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.