John Cassian in the Philokalia: ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ – scopos and telos

StJohnCassian_vice4Allow me to begin with my ecclesiastical historian’s hat on. The second selection from John Cassian in The Philokalia (the first having been about the 8 thoughts, taken from Books 5-8 of The Institutes) is taken from Cassian’s second work, the much longer Conferences or CollationesThe Conferences purport to be the monastic elder’s encounters and conversations from the approximately ten years he and his companion Germanus spent amongst the Desert Fathers of Egypt, adapted for the situation in Gaul and possibly falsely recalled due to the faults of human memory (which he admits). Germanus is the usual interlocutor with Cassian sitting and listening in silence. An argument was made somewhere that here we find the full depth of Cassian’s spiritual theology. Here we certainly meet some his more powerful concepts, and the influence of Evagrius of Pontus, quite palpable in his discussion of the eight thoughts in The Institutes, continues. We’ll get to that in a moment. The Conferences are available online, as well as in an excellent translation with helpful notes by Boniface Ramsey. Ramsey also translated The Institutes.

The first Conference is where Sts Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth gathered the opening material for ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination’. The discussion is created of various excerpts from Conference 1, seamlessly woven together, ending with the paragraph on p. 98 of the English, ‘When the old man saw us marvelling at this…’ In Cassian’s original, the paragraph is used as a way of ending the conference with Abba Moses that day, whereas in its reworked Greek version, it becomes the segue into a discussion of discernment. The rest of ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis’ is a discussion of discernment/discretion taken from Conference 2. Both Conference 1 and 2 are with the same abba, Moses. I do not know if we are to assume that he is the same Abba Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or not. Throughout both Conferences we encounter an array of biblical verses, examples of biblical persons, and examples from the history of Christian asceticism.

Abba Moses begins the discussion, ‘after much entreaty on our part’, with a question. Every aspect of human endeavour has an immediate purpose and end goal. A farmer clears land of thorns and rocks — an immediate purpose — with the ultimate goal of enjoying the produce of the field. He queries:

Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this [ascetic labour]?

We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’

In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’

… we confessed that we did not know … (Palmer, Sherrard, Ward trans., p. 95)

In the Latin, Cassian actually uses the Greek scopos and telosScopos is glossed as destinatio (which is admissible in this discussion in its English descendant); telos is finis (or end). Clearing the field is the farmer’s scopos, enjoying its fruits is his telos. The scopos, or finis, of the ascetic life is the kingdom of heaven — regnum caelorum. In their English translation of the Greek Philokalia, Palmer, et al., give us purpose for scopos and goal for telos.

Abba Moses says:

The goal [telos] of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose [scopos], however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. (p. 95 in English)

Here we have the original ‘purpose-driven life’! We are called by Cassian (via Abba Moses) to seek purity of heart in all we do. That is the point. The point is not fasting, reading sacred scripture, meditating, praying, studying theology, helping the poor. The point is purity of heart. Abba Moses continues:

It is for the love of our neighbour that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. (p. 95)

For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother. (p. 96)

Abba Moses then says that love of God and of human beings, not ascetic labour, is the purpose. This is the great recurring theme of Christian spirituality, as I have discussed here in the past in relation to St Augustine and the Cistercians. From here, Abba Moses discusses how to achieve purity of heart; as Cassian and Germanus discuss the ascetic life with other Egyptian abbas, they learn more and more; there is a rising up towards this purity, found in the pure prayer of Conference 10 which leads into a discussion of perfection itself in Conference 11.

In The Philokalia, Abba Moses gives some attention to the thoughts (those Evagrian logismoi) before moving into his discussion of discernment.

You can see, I think, why The Conferences make me aware of my inadequacies! I still have no grand answers for questions of how a modern layperson, married, working full-time in a demanding job, is to pursue purity of heart. I guess thinking about it is a start. Praying daily as we do at The Witness Cloud is, undoubtedly, central. Abba Moses counsels Cassian and Germanus to keep their eyes fixed on the knowable actions of God in creation, Scripture, the deeds of the saints.

I guess being an ecclesiastical historian might actually give me some advantage, then?

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. -Matthew 5:8

John Cassian in The Philokalia – Purity of Heart

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)First things first — my brother has blogged at our shared blog about how Cassian has shifted his paradigm for ministry as an Anglican priest. This is what these blogs are all about — that one is about our dispersed community that prays the office and strives for holiness. If you want to find at least a digital community that seeks prayer in these old ways, check us out — we’re called The Witness Cloud (and this link is our homepage).

Reading the Fathers, studying Scripture, getting down and dirty with monks, thinking through theology — the point of all this endeavour, as far away as it may seem sometimes, is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and to be converted, conformed to the likeness of the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Not that this is actually easy, mind you.

I am not a monk. I am not a priest. I am not, professionally, a theologian.

I am a classicist and ecclesiastical historian, an ancient historian. I interpret texts and study their manuscripts.

This is not the same thing as living them.

My job and my devotional life do overlap, but this means that sometimes, although I can wax poetic and prosodic about the spiritual world of ancient Christianity, and exhort my readers even to take up their challenges, much of the time the challenges are unmet — even unattempted — by me.

I first read John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus for a Master’s dissertation (I am, however, now reading them devotionally); saints’ lives were likewise for graduate study. My work brings me into contact with bishops of Rome from the fourth through sixth and seventh centuries — and beyond. For my research I read Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Severus of Antioch. For my teaching, I read Eusebius of Caesarea, the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the Acts of the Council of Ephesus.

It is easy for it not to change the way one lives.

To turn, then, to the second selection of Cassian in The Philokalia, what can this do for me, here and now?

It’s kind of like doing to Cassian what he claims to have done with the Desert Fathers — take their teachings from one setting, one time, one culture, one language, and transplant them to a new one. Adapted from the hot desert of Egypt to the somewhat colder world of southern Gaul to the long, dark nights of an Edinburgh winter.

Well, straight up, what does this selection present us?

Questions of our purpose, our goal, our end. For Cassian and Germanus, what is the purpose of the monastic life? For us, what is the purpose of Christian living, of my lay spiritual life in the 21st century?

Germanus says to Abba Moses: The Kingdom of Heaven.

Abba Moses says: But what closer goal can you reach?

That closer goal, in Cassian’s rewriting of Evagrius, is purity of heart.

I’ll leave this discussion here for now. But this moment in Cassian’s Conferences is one that has challenged me every time. What is purity of heart? How do I live it here, now? How much frivolity is too much? Is this life I’ve chosen really worth the effort? Could I make something more of my life for the sake of a pure heart, for the sake of the Kingdom of God?

What good is Patristics?

The Temptations of St. Antony by Hieronymous Bosch

I first got into the world of the “Church Fathers” in the third year of my undergrad (2004). My entrypoint was not, as for many, Augustine’s Confessions or the dogmatic writings of the Cappadocians. No, indeed. My point of entry was the world of the Desert Fathers as reflected in their sayings (Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin Classics) and in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony (Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives).

Since then, I have tasted the dogmatic theology of Sts. Augustine and Athanasius, Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen, and the sermons of St. John Chrysostom. Among these, St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, St. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations have been shining stars. And my dear friend Pope St. Leo the Great. Of course.

These shining stars have helped me think more clearly about who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how the All-holy Trinity is to be properly discussed. In turn, this thought has, for me at least, raised my worship to new heights as I worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That alone is worth the effort of reading Patristic theology.

For me, though, it is the return time and again to the devotional literature of the monasteries that has been most potent. There, in John Cassian’s Conferences and Palladius’ Lausiac History, or in Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine and Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer — in these and more, I have found the exhortations to holiness that motivate me.

For example, Cassian’s first Conference is all about purity of heart. Purity of heart is the goal of the ascetic (Christian?) life. The end of purity of heart — its purpose — is the vision of God, of Christ. If we are not pursuing purity of heart, we are not pursuing the truest goal of human existence.

This call is one I need to hear constantly, not because I don’t think rest, relaxation, and entertainment are worth my time but because I think I waste a lot of time anyway.

This wasting of time is acute when you read saints’ lives. These men, be they John of Ephesus’ Monophysites or Cyril of Scythopolis, are very concerned about rendering a sacrifice of their lives to God that is acceptable. They are concerned about whether they have prayed often enough. They are concerned about whether they are giving enough to the poor or just wasting their time in idle pursuits.

Thankfully, their exhortations to holiness are accompanied by practical considerations about reading, studying, and meditating on the Bible, about praying, about resisting temptations, about what holiness actually looks like. These exhortations are what kept the monks from despair.

I may not fear for my salvation as they did (being a good Protestant), but I think living a holy life is important. May their exhortations have an experience on me for all my days as I seek to love the Crucified God Who saved me.