SEPTEMBER 08, 2013 - JOHN CASSIAN'S SPIRITUAL TEACHING

CONFERENCE FOR THE GENESEE LAY CONTEMPLATIVES

In reflecting on the message of John Cassian the first thought that arises is that he was a monk and a writer on early monasticism.  What he wrote about was the fruit of experience that was formative of his chief interest, namely, union with God.  It was his contacts with monks that strengthened his desire to learn from the various monks he traveled to meet the ways that lead to knowledge of the living God.  As a result of his extensive travels and numerous contracts with monks in different Egyptian localities he became one of the most influential witnesses to Egyptian monasticism.  Through his writings he became an eloquent voice of monastic spirituality addressed especially to the Latin Church.  His immediate audience was the Church in Gaul but soon he was read with eagerness by wide circles in the West and later in many Eastern countries.  As his works were translated at an early period into Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, and several other Easter languages, his influence spread widely.  His writings have enjoyed a broad and constant readership not only in his own distant times but down the centuries.  In recent years there has been accrued scholarly interest in his works, not only The Institutes and The Conferences, which are intended primarily for monks, but also his work on The Incarnation.  This dogmatic writing, treated dismissively by modern scholars until recently, has been carefully restudied by Casiday and Rousseau who appreciate its positive contribution made at the critical time when Nestorianism was a serious threat.  Commissioned by the man who was to become Leo 1, Cassian intended it for the broader audience of the Christian world.

Monks, however, were not the only ones to appreciate his account of the spiritual life as lived in the desert, though it was primarily monks that Cassian himself had in mind when he composed his books on the desert spirituality.  As Father Columba Stewart point out, Cassian's teaching is readily applied to other states of life, lay as well as active religious.  What he writes on the passionate thoughts and much of his discussion of prayer is easily adapted to lay person and religious living in a secular world.  As a result of his style and breadth of interest he has continued to be read through the centuries down to our own times.  A particularly impressive instance of his appeal to others besides monks is the Jesuits.  His Conferences and Institutes were assiduously utilized by Jesuits for many years in the formation program in the novitiate.  In our own day some of the more recent studies on our author are written by laymen and published by such Universities as Cambridge and Oxford.  As Casiday states in his doctoral thesis at Durham University, Cassian's writings "became a normative account of the Desert Fathers".  He was one of the rare Western authors, along with St Jerome and Gregory the Great, to be translated early on into Greek and widely circulated in the East from early times.  He is included in the widely read 18th century collection of Greek spiritual writers under the title The Philokalia.  And so all who are striving after a fuller formation to Christian living and seeking to advance in prayer will be able to discover in Cassian an insightful and stimulating guide whatever state of life the reader may pursue, monastic, religious, or lay.

A palmary demonstration of this breadth of usefulness is the first of the twenty four Conferences.  The announced topic of this narrative is The Goal of the Monk.  Cassian makes it evident that the way to attain the ultimate goal which is the Kingdom of Heaven is through attaining first to "Purity of Heart".   This theme is touched on in the Institutes.  He places it in the homily he includes at the end of the fourth section of this book.   When he began to write the Conferences a short time later, he developed this topic at length in this opening discourse.   In fact so basic did Cassian consider this subject that he went on to insert it frequently throughout both of these ascetical works.  The theme Puritas cordis is dealt with eleven times in The Institutes, while forty instances of its use are found in The Conferences.  Related concepts are scattered throughout these works in various forms such as puritas mentis, puritas animae, puritas corporis, and puritas orationis.  On one occasion in this first Conference, he defines purity of heart as "purity and tranquility of the mind."  The tranquility he refers to here is so closely associated with purity of heart, that the term tranquility is employed as a metonymy for it.  As Stewart indicates, other expressions also have the same function for Cassion, such as stabilitas and firmitas.  They suggest the influence of Evagrius's choice term apatheia.  Certainly purity of heart, under whatever term it is referred to, is a matter of fundamental concern for all persons of every state of life who undertake the life of serious prayer; it is not reserved only for monks.  The topic was not invented by Cassian or by any other monk.   In fact it was introduced to his followers by Jesus himself in the earliest of his sermons as Mathew's version of the Gospel proclaimed.  Included in the list of the Beatitudes is this one that proclaims "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God."

This beatitude was to have an impressive impact on those Christians who sought to follow Christ with all earnestness of endeavor.  Through the centuries this goal of purity of the deepest self has occupied the attention of persons of thoughtful mind and recognized as a challenging task that none who seek God can fail to undertake.  Accordingly various writers undertook to explore and discuss its nature and requirements.  Kirkegaard for one wrote an entire book on the subject which he entitled "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing."  As he begins this book the first point he makes is that God is the completion of the human person.  He insists that without knowledge of God the individual remains but a chipped fragment of the person he is created to become. He prays for the wisdom to grasp that God is at once one and all.  He then details the necessary virtues to carry out the sublime task of arriving at this understanding in practice.  For only when indispensible virtues are acquired can one be effectively persuaded that this one thing is necessary for fulfillment.  Such conviction is essential to make this one thing our immediate goal: Purity of Heart.  Later in this book he point out some of the obstacles to this awareness, notable among them being busyness that focus on the frills of life.  It results in yielding primacy of value to the opinion others form of the individual.  This leads to a secular reduction of the self.  A later age was to speak of the alienation of the modern person that so characterizes many moderns.

The plague of busyness has spread dramatically in modern Western society.  It was already prominent in the early half of the nineteen century so that Kierkegaard identified it as a major challenge to the interior life in his day.  His was a lonely voice in Denmark, neglected but courageously spoken as long as life lasted.  At this same period in another county, a lone community of Trappist monks went into exile following the French revolution.  They shared with the Danish philosopher a related vision of the society of the times as an obstacle to that Purity of Heart necessary for union with God.

The monks met the challenges that resulted in Kierkegaard's death at the age of 42, by going into exile for some years of wide travel.  They were able thus to survive and so preserved for the Gaul of a later date the way of life that Cassian managed to transplant there from the desert of Egypt some 1400 years earlier.  Not long after their odyssey that took them as far as Russia, the Trappists, having returned to Northern France, were constrained by new threats against their existence, to send a colony of their monks to the new world in Kentucky.  In this way opposition to the values presented in Cassian's writings resulted paradoxically in their propagation in our own country.

Cassian opens the series of his Conferences with this topic of the immediate aim and final goal of monastic life.  His treatment effectively makes it clear that Egyptian monasticism has teachings that prove helpful to people living in a very different climate and society.  His purpose in giving so detailed an account of the traditions of these desert fathers is to recommend their views to monks who have no direct contact with this distant country.  As he undertakes this challenging purpose, he selects his material and adapts his message to the situation and capacities of persons living in the Western world.

Our author has been formed by Evagrius and Paphnutius among other spiritual masters living in quite different surroundings and formed in the distinctive setting of fourth and fifth century Egypt.  He soon became sensitive to the need to adapt the desert mode of life to the conditions prevailing in Gaul while preserving the basic purpose and values of the early monastic masters.  However, this first conference addresses a topic so fundamental to Christians of all climes and conditions that its message is equally relevant to all, not only to monks.  All humans have the same final goal, union with God in His kingdom.  The only way to attain to it is through the process of change that results in purity of heart.

An unexpressed condition that renders one's efforts to negotiate this transforming change is anachoresis, that is, withdrawal from the busyness and limiting involvements with social life and occupations of the world.  In fact, in the early Church, anachoresis Origen and Eusebius employed this word in referring to Christ's withdrawal into solitude when his life was threatened.  His withdrawal to the mount of Transfiguration is designated by this same word by John Chrysostom.  Then it became one of the terms designating monastic life. A hermit came to be called anachorites.  In the time of Cassian the desert dwellers are designated by this term, being called in English anchorites.

Monks realize this withdrawal by leaving family, personal friends, and living in a certain solitude.  Active religious and lay persons can achieve the same goal by making a place and setting apart special times for prayer, lectio and study in the presence of God.  While Cassian himself does not speak of such an adaptation, yet the Philokalia tradition that incorporated writings of Evagrius and of others who had adopted his spirituality, evolved such a program for living a deeper life of prayer in the world.  An impressive, if rather unusual instance of such a prayerful way of life has been described in an account written in the 19th century and entitled "The Way of a Pilgrim."  A more settled approach was told me by a prominent French priest living in Paris.  We were sharing on the topic of the life of prayer when he explained how he managed to make time for meditation in the midst of the agitated life of the capital.  "I just disconnect my phone, and stay alone in my apartment", he said.  It proved a simple and effective approach.  Once we are convinced that making life with God our priority, we can learn to discern what activities we can limit or drop and make time for such prayerful meditation and reading as contributes to forming the kind of person we are invited to become in this brief life of time.


Abbot John Eudes Bamberger