John Cassian was a monk and an ascetical writer who was the first to introduce Eastern monasticism into the West.
• Probably born either in Provence or in present day Rumania, near the delta of the Danube; d. about 435, probably near Marseilles.
• The son of wealthy parents, he received a good education, and while yet a youth visited the holy places in Palestine, accompanied by a friend, Germanus, who was some years his senior.
• In Bethlehem Cassian and Germanus began living the monastic life, but, as in the case of many of their contemporaries, the desire of learning “the science of sanctity from its most eminent teachers” soon enticed them to the Egyptian deserts.
• Lived in Scetis from about 380 until 399 (19 years); they may also have visited Nitria and Kellia, and may have had contact with the Pachomians as well, but he was most likely never in one of these centers.
• After their first seven years they obtained an extension of their leave of absence from Bethlehem and returned to Egypt, where they remained several years longer. It was during this period of his life that Cassian collected the materials for his two principal works, the Institutes and the Conferences.
- The Institutes full title is De institutis coenobiorum et de octo principalium vitiorum remedies––The Insitutes of the Cenobium and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Vices (cf. Evagrius!)
• The first four books of the Institutes treat of the rules governing the monastic life, illustrated by examples from the author's personal observation in Egypt and Palestine;
• The eight remaining books are devoted to the eight principal obstacles to perfection encountered by monks: gluttony, impurity, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia (ennui), vainglory, and pride.
- The Conferences are a record of the conversations Cassian and Germanus had with the Egyptian solitaries about the interior life.
- These two works, especially the latter, were held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries and by several later founders of religious orders.
• After their time in Egypt the companions went to Constantinople, where Cassian became a favorite disciple of St. John Chrysostom, who ordained Cassian to the diaconate and placed the treasures of his cathedral in his charge. After St John Chrysostom’s exile of from Constantinople (his second), Cassian was sent as an envoy to Rome by the clergy of Constantinople to intercede to Pope Innocent I in behalf of their bishop. It was probably in Rome that Cassian was ordained to the priesthood.
• From then on out we hear nothing more of Germanus, nor is anything known of Cassian either for the next decade or more.
• About 415 he founded two monasteries at Marseilles, one for men, over the tomb of St. Victor, a martyr of the last Christian persecution under Maximian (286-305), and the other for women. There he spends the remainder of his days.
As Origen and Evagrius before him, Cassian did not himself escape the suspicion of erroneous teaching; he is regarded as the originator of what is known as Semi-pelagianism.
• Particularly in his third and fifth, and most especially in his thirteenth Conference he deals with moral questions, and some think he exaggerates the role of free will by claiming that the initial steps to salvation were in the power of each individual, unaided by grace.
• This may be a reaction against St. Augustine who taught (in De correptione et gratia) the irresistible power of grace and predestination, which Cassian saw as a kind of fatalism.
• But he is caught in what may be an over-reaction, because on the other extreme there is the heresy of Pelagianism that derives its name from Pelagius.
- Pelagius was a British monk and Christian teacher (born: c. 350 British Isles, died: c. 418, Egypt) whose views on original sin, grace, and predestination were vehemently opposed by Saint Augustine. This actually played a large part in shaping Augustine's influential doctrines on these topics.
- Pelagius taught that human beings have the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or doing good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention.
- Pelagianism teaches that human nature is basically good. Thus it denies original sin, which is a major contribution of Augustine, the notion that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam. Pelagius taught that Adam only hurt himself when he fell and none of his descendents were affected by Adam’s sin so that each person is born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God. And so people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and rational thought. God’s grace, then, is merely an aid to help individuals come to him.
- Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that we are by nature sinners (Eph. 2:3; Psalm 51:5), because sin entered the world through Adam: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” (Rom. 3:10-12) Therefore, we are unable to do God's will. (See also Rom. 6:16; 7:14)
- Some recent writings from Pope Benedict, who is a strong Augustinian. show the same line of thinking:
… the Beatitudes stand opposed to our spontaneous sense of existence, our hunger and thirst for life. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 98)
We are not ready made children of God from the start, but we are meant to become increasingly more so by growing more and more deeply in communion with Jesus. (ibid., p. 139)
- Pelagianism was condemned as heresy in 418.
- Cassian did not deny the doctrine of the Fall; he does not deny original sin and its effects upon the human soul and will; he even admitted the existence and the necessity of an interior grace.
- But he teaches that we cooperate with God to achieve our salvation, and, even more, that we can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of our own free will and through our own human effort. This would mean that grace is not absolutely necessary to maintain faith.
- For Cassian, grace supports the will in resisting temptations and attaining sanctity. But he maintains (this is all from Conference 13:12ff.) that after the Fall there still remained in every soul “some seeds of goodness... implanted by the kindness of the Creator,” which, however, must be “quickened by the assistance of God.” Without this assistance “they will not be able to attain an increase of perfection.” Therefore, “we must take care not to refer all the merits of the saints to the Lord in such a way as to ascribe nothing but what is perverse to human nature.” We must not hold that “God made man such that he can never will or be capable of what is good, or else God has not granted [us] a free will, if [God] has suffered [us] only to will or be capable of what is evil” (ibid).
- Mind you: this is big, and will be similar to what Lutheranism will criticize the Roman church for, grace versus works. Because grace is the completely unmerited and freely given favor of God upon the sinner, if we are the ones who first seek God then God is responding to the good effort of seeking him, which is not grace but what is due the person who chooses to believe in God apart from God’s initial effort, etc.
- St. Augustine regarded humanity in its natural state as dead,
- Pelagius regarded humanity in its natural state as quite sound,
- Cassian regarded humanity in its natural state as sick. The “error” of Cassian was to regard a purely natural act, proceeding from the exercise of free will, as the first step to salvation.
Cassian himself actually took no part in the controversy, which arose over his teaching shortly before his death. Even his earliest opponent (Prosper of Aquitaine), without naming him, alludes to Cassian with great respect as a man of more than ordinary virtues.
• But Semi-pelagianism was finally condemned by the Council of Orange in 529.
• Ironically, in a third work more minor work of Cassian, De Incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium, written at the request of the Roman Archdeacon Leo (afterwards Pope Leo the Great) about 430-431, which was a defense of orthodox doctrine against the errors of a different heresy, Nestorianism, Cassian denounces Pelagianism as the source of this new heresy.
In spite of this, like Origen and Evagrius, Cassian’s person and his writings will be very influential, and contributed greatly to the diffusion of monasticism in the West.
• Although he was never formally canonized, St. Gregory the Great regarded him as a saint, and it is related that Pope Urban V (1362-1370), who had been an abbot of the monastery of St. Victor, had the words Saint Cassian engraved on the silver casket that contained his (Cassian’s) head.
• At Marseilles his feast is celebrated on the 23rd of July, and his name is found among the saints of the Greek Calendar.
• And the Conferences and the Institutes are going to have lasting influence mainly because of St. Benedict who cites Cassian in his Rule.
- Benedict called Cassian’s writings a speculum monasticum–mirror of monasticism, and ordered selections from the Conferences which to be read daily in his monasteries.
Some samples of teaching, three important terms
Purity of heart: the goal of monastic life
• That practice of holiness, at different times described at love or perfection or contemplation or tranquility, without which, Cassian says (1.5.2), the kingdom of heaven, which is the ultimate goal of the monk, “will not be able to be seized.”
• Also said to be interchangeable with what Evagrius teaches as apatheia, but Cassian avoids this word because of its associations with Evagrius.
• Eg. St Jerome’s critique of Evagrius:
Evagrius Pontus…put out a book and maxims on apatheia, which we would call impassibility or imperturbability––when the mind is never disturbed by the vice of perturbation and, to put it simply, is either a stone or God.
- Even worse he links Evagrius’ apatheia with Pelagianism, which Jerome especially hated.
. . . the last condition to be arrived at by the monk in the world of time. It is, moreover, the sole condition necessary for the attainment of the kingdom of heaven: It both presupposes all possible good observances, to the degree that they are necessary for a given individual, and imposes meaning and direction on all such observances, which must be considered secondary to it.
- Cassian himself says, “It behooves us to carry out the things that are secondary––namely, fasting, vigils, the solitary life and meditation on Scripture––for the sake of the principal goal which is purity of heart or love, rather than for their sake to neglect this principal virtue.” (1.7.2)
- In other words don’t consider fasting, vigils, solitude and Scripture as ends in and of themselves to the expense of purity of heart; but also don’t neglect them either because they are means to the end. Purity of heart “presupposes all good observances…” which are the atmosphere in which purity of heart is achieved.
Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven
• mainly drawn from first Conference with Abba Moses
• Cassian distinguishes between the end (telos/finis) and the goal (scopos/destinatio): the goal (scopos) of the monk is purity of heart”; but “the end (telos) of our profession… is the kingdom of heaven.”
• “…after the devil has been expelled and the vices no longer reign at all, the kingdom of heaven can be established in us, as the evangelist says: ‘The kingdom of God will not come with observation, nor will they say: Here it is, or there it is. For amen I say to you that the Kingdom of God is within you’… Thus, if the kingdom of God is within us, and the kingdom of God is itself righteousness and peace and joy, then whoever abides in these things is undoubtably in the kingdom of heaven.”
• “For the ancients, the Kingdom of heaven is [nothing other than] the Holy Spirit ruling over our faculties, ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ … the Kingdom of God is . . . the reign of love, love that informs and directs our other faculties.” (Being Still, Jean-Yves le Loup)
• Again, Pope Benedict, from his section on the Our Father
…kingdom of God means ‘dominion of God’
The Kingdom of God comes by way of a listening heart. (p. 146)
- Since Jesus is the kingdom of God (autobasiliea), communion with Jesus is entry into the kingdom, hence he quotes Reinhold Schneider:
The life of this Kingdom is Christ’s continuing life in those who are his own. …in the heart that is touched and transformed by [the vital power of Christ], the Kingdom begins…. The roots of the indestructible tree seek to penetrate into each heart.
- And then Benedict goes on to write
To pray for the Kingdom to God is to say to Jesus: Let us be yours, Lord! Pervade us, live in us; gather scattered humanity in your body, so that I you everything may be subordinated to God and you can then hand over the universe to the Father, in order that ‘God may be all in all.’Discretion: lies at the service of purity of heart
• See Second Conference, with Abba Moses
• The virtue that distinguishes between good and bad, or more often between and mere appearance if good;
• Ordinarily practiced by submitting oneself humbly to the judgment and the insight of others––the surest possible guarantee in a fallible existence that subjectivity does not cloud our judgment
• The ruling virtue of the Conferences and one of the main themes that informs St Benedict in his Rule for Monks.
Three threes: from the Third Conference on Renunciation
• Three callings
- From God as an inspiration in our heart or even when we are sleeping, like Abraham or Antony (read 3. IV.1)
- That which comes from human agency, “when moved by example or teaching of certain holy persons.”
- That which proceeds from need, when we are compelled at least involuntarily to hasten to God…” (3.IV.4)
Of these three kinds, then, although the first two seem to be supported by better beginnings, nonetheless we find that even on the third level, which seems inferior and lukewarm, there have been people who are perfect and very fervent in spirit…
• Three renunciations: all exemplified by Abraham (VI.1ff)
- “… that which by bodily fashion we despise all the wealth and resources of the world”: as Abraham is told ‘Leave your country’
- “…that by which we reject former behavior, vices and affections of soul and body”: as Abraham is told “‘your kinfolk’… [things] related to us from our birth by a connection as it were of a certain affinity or consanguinity…”
- “… that by which we call our mind away from everything that is present and visible and contemplate only what is to come and desire those things that are invisible”: as Abraham is told to leave “‘your father’s house’––namely, of every vestige of this world which the eyes can gaze upon.”
• Three kinds of riches: bad, good and indifferent (IX.1ff.)
- Bad: responding to the Beatitudes, ‘Woe to you rich…’; and “Blessed are the poor.”
- Good: “…those which it is a matter of great virtue and nobility to have acquired”;
- Indifferent: “…those which can either be good or bad, since they can tend either way depending on the desire and the character of those who use them.”
Method of Prayer
Some have been searching for a method or technique of prayer in desert monasticism. In Conference 10, “On Prayer,” we get the closest thing possible. Abba Isaac teaches John and Germanus a formula for contemplation that had been handed down to him by a few of the oldest fathers.
• Abba Isaac say that this formula would be sufficient for anyone in any circumstance who wanted to have continuous recollection of God.
• It is simply this: to keep the words ever before you, “O God come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.”
• The reason this very verse is chosen from out of all the scriptures (Ps. 70:1) is because these words contain
… an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one's own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand.So what we have here––as Basil Pennington and Laurence Freeman have taught––is the use of a short prayer that it is very much in the tradition of the mantra from the way in which it is presented.
• Abba Isaac says that we use this as a “formula for meditation, intent on driving every other sort of thought from [our] heart.” As we say of the mantra, it is a “tool for thinking,” “using a thorn to remove a thorn.”
• Abba Isaac says
Perhaps wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images. I feel so dry that I am incapable of spiritual feelings, and many sighs and groans cannot save me from dreariness. I must say, ‘O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.’• Abba Isaac goes on to say, that we use this phrase to “cast away the wealth and multiplicity of other thoughts, and restrict ourselves to the poverty of this single word.
There are so many things contained in this short teaching!
• Mainly there is the issue of thoughts, what do we do about what many Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” that is always jumping from this branch to the next, and will never sit still for even a moment. We can try to fight our thoughts and try to make our mind stop jumping around by sheer force of will. But that doesn’t work for most people––we get caught up in thinking about not thinking and we waste all of our energy trying not to think.
• Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, says that when we are meditating we should not try to stop our thinking, but let it stop itself.
If something comes to your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it.... it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves they gradually will become calmer and calmer. In five or ten minutes, your mind will be completely serene and calm. (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 34)• What we do is not focus on our thinking, on our monkey mind; we focus on our mantra, on our word, and attach our breath, our intention and attention to it as if it were a little rock that we were holding onto to take us to the depths of a pool of water.
• The Buddha said
As in the oceans depth no wave is born, but all is still, so let the practitioners be still, be motionless, and nowhere should they swell. (Sutta Nipata, Kornfield, p. 79)• On the surface there may be all kinds of little ripples and even big waves (and fallen leaves and old beer cans!), but we want to go below the surface, below the active mind, below all the activity on the surface and, as Jesus says to the apostles, “cast into the deep.” So if, as Abba Isaac says, "wandering thoughts surge about my soul like boiling water, and I cannot control them, nor can I offer prayer without its being interrupted by silly images," we cling to our mantra.
Let’s remember this early important them: the desert monks were all about constant prayer. And this formula from Abba Isaac is a practical tool toward reaching a state of constant prayer. It is intimately tied in with communion with God and the reign of God.
Pope Benedict on Prayer:
The other false form of prayer the Lord warns us against is the chatter, the verbiage, that smothers the spirit. We are all familiar with the danger of reciting formulas… our relationship with God should not be confined to such momentary situations, but should be present as the bedrock of our soul. In order for that to happen, this relation has to be constantly revived and the affairs of our everyday lives have to be constantly related back to it. The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray… This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating, and our being, is what we mean by “prayer without ceasing.” This is ultimately what we mean by love of God, which is at the same time the condition and driving force behind love of neighbor.Thich Nhat Hahn, Living Buddha, Living Christ
This is what prayer really is––being in silent inward communion with God. (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 129-130)
The moment you go back to your breath and you breathe mindfully, holiness is there, because mindfulness is the substance of holiness. God is there, the Holy Spirit is there at the same time.Associate all this now: The desert monks were all about constant prayer. The kingdom of God is the dominion of God the Holy Spirit in a listening heart. Prayer is that constant listening heart, constant awareness of the presence of God within, informing our faculties.