St John Cassian

Yesterday (leap day, of all days in the calendar!) was the feast of John Cassian, monastic founder and one of the ascetic fathers of Latin Christianity. Clearly, though, he has something of a mixed reputation to get a feast that comes only once every four years!

Cassian’s reputation is marred by the predestination controversy, in which the Augustinians in Gaul (modern France) were so particular and powerful that an anti-Pelagian such as Cassian could still come under suspicion and find himself labelled “semi-Pelagian”. Cassian’s teaching on this subject is found in his thirteenth Conference. What we find there has been called by one scholar “semi-Augustinian” rather than semi-Pelagian. Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church says that what Cassian writes here is essentially Eastern in spirit, which is no surprise, since Cassian is from the Balkans, lived as a monk in Bethlehem, toured Egypt’s monasteries for about ten years, and spent time with John Chrysostom in Constantinople before moving West.

But Cassian, despite this label, despite so inauspicious a feast day, has had an enduring influence on Western asceticism and mysticism, from St Benedict to Steve Bell. Besides a couple of obvious references in Benedict, if you look through the commentary on the Rule by Georg Holzherr, you will find many passages inspired or paralleled by Cassian.

Indeed, Cassian is one of the great ascetic fathers of the Latin church — hundreds of copies of his main works, the Institutes and Conferences, exist. His teaching about the inner life has found eager readers in every generation. What is the telos (end) of the monastic life? The Kingdom of Heaven. What is the skopos (goal)? Purity of heart. Aim for purity of heart, and you will find the Kingdom of heaven. This wisdom is not just monastic but for all Christians, is it not?

His teaching on discretion is a reminder that true Christian asceticism at its best is not typified by standing on a pillar, tying a chain around your waist, wearing iron underwear, or mortifying the flesh to such extremes that you become ill. It is typified, in Cassian as elsewhere, by the words of Sergei Bulgakov, ‘Discipline the flesh that you may gain a body.’ It is what Kallistos Ware calls ‘natural asceticism’.

Conference 10 on prayer is a classic treatise on the subject — and the reason we say, ‘O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us,’ at the start of the daily office!

It has been a long time since I read all of Cassian in full; in recent years, I have only whetted my appetite with the selections in The Philokalia, Vol. 1. There is a lot of wisdom, as I recall; I’ve blogged about it here. Clearly, being unpopular in your teaching about predestination is not enough to keep you from being read and digested for centuries. In fact, Lossky says that Cassian’s popularity results in St Bernard’s views on grace and freewill being more like the Eastern Church’s than the predominantly Augustinian West (take that for what it’s worth, though; I am skeptical about Lossky because of his misunderstandings of Aquinas on the Trinity).

I am going to be revisiting Cassian in greater depth soon. I think, though, that he is precisely the sort of guide to Christian “spirituality” we need in this age — an ascetic master esteemed in both the Latin and Greek churches who was not fully engulfed by either side of the predestination debate who sought purity of heart for the purpose of finding the Kingdom of Heaven.

As the empires and kingdoms of the human race descend into madness, that is the true Kingdom we all need.

Trinity and mysticism in East and West

There is a famous statement by Pope St John Paul II (or JP2 to his homeys) that the Church must start to breathe with both her lungs once again — that is, East and West. I don’t know the original context of the statement, but it seems to emerge in discussions about the more ‘rational’ approach to the faith in the western tradition and the more ‘mystical’ approach in eastern Christianity. A false dichotomy, to be sure.

Nonetheless, as the chapter about St John of the Cross in Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition shows, there are differences in the approach to mysticism found in East and West. Someone such as Vladimir Lossky would probably boil it down to the differences in our approach to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

This may be part of it.

The problem with Lossky, however, is that the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church raises a sharp irreconcilability between the two traditions. He argues that our view of the Trinity is, in fact, false — but does so through a misreading of St Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of western Trinitarian thought.

And here lies my main thought.

Setting aside for the moment the vexed issue of the procession of the Holy Spirit, I think that we need each when we think about the Trinity, precisely because we are in certain respects different. Our foundation is, however, the same. As St Anselm writes:

Latins call these three things persons, Greeks substances. For as we Latins call the one substance in God three persons, so the Greeks call the one person three substances, they meaning here by substance the very same thing that we mean by person, and not differing from us in faith in any way. (On the Incarnation, ch. 16)

Yet if you read Latin Trinitarian theology, we often start with the unity of God — thus Anselm’s Monologion and Proslogion. Greek theology, on the other hand, often starts with the three Persons — thus St Gregory of Nyssa’s That There Are Not Three Gods. Lossky argues that our insistence on the divine unity posits a fourth hypostasis in the Trinity, a fourth thing that is the ground of being of the three Persons. However, and I forget the title of the book that brought this home to me (it was about Aquinas and Bonaventure’s triadology), what we really mean by that unity is all three persons at once. The unity is a conceptual articulation, not a substance of its own.

Rather than arguing us vs them in Trinitarian theology, East-West dialogue should FIRST acknowledge the incomprehensible and unapproachable mystery here. And then we should see what nuances we can gain from each other. And then, perhaps, we can start to breathe with both our lungs.

And as we breathe with both of these lungs, we will be reminded that the Trinity, the persons beyond personality who are a single God yet three persons, is bigger than any of our doctrinal statements (no matter how true those statements are). And so we will seek Him out in prayer and contemplation, questing after the Uncreated Light, the Beatific Vision, the grace of a meeting with God that is theosis.

But as long as we begin in a position of hostility, our ability to love each other will be hampered. And if we cannot love our brethren whom we can see, how can we love God whom we cannot see?