" 'I live on Mount Colzim in order to continue the tradition only. I don't see my actions as those that should be followed by others, except the rare few like myself who wish to maintain the tradition of desert anchoriticsm for its own sake. It is our choice, and not to be recommended to the many who are desperate to nourish their souls and alleviate their spiritual anxiety. I can't imagine, nor would I like to see it happen, that the desert would become once more populated by thousand of hermits living in caves. This would be to repeat history rather than to honor its gift. No, my dear friend; I feel we must find a new way to embrace the spirit of anchoriticsm. You speak of an asceticism of the mind. I do think it worthy of investigating, yes.'
" 'Which means that we need to imagine a desert within ourselves. A place where we can dig out our own cave of the heart.'
" 'Such a cave must include a spiritual depth that can only be derived from appropriate ascetical behavior,' Lazarus responded: 'We must recognize what ascesis truly means; it is the spirit of restraint, and we need to understand that it's only through self-imposed aggravation that a pearl is produced. Those old Qatar pearl divers like Ephraim certainly knew what they were talking about!'
" 'We must therefore learn how to practice asceticism even as we live a normal life. We need to find a way to impose upon ourselves a certain aggravation.'
" 'The hair shirt can be made of other things beside the skin of a camel or goat.'
" 'What, may I ask?'
" 'Let me read you a piece which I feel might answer this question for you,' Lazarus replied, rising from the seat and entering his cell. Presently he appeared, carrying a small book which he opened on a previously selected page.
" 'John Cassian, one of Antony's most notable successors in the ascetic life as you know, made some interesting remarks on the subject.' Slowly he began to read:
" 'We believe that discretion is the true light of the body. It is our sole guidance for life. We call it our divine council. Like a city that has its walls destroyed and is not fenced in, so is a man who does anything without council. Our inward house cannot be built without discretion. Herein lies wisdom, intelligence, and understanding. A house is built with wisdom, and again it is set up with intelligence. With understanding, the storehouses are filled with all the precious riches and good things. The blessed Antony maintained that discretion leads us in stages to God. It is the mother of all virtues.'
" 'Discretion is a quality of the mind and of the soul,' Lazarus elaborated, after he had closed the book. 'If we look upon it as a kind of hair shirt — that is, if we choose to practice discretion in all things — then we may begin to ascend in stages toward a higher level of consciousness. Inner asceticism is achieved by wearing the hair shirt of discretion. Does this make sense?'
" 'I think it does,' I replied, 'so long as we remain clear that the object of such restraint is the attainment of genuine spiritual knowledge.'
" 'Cassian speaks of it as a kind of ripening of judgment. To achieve it, however, we must also address those seven principal errors of behavior that cloud such judgment. We cannot escape the reality that all our actions are governed in varying degrees by these. The early Fathers did not beat about the bush when they named them, either. And even today, though we may resort to psychology to explain our motives, the plain fact is that these faults in our character need to be acknowledged.'
" 'You mean they shouldn't be put to one side, but actually named.'
" 'Cassian did so, so why can't we? They haven't lost any of their power to diminish our sensibility, nor our spiritual growth, simply because we refuse to do so. In many ways I think we are afraid of naming the old strictures these days, simply because we believe we have outgrown them. It is as if we have lost the ability to gaze directly at ourselves, and prefer instead to view ourselves as though through a prism, thus breaking up our self-image into many different permutations, so many subtle hues. It is clearly as a result of our penchant for psychoanalysis which distorts even the value of our flaws.'
" 'What you are suggesting is that we have achieved a state of lukewarmness in relation to the way we conduct ourselves,' I suggested. 'There is no heat in our convictions because we have allowed our inner lives to grow cold.'
" 'Putting it that way suggests that we have not understood the need to chart a middle course through the shoals of extremes. Rather, we delight in subjecting ourselves to such extremes. This is not the path of discretion,' replied Lazarus.
" 'Quite the contrary,' I said. 'We have become saturated in ineffectual decorative feelings and activities without aim. Discretion is opposed to this. It is opposed to the pleasurable and picturesque.'
" 'It's the reason why the Desert Fathers turned their back upon normal human activity, I believe. They felt it was impossible to achieve a genuine spiritual understanding in the world. But in those days they saw the world as an objective reality. We know otherwise. Today we know that the so-called "world" is a projection of our inner condition. To deny this reality is to enter the true desert. It's why I feel we must conjure up our own inner desert. Even here, on Mount Colzim, I'm much occupied with the question of this interior desert. It's not for nothing that Anthony called such a place the inner mountain. He knew, I'm sure, that he was merely playing with metaphors.'
" 'Then the inner mountain is also made up of our flaws.'
" 'Inasmuch as they are acknowledged, yes.'
" 'Yet you haven't named them. Is it from want of certainty on your part?'
" 'My dear friend, you and I come from the same country. It is the land of emptiness. Our accident of birth is immaterial to the main issue: that we have both, in our different ways, been drawn to this mountain. I'm sure it is for the same reason. I came here because I realized that I had not taken charge of my inner life, and that I had yet to address the primary nature of my being. Perhaps it is so for you also,' Lazarus added.
" 'I'm beginning to accept that as "I," I have joined myself to my restrictions,' I replied. 'In this sense I am condemned to being myself. This was enough to make me want to climb Mount Colzim in the first place. I somehow believed that in doing so, I might free myself from such a restriction.'
" 'To do so you need to have tremendous spiritual conviction. I recall a story that Evagrius related in this respect. He spoke of a man who, while praying one day, felt a snake, a viper no less, laying hold of his foot. He did not so much as lower his arms until he had finished praying. Not surprisingly, he suffered no harm. The snake had no power over such a man who loved God more than his own self.'
" 'How can I argue with that? It seems that even the venom of evil cannot penetrate a pure heart.'
"Lazarus allowed himself a smile.
" 'When you return home, what will you do?' he asked.
" 'Begin to fashion for myself a new type of hair shirt, I suppose.'
" Then you will need to practice discretion in all that you do.'
" 'Without knowing the principal faults, how can I?'
" 'I will tell you what they are,' Lazarus responded, 'only if you agree to accept that these faults are the manifestation of an unbounded inner lassitude. They are not in themselves real but, rather, are the product of a tendency towards spiritual disintegration. You must treat them as you might the full force of resistance that causes a meteor to break up on entering the earth's atmosphere. They pulverize the sensibilities, causing a man to lose his density and form. This is why our faults are so demeaning: they allow us to lose contact with our essential self.'
" 'I accept what you are saying, Lazarus. Now, can you tell me what they are?'
" 'Let me tell you, then. The seven principal faults as outlined by Cassian are what we most abhor in ourselves. They are anger, avarice, lust, dejection, boredom, vainglory, and pride. Taken as a whole they amount to the complete destruction of being. No one, not even the most resolved of men, is able to resist their poison. This is why it took Anthony so many years in his tomb outside Pispir to overcome his demons. Each one had to be acknowledged, wrestled with, and finally put to the sword. Let no one assume that he did not suffer terribly in pursuing victory.' "