This is my final(ish) post about (St.) John Cassian: Cassian and you. The big question after we see this guy’s life, controversy, legacy, and his relationship to the theology of his day and to the Desert Fathers is: So what?
By “So what?” I mean the question of what all this has to do with us. I believe that there is profit for us moderns in all the teachings, writings, and so forth of the ancients (pagan and Christian)—hence my field of study. I believe also that there is profit for us modern Christians in all the teachings, writings, examples, and so forth of the saints of old.
My conclusion to Cassian’s legacy reads:
Since Cassian holds a position within the central texts and traditions of Christian spirituality, both East and West, I believe that we should all read him — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant. We should seek to understand his teachings and draw towards purity of heart and the vision of the divine.
The first lesson I think we should take to heart from Cassian’s writings is their very goal. In seeking to distil and present the tradition of the Desert Fathers, John Cassian proclaimed that the telos, or end, of the monk’s life is union with God, the vision of the Divine. This telos is as following:
God will be “all in all” for us [Conf. 10.6.4] . . . when every love, every desire, every effort, every undertaking, every thought of ours, everything that we live, that we speak, that we breathe, will be God, and when that unity which the Father now has with the Son and which the Son has with the Father will carried over into our understanding and our mind [Conf. 10.7.2] (Trans. B. Ramsey)
How do we attain that telos? In the first Conference, Cassian says that every athlete has a telos to which he works. The athlete seeks to win the palm of victory; in order to do this, he must win the race. Winning the race, being the fastest, is the scopos, the goal, of the athlete’s training. For the Christian, we can attain the vision of God through purity of heart.
Purity of heart only comes through grace. God alone bestows it upon us by His infinite mercy and goodness. However, there is still room for human effort. We must train “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” (Canadian BCP, p. 85) unto God. God will give us the grace for this training and use this training to purify our hearts. And what do you imagine is the Greek word for such training as athletes undergo?
Ascesis. The monk is an ascetic seeking contemplation of the Divine.
But how can we, ordinary Christians living in the world, be ascetics? We are not solitaries in the desert. We are not monks in a Gallic monastery. We are not Benedictines. We do not have hours to spend alone in a room meditating. Some of us lead lives too active to survive on but one meal a day, and that at midafternoon (the ninth hour). And despite the symbolic and spiritual meaning Cassian pours into the garb of the monks, we ordinary lay believers in the 21st century would stand out like sore thumbs very much were we to dress as he recommends.
Simply put, we are not monks.
However, we can all fast sometimes. We can all pay attention to our thoughts, a large part of Cassian’s spirituality. We can all read and meditate on Scripture. Even less common today, I think, is the fact that we can all memorise Scripture. We can all pray to God with the Psalms. When tempted, each of us can cry out, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me!” We can all give hospitality to strangers and visitors. We can all learn to make time in our days to sit quiet and alone, seeking to hear the voice of God Almighty.
Those are just a few things from the writings of Cassian that I believe we can engage in as we seek to attain purity of heart.
If you have found Cassian at all fascinating, Boniface Ramsey has translations of both The Institutes and The Conferences available in the Ancient Christian Writers series from the Newman Press.
If you know that works of that length are the stuff of good intentions but not results, try this: Selected Writings of St. John Cassian the Roman. Stafford, AZ: St. Paisius Women’s Orthodox Monastery, 2000.
Further to this, explore the roots of Christian spirituality with the Desert Fathers. Benedicta Ward’s translation The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks for Penguin Classics is where I began this odyssey.
Last, if you want secondary material on Cassian, try the second edition of Owen Chadwick’s John Cassian or Columba Stewart’s Cassian the Monk. If you are interested in clearing Cassian’s name and putting him properly in context, try out AMC Casiday’s Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian and Richard J Goodrich’s Contextualizing Cassian.