The following is a brief introduction to the life of St. John Cassian and overview of the basic principles guiding his thought and the structure of his spiritual writings. On February 5th we will begin discussing St. John's Conferences and as with the previous group the podcast of each evening will be posted.
How Cassian must be read
Cassian himself ceaselessly reiterated that you cannot understand the monastic life unless you are attempting to live it. The same could be said about the spiritual life. None of us are monks and few of us have embraced the spiritual life in the way that Cassian or the monks of his day did. We must then take care in the way we read his writings and approach them with humility - as beginners sitting at the feet of a master.
+ Lived c. 365-435 A.D.
+Time like our own:
season of councils - a period when the old and new, traditional and innovative surfaced in a myriad of combinations.
season of great experimentation that revealed the possibilities and limitations of monastic life.
season of doctrinal development when the Church was faced with questions concerning the relationship in the Trinity and the human and divine natures of Christ.
All of this is reflected in John's writings. In this they become an example of the problem faced by a Christian obliged to reconcile the past with the needs and burdens of his day. John was responding to the old problem of what to make of the life one has been given by God.
+ John's life:
John was not passive in his response. Somewhere about the year 380 he set out with a friend, Germanus, to visit the holy places of Palestine. In Bethlehem they became monks. But in those days the heart of the contemplative life was in Egypt and before long they went into that country, and visited in turn the famous holy men. For a time they lived as hermits under the guidance of Archebius, and then Cassian penetrated into the desert of Skete there to hunt out the anchorites concealed among its burning rocks and live with the monks in their cenobia.
For some reason unknown, about the year 400 he crossed over to Constantinople. He became a disciple of St. John Chrysostom, by whom he was ordained a deacon. When Chrysostom was uncanonically condemned and deposed, Cassian was among those sent to Rome to defend the Archbishop's cause to the Pope. He may have been ordained priest while in Rome.
Nothing more is known of his life until several years later, when he was in Marseilles.
It was at this time that Cassian was asked by a Bishop in the Diocese of Apt to write a
description of the practice of the monks in the east to be applied in a western monastery.
Cassian responded by choosing and interpreting the eastern traditions of the east to create
body of institutes suitable to the west.
Cassian had a long experience of the East. Meditating on the monastic life as presented to him in Egypt, he dismissed some suggestions and developed others. He certainly revered Egypt and its spirituality, but not everything he found there.
Out of the diversity of Egyptian ideas and practices, he began to create a coherent scheme of spirituality. For beginners in the monastic life and for those planning to found monasteries, John wrote the Institutes; and for those interested in the Egyptian ideal of the monk he composed twenty four
In these writings, it was Cassian's conviction that the monastic ideal can indeed be practiced.
The disciple needs common sense, moderation, perseverance, patience and a willingness to endure. If he has these, then the soul will find that the way of life to God is strengthening and joyful. Cassian's one warning, however, is that it does little good to share the insights of the Egyptian masters with those who are not prepared to receive them - - for those driven more by curiosity than by desire for God.
His intentions were simple.
First, he wanted to point to the highest modes of prayer.
Second, he wanted to show his monks how to create a good and harmonious community.
In this task, Cassian was a great ethical guide, a man of distinctive common sense and sensibility. The goal was perfection of life and the end of perfection was always charity. Perfection is full of movement - a direction toward, a loving aspiration after God © a loving response to the love of God.
In Cassian's view, the solitary way was best but the communal life of the coenobium was the necessary training ground of beginners; only when the ascetic had purged his soul of the common vices by the practice of virtue and mortification in community might he pass to the higher contemplation of the solitary. The coenobium is the kindergarten. After having lived with hermits in the desert, Cassian knowing his unworthiness and inability to embrace the higher practice returned to the kindergarten.
General Principles of the Institutes and Conferences
To search his writings for an intricate mystical ladder would be misguided. No system is
distinguishable in his writing, only certain general lines of thought.
A. The Three Counsels: chastity, poverty and obedience
1. Cassian treats them not as vows but as virtues. Egyptian thought censured the practice of vows in the fear that they might lead either to pride or perjury.
chastity was not only abstention from corporal acts, but a limpid purity of soul,
cleansed from desire and virgin to all but God.
Poverty was not just the complete sacrifice of riches; abandonment of property was the
first step - the monk must pass to crush the sin and the desire that proceeds from
possessions and rise above the things that are not God. Beyond poverty is the separation
from all created things which is the condition of a pure love of God. All of this is a
conformity to the lowliness of the Lord - a descent to the want and poverty of Christ.
Obedience was paramount over every virtue, the ABCs in the learning of perfection.
The junior is not to trust his judgment, but to pronounce that to be good or bad which is
considered good or bad by his elder. They must reveal their thoughts of every kind, good
or bad, to receive comment and direction from their guide.
B. Admission of Novices
1. postulant must first lie outside the door for 10 days or longer. When he had shown
persistence, he entered the house to be stripped of his property and money and to
exchange the clothes of the world for the monastic dress. Secular garments were stored
as a silent reminder of expulsion in penalty for disobedience.
2. novice remained for a probationary year in the guest house excluded from full
membership of the community, instructed by an elder and responsible for visitors.
Cassian alone required so long a period before admission. At the end of the year the
novice was admitted formally and placed with other juniors under the supervision of a
1. seen not as creative nor even as primarily useful to the community, but as an
expedient method of keeping the body and mind occupied. Although work increases the
ability for contemplation, cures accidie, and acts as an aid to prayer, it need fulfill no
useful purpose. Manual labor preferred. However, writing and reading were customary exercises, but done with the purpose of growing in spiritual knowledge.
1. motivated by humility
monks normally fled the idea ordination and the primitive practice was not to receive communion frequently for fear of partaking unworthily.
2. Cassian agreed with the view on ordination of which he saw himself unworthy
receiving and fear being drawn away from the quiet life. Communion, however, ought to
received often in order to receive medicine and cleansing for our souls. In his
monasteries they may have received daily!
3. Cassian introduced the eastern customs of common prayer, but adapted them for the
western monk. Egyptian custom celebrated Vespers and Nocturns only and allowed the
day time for continuous prayer in private.
a. Nocturns, the midnight office(matins): 12 psalms with prayers between each,
followed by two lesson from the OT and NT.
b. dawn office(lauds) - - immediately after matins: psalms 148-150.
c. morning office(prime): marked the beginning of the days work. psalms 51, 63,
d. Terce, Sext, None: 3 psalms each, no lessons.
e. Vespers: 12 psalms and 2 lessons as at Nocturns
no compline, which first appeared in the rule of Benedict; psalmody was done in such a way to ensure understanding and prevent haste.
E. Acts of Mortification:
1. The search for God reveals the somber truth that the carnal instincts of human nature
are a barrier to pure worship and saintly character. A monk could only mould his will
upon the divine will if he conquered the instinctive self-centeredness of fallen humanity by ceaseless mortification; the sinful desires must die.
2. Cassian had three principles of mortification:
first it is an instrument to be used or unused according to need; secondly it is to Ã
remain secret; thirdly it must be restrained;
3. discretion was the indispensable virtue in the ascetic life; one must balance his way between the twin abysses of laxity and excessive austerity. Submission to the elders is nowhere more important than in the practice of mortification.
4. repudiating fanaticism, Cassian still demanded an exacting self-discipline in the
common and sober acts of austerity.
II. Conquest of Sin:
Both eastern and western spirituality as a whole conceives of the ascetic life as a slow progress upward toward God, a climb of the hill by spiritual exercise - - prayer, mortification of the carnal lusts, growth in the knowledge of God - until the soul has become Christ like, God-like.
This being true, there developed early on principles upon which asceticism might be conducted. Cassian does not develop a system to be followed, but establishes certain principles to be followed in one's spiritual life. As always he makes these principles
understandable to the western mind.
A. Flesh and Spirit:
1. basic antagonism between the two - a war in which neither ceases to attack or defend does not mean the material substance of the body but the carnal desires, the passions.
2. The essence of the Christian life is seen as a war within the personality.
3. Cassian experience was that the body was not evil in essence, but is inclined to and
encourages evil, though its union with and war against the spirit is nevertheless for the
benefit of the spiritual life.
4. the Christian way is not quiet or gentle or pleasant; it is a battle fought in the soul.
This battle is the condition of spiritual progress.
5. Apart from this violence of warring, there is nothing but indifference, lukewarmness.
Advance to attack expresses Cassian's outlook; for the lustful will is the chief adversary of man.
B. The Goal:
1. the ultimate goal is the kingdom of heaven, but the aim(skopos) of the purgative
process is purity of heart. The purgative process must place a person in a state of
freedom from the passions, to produce in the mind a concentration of thought upon God,
in the soul an indifference to all apart from the Creator. To this goal the monk must
march along the royal road unswervingly, must close his eyes like the competitor in a
shooting contest to all but the bullseye. Asceticism is a means toward the skopos
2. Behind this theory lay the ideal of the angelic life.
This was the notion that man must aim at contemplating and worshipping and praising God like the angels and at doing his will on earth as the angels in heaven. But according to Cassian sinlessness is impossible, temptations never cease in this life and there is always the need to fight.
3. Perfection in this life is relative perfection, not to be identified with sinlessness but
rather with the completion of the purgative process, which can be described as the state
of purity of heart.
It is possible to achieve freedom from the grosser passions, but this does not mean immunity from temptation. Purity of heart is but the moral platform from whence God can be seen.
C. The Principal Sins:
1. Cassian list contained eight principal sins: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, dejection, accidie, vainglory, pride. Cassian treated them as sin produced by
2. The order is not random. They are linked together as cars in a railroad train. Because
they are so intimately coupled an attack upon one is an attack upon all and conversely a
surrender to one is a surrender to all, and because gluttony acquires its capital place in
the list as the root instigator of the corrupting series, fasting and abstinence must become
the first and most valuable element in all ascetic practice.
3. Cassian writing is intended to drive the mind to seek the reason for sin, not in superficial symptoms but in the latent evil in the human heart. Fight, strive, press on, struggle, resist, conquer - - are all key words. Cassian can only repeat, "here is the evil - fight against it.
4. In all of this grace is presupposed: God is both the goal and the means by which the
goal is attained. Grace is what leads us to embrace methods of spiritual progress.
D. The Motive of the Life of Virtue:
1. Three things enable men to control and remedy their faults: a) the Fear
of hell, or the penalties of earthly laws, b) the thought of and desire for the kingdom of heaven and c) a love of goodness and virtue in itself.
2. These three motives are not equally excellent, but correspond to different grades in the
spiritual life, in which the third, the selfless motive must be the highest aim of all who seek after God. The Christian is seeking to be united with God.
3. The soul must love and follow God for his own sake and not in the hope of personal
advantage or enjoyment. Ethics are the instrument to the love of God.
E. The Virtues:
1. virtue for Cassian consists in not committing sin. Where he thinks of virtue, he
normally treats it as the opposite of vice: chastity means not fornicating, patience not
being angry, humility not being proud, temperance not being gluttonous.
2. Charity, or love of God, was the transcendent virtue in which all individual virtues were absorbed. For this reason he was uninterested in the discussion of the specific virtues and
the distinctions of later moralists.
3. morality acts as an instrument to the contemplation of God, and so Cassian invariably treats good deeds not as the flowing outcome of the love of God but as a useful aid in the
struggle for personal perfection. Good works and acts of virtue will even disappear in
heaven where all is caught up in the contemplation of God.
4. He normally conceived the fight as a battle against the pressing, insidious powers of
evil, rarely as a battle for the good. The assaulting sins are much more numerous than
the defending virtues.
A. The Doctrine of Cassian:
1. His thought centers upon the strife between flesh and spirit. The carnality of man
which is the result of the Fall, has not made man incapable of doing good: it has rather
produced a tension in human nature whereby sinful desires pull against the spiritual
desires. In the middle of the strife, between the flesh on the one side and the spirit on the
other, the free will is set maintaining the tension. He calls the free will the balance in the
scales of the body.
2. Cassian's view stirred him to emphasize the powers of the human will - - even if it is
weakened. The whole weight of his thought is thrown upon the necessity for exertion.
The monk must fight to achieve purity of heart, he must work to eject the seeds of vices,
he must fast and watch and labor with his hands, he must direct his mental process and
ward off temptations. In all of this grace is not discarded but thoroughly assumed, on
account of the enormous importance he attaches to prayer.
3. Cassian never suggests that sin can be overcome, that the Christian road can be
travelled, unless God grant his grace. Rather his teaching emphasizes two truths of the
Christian faith - - that man depends absolutely upon God, and that his will has full
responsibility for choice between good and evil.
4. Cassian is the teacher, emphasizing opposite sides of the same question for practical
reasons. Grace is not set in antithesis to freedom of the will, but to laziness.
B. Grace in the Conferences:
1. In Cassian, as opposed to Augustine, the human will is not portrayed so darkly. After
the Fall, while having a bias toward and desire for evil, man still has knowledge of the good; and since the human race has this knowledge of the good, it can sometimes
perform it naturally, of its own free will unaided by grace except in so far as God is
regarded as granting his grace when he originally created man capable of doing good. In
Augustine the will to good is dead: in Cassian it is not dead, but neither is it healthy.
Rather he conceives the human will as sick, needing constant attention from healing
grace, but like a sick man still capable occasionally - if revived by medicine - of healthy
2. In a more subtle argument, Cassian teaches that grace is sometimes removed for the benefit of the soul. To prevent the will becoming slothful and idle, grace may wait for some move on the part of the will. We see here again the connection in his mind between
grace and laziness.
IV. The Life of Contemplation:
1. although some ascetics considered sinlessness to be within the power of human nature,
Cassian denied the possibility. The soul is bound to leave the divine vision because of
that law in human nature resulting from the Fall. The word saint is not a synonym of the
word immaculate for Cassian.
2. Cassian will allow that an ascetic may achieve the destruction of all his faults. Yet this is not sinlessness, since the mind cannot maintain it hold upon the contemplation of God; and in the eyes of the saint even momentary departure from contemplation is the vilest of sin. Full possession of the virtues may be attained, but not the possibility of keeping the mind concentrated on God.
3. The principal barrier for the monk lies not so much in the commission of external sin,
but in the slippery thought of his own mind. Thus there can be perfection attain in the
active life, but not in the contemplative life.
B. The Mind
1. Cassian regards contemplation as the mind seeing God; union as the linking of the mind to God. Since the mind through the Fall is so unstable and wandering that it can never be still, the problem of contemplation consists in fixing the mind to a single point - God. Cassian reverts to the difficulty of the mobile mind perhaps more frequently than to any other subject dealt with in the Conferences.
2. Swarms of thoughts enter the mind, whether suggested by devils or by earthly
distractions. Yet, Cassian did not seek the stripping naked of the mind, but rather the mind must attempt to control the ascending and descending of thoughts, until the former
predominate over the latter.
3. In later stages, there is progressive simplification until the state of pure prayer is
reached where the prayer is so concentrated upon God alone that the mind has come to
unity from diversity and holds one prayer, one thought.
C. Prayer and Contemplation
1. Cassian's teaching on prayer is not unlike the consensus of Egyptian monastic thought
upon the beginnings of contemplation: from the discursive use of the mind in meditation,
the soul passes by a gradual simplification of thought to a condition where it does not
need mental variety in order to pray, but can rest "satisfied, and more deeply satisfied,
with a simple look at God than it was at first with much thinking. In the early stages the
soul is frequently filled with sensible sweetness, with spiritual delight in God. This
sweetness vanishes as advance is made upon the contemplative way, until the soul
confronts God in a cloud of unknowing, dimly and ignorantly, while the intellect without
concepts and without images, is not only at rest but cannot think discursively at all. In
pure contemplation all the faculties of the intellect and the heart are silenced in face of the simple longing for God.
2. For Cassian, the supreme goal of life, the kingdom of God itself, is to be found, in the
direct perception of God. He is at one with Egyptian tradition in believing that none may
enter upon this way who has not first undertaken the practical training of the active life.
The monk cannot contemplate if he is proud, unchaste or dejected, if he is not seeking
detachment from created things.
3. As prayer is reduced from a multiplicity of thoughts to simplicity, the object of
contemplation, which began by being complex, becomes little by little a unity. The ladder of contemplation has three rungs: the contemplation of many things, the contemplation of a few, the contemplation of one alone.
4. Cassian only mentions the effects of contemplation occasionally. It brings union with, by union of wills though not in essence. The soul comes to the image and likeness of God feeds on the beauty and knowledge of God, it receives the indwelling Christ the Holy Spirit, it is illumined attains to the adopted Sonship and possesses all that belongs to the Father. The soul is so filled that it begins to share in the love of the Blessed Trinity. For John, contemplation is a formless thoughtless, vacuity. Rather it is a unity wherein fullness is found: where God shall be all our love, and every desire and wish and effort, every thought of ours, and all our life and words and breath, and that unity which
already exist between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, has
been shed abroad in our hearts and minds.
Cassian bequeathed to Western Christianity the idea that the spiritual life was a science in which prayer reigned:that it is possible to analyze temptation and the nature of sin: that methods of prayer and mortification are neither haphazard nor individual, but ordered according to established experience. All the guides to spirituality in which western Europe later abounded are his direct descendants.