Cassian & Tradition

Just came from a discussion group on the selections from Cassian in The Philokalia, and found that a while ago, whilst thinking on tradition, I’d typed up this from Augustine Casiday’s Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian:

‘… Cassian’s writings propagate a teaching that he acquired in Egypt, refined and contemplated over the years, and eventually put forward with the explicit aim of providing something useful for his readers in Gaul. Tradition in this case indicates much more than the unthinking transmission of thoughts and beliefs. Tradition is itself an enterprise that creates and forms historical perspective and it therefore has a complex reltionship to history.’ (122)

Part of what Casiday is arguing here is that we should not simply shake our fingers at Cassian and say, ‘You are not transmitting a historically perfect/accurate account of what happened in Egypt and are therefore useless.’ Rather, we should see that Cassian has internalised what he learned in Egypt and is seeking to encapsulate these teachings/traditions in a way that will be of benefit to his new, Latin, Gallic audience.

This is what we all do, whether cautious traditionalists or highly conservative ones, I think. We seek to mediate the wisdom we have gained from those who have gone before us to a new audience, to our peers and colleagues and enemies who would profit from these experiences and traditions. Likewise, the traditions of others are of use to us as we listen to their mediation of what has gone before.

Sometimes, then ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ are not always the most important criteria as we examine these documents. What are we seeking from the patristic and monastic fathers? Wisdom to live by. The pathway to purity of heart, which is the short-term goal that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.

For a very helpful mediation of Cassian’s mediation of Evagrius’ teaching on akedia, read this article by Ryan Clevenger: ‘Akedia and Why Evangelicals Should Stay Put‘.


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