a diffuse anger lay congealed, in the soul, like undispersed residues of noxious humors. Only by remaining alert to his own sexual temptation could the monk measure the continued, debilitating presence within him of more tenacious spiritual ailments. He must approach his sexual fantasies much as a doctor felt the pulse to learn about his patient’s true condition.
Such medical terminology bears so striking a resemblance to the clinical language of “depth psychology” that a modern reader is easily misled. Cassian, however, was a loyal follower of the Desert Fathers on this issue. Sexuality, for him, was not what it has become in the lay imagination of a post-Freudian age. It was not the basic instinctual drive, of which all others were secondary refractions. It was the other way around. The colder drives that lured the human person into collusion [p.422] with the demonic world were more basic to the monk’s concern. They lay deeper in his identity than did sexual desire. Sexuality was a mere epiphenomenon. Sexual dreams and sexual temptations betrayed the tread of far heavier beasts within the soul—anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.
Augustine, by contrast, had placed sexuality irremovably at the center of the human person. He had done this because, by the time that Cassian wrote, sexuality was held inflexibly in the grip of his notion of a human race condemned, by the justice of God, to endure, in their bodies and their minds, the permanent presence of a poena reciproca — an exquisitely apposite and permanent symptom of Adam’s fall.
It was not that Augustine’s sense of the strength and the disruptive power of sexual temptation was any stronger than that of the Desert Fathers. For both it was a fearsome and debilitating trial. Both feared the lingering power of sexual fantasy. Thoughts of sexual matters weakened the Christian’s capacity for true delight; sexual fantasies and sexual dreams silently eroded “the spiritual joys of the saints.” But, in Augustine’s mind, sexuality served only one, strictly delimited purpose: it spoke, with terrible precision, of one single, decisive event within the soul. It echoed in the body the unalterable consequence of mankind’s first sin. It was down that single, narrow, and profound shaft that Augustine now looked, to the very origins of human frailty. Nocturnal emissions could not tell him anything about the silent shift of forces within the soul of a particular individual: they spoke to all men, and of one thing alone—of a fatal deposit of concupiscence left there by Adam’s fall. It was a drastically limited vision of a complex phenomenon.
Cassian wrote as he did because he had been a distant heir of the thought of Origen. He was convinced that the very depths of the person could shift. Not fully available to his consciousness, the forces within him nevertheless lay within the power of the free will to master, in vigilant collaboration with the grace of God. The inner world of the monk could be transformed, slowly but surely, in the same way as the huge universe of Origen would sink back, after the disciplined use of freedom by innumerable beings over endless ages, into the primal fire of Christ’s embrace. A fullness of peace would flood into the [p.423] heart of the monk. The dark recesses of the self would come, at last, into the light:
and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places.  (Is. 45:2 3 )
Meanwhile, the monk was encouraged to scan his dreams for welcome signals of the approach of peace of heart. Businesslike as ever, Apa Moses declared that three emissions a year, without sexual fantasies, would be what the good monk might expect; and Moses had once been a brigand chief, of legendary physique and gusto, who had passed through many years of particularly cruel sexual temptation. Augustine, by contrast, never thought that such deliverance would occur in this life. It is seldom that two Latin writers, each as gifted in their differing ways with such powers of introspection and each capable of such magnetic literary expression as Augustine and John Cassian, have reached such diametrically opposite conclusions as to what precisely they had seen in their own hearts.
 Dorotheos of Gaza, Letter 1.18o, in L. Regnauult and J. de Préville, eds., Dorothée de Gaza: Oeuvres spirituelles, p. 488; see the translation of E. P. Wheeler, Dorotheus of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings.
 Cassian, Institutiones 4.9, in J. C. Guy, ed., Jean Cassien: Les Institutions cénobitiques, 132
 Anonymous Apophthegmata 164, Nau, ed., Revue de l’Orient chrétien (1908) 13:54.
 Kallistos Ware, “Ways of Prayer and Contemplation,” in B. McGinn, J. Meyendorff, and J. Leclercq, eds., Christian Spirituality, p. 401.
 We must always remember that logismoi meant “streams of thought” or, even, “intentions”: a clear distinction was always made between mere random thoughts and those that were persistent: Barsanuphe et Jean de Gaza: Correspondance 165, in L. Regnault, et al., trans., p. 141.
 Cited in H. E. Winlock, The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, vol. 1, p. 155, n 6.
 Sentences des Pères 400, p. 50.
 Rufinus, Historia Monachorum 1: Patrologia Latina 21: 403B; and the classic speech of Anthony in the Life of Anthony 16-43: 868A-908A.
 Paralipomena 27, Veilleux, Pachomian Koinonia 2, p. 51: Pachomius miraculously obtained the knowledge of Greek for this purpose.
 Sentences des Pères 50g-510, pp. 84-86.
 The term is that used by the earliest Latin translation of the Life of Anthony to translate askésis: G. J. M. Bartelink, Vita di Antonio, prol. 2, p. 4.
 Apophthegmata Patrum Arsenius 5: 89A.
 See, for example, John Climacus, Ladder 8: 832A; trans., p. 148.
 Apophthegmata Patrum Nicetas: 312B; Poimen 114: 352AB.
 See the evidence collected in P. Canivet, “Erreurs de spiritualité et troubles psychiques,” among these, eparsis, “spiritual elevation” notably preponderates. Palladius, Hist. Laus. 26 and 27 provides two florid examples.
 Anonymous Apophthegmata 187, Nau, ed., Revue de l’Orient chrétien (1908) 13273.
 Sentences des Pères 545, p. 98.
 John Climacus, Ladder 29: 1149A; trans., p. 283 and 4: 697A: trans., p. 102.
 J. R. Martin, The Illustrations of the Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus, fig. 64.
 John Cassian, Collationes 12.12, citing Psalm 45:9-10, in E. Pichery, ed., Jean Cassien: Conférences, Sources chrétiennes 54, p. 141.
 Anthony, Letter 6, p. 19.
 Cassian, Collationes 12.8 citing Psalm 138.13, Sources chrétiennes 54, p. 135
 E.g., Nemesius of Emesa, On the Nature of Man 28.45: P.G. 40: 716A.
 Cassian, Collationes 12.2, Sources chrétiennes 54, pp. 123—124.
 See below ch. 19, pp. 420—423.
 See esp. Derwas Chitty, The Desert a City, pp. 132—181 and the excellent study of Palestinian monasticism by Flusin, Miracle et Histoire, pp. 12-32, 88-103.
 De Genesi ad litteram 10.12.10: 416 and de civitate Dei 14.3: 405-408.
 De Trinitate 12.10.25: 1006 and de civitate Dei 14.28: 436.
 De Genesi ad litteram 10.20.36: 424; see Margaret Miles, Fullness of Life, pp. 114—115: “His concern was not to locate an ‘evil’ of human life in any particular act, but to recognize and acknowledge its presence in all human actions. Julian denied its existence in married sex, so Augustine insisted on it even there.”
 Jerome, in Tit. 1: P.L. 26: 602D and Letters 22.11, 54.9, 79.7: P.L. 22: 400-401, 554, 729-730.
 Jerome, Letter 54.9 cites Galen: cf. Oribasius, Medical Collection 22.2.17 and Libri Incerti 2.10-17, in U. C. Bussmaker and C. Daremberg, eds., Oeuvres d’Oribase, 3:45, 84-85. Oribasius was doctor to Julian the Apostate.
 Contra Julianum 3.20.22: 713.
 Letter 200.3: 926.
 Collationes, in E. Pichery, ed., Jean Cassien: Les Conférences: De Institutis coenobiorum, in J. C. Guy, ed. Jean Cassien: Institutions cénobitiques. Edgar C. S. Gibson, in The Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 11 provides a reliable English translation. See esp. Peter Munz, “John Cassian”; Philip Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority and the Church, pp. 169–234; and M. Foucault, “Le combat de la chasteté,” a brilliant essay, now available in P. Ariès and A. Béjin, eds., Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times.
 Owen Chadwick, John Cassian, pp. 120–135 and Rousseau, Ascetics, Authority and the Church, pp. 231-234.
 Cassian, Collationes 4.7, p. 172.
 Ibid. p. 172.
 Ibid. p. 172.
 Ibid. 4.14, p. 179; Judges 6:1–2 cited in Collationes 4.6, 7.2, pp. 171, 245.
 Ibid. 7.2, p. 245 and 12.16, p. 145.
 Ibid. 3.7, p. 147; Institutes 6.11, p. 274.
 Cassian, Collationes1.22, p. 106,
 E.g. Contra Julianum 4.2.10—11, 13.69—70: 741, 772—773.
 Confessions 10.30.42: 797 and de Genesi ad litteram 12.15.31: 466.
 Isaiah 45:2 3 cited in Cassian, Institutes 5.2, pp. 190—192.
 Ibid. 2.23,.p. 134; Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 19.5—11
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