John Cassian in The Philokalia: On the 8 Thoughts

St. Antony and St. Paul
St. Antony and St. Paul

My brother and I have been slowly working our way through The Philokalia. The last part we finished was the selections from St John Cassian. Those of you who have put up with my musings long enough know that I wrote a Master’s thesis on Cassian’s reception of Evagrius’ demonology. He’s a character I enjoy, a teacher I appreciate, a spiritual teacher who challenges me every time I read him.

There are two selections from Cassian adapted by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios in The Philokalia, one from The Institutes and the other from The Conferences. These are Cassian’s two major works, written in Latin in Gaul in the first half of the fifth century — John Cassian has the distinction of being the only Latin author represented in The Philokalia.

The climax and crowning moment of Cassian’s Institutes is a discussion of the eight vices, adapted from his never-named spiritual father, Evagrius of Pontus (‘the Solitary’) who immediately precedes him in this Athonite anthology. This is excerpted in The Philokalia. I’ve blogged about the eight thoughts before. Today I’ll briefly summarise the version in The Philokalia with some of my own thoughts.

The ‘Eight Thoughts’ (precursors to St Gregory the Great’s seven deadly sins) are: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, self-esteem, and pride.

Gluttony

Frankly — more than just overeating. I’ve talked about this once before.

Unchastity

More than just sex (an idea I’ve talked about as well). Both of these first two logismoi, or thoughts, are battled by fasting. Cassian reminds us, however, that it is more than the bodily discipline that we need:

Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour. (p. 75 in Palmer, Sherrard, Ware translation)

Cassian tries to get at the root of the problem — the human heart.

Amidst the advice associated with this section is, ‘It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above.’ (p. 77)

Avarice

I’ve mentioned Evagrius and avarice here before. Cassian argues that, while some passions are natural to us, avarice is, in fact, foreign to our nature, so we must do our best to keep it from taking root in our soul. I found most of his advice on avarice unhelpful to the non-monk, unfortunately.

However, there is this good passage on the passions:

Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder. (p. 78)

Anger

As you may know, I sometimes struggle with anger, and have enlisted the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in the past. Anger is considered part of our nature, and is not of itself evil. It exists to help us fight against sin, temptation, the other passions. However, it can easily cause us to go astray, even when we are angered about things that it is right be angry about — gold leaves blind the eyes just as well as lead ones (p. 83).

Dejection

This is the one where we feel discouraged and blame everyone else for our own failings. Says Cassian,

A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. (p. 87)

That idea, in fact, comes from Stoicism and is very prevalent in Seneca.

Listlessnessaccedia

This is the vice of getting a bit bored and frustrated, then dissatisfied with your own work or monastery. It is called the noon-day demon in Cassian’s Latin original. It is cured by hard work and forcing yourself to stay put.

Some years ago another blogger related this vice with the modern evangelical tendency to church hop. An interesting thought.

Self-esteem

This is seeking to be recognised by other people for being good at something — for monks, obviously the question is virtue. For the rest of us, no doubt it is whatever our occupation is. A job well done is not reward enough. Recognition of the self must follow.

Pride

This is the most subtle and serpentine vice of all. It can only strike you once you are holy, but is enough to drive you to the pit. This is the over-weening belief in your own holiness, an awareness of goodness — or rather, a false awareness, that leads you to believe yourself better than others.

These eight are intimately linked. And they are best fought by the cultivation of virtue. It is easier not to overeat by eating moderately than by fasting excessively. It is easier not to lust by consciously reading the Scriptures than simply trying not to lust. And so forth.

Next time, Cassian’s thoughts on discernment and the goal of the monastic life as excerpted in the next section of The Philokalia. The question is: How can we apply this to ourselves as non-monks, as laypeople?

Fasting – because Lent is only a month away

StJohnCassian_vice4We’ve just cleared the Christmas season, today being the First Sunday After the Epiphany. You might be thinking that now it’s time for your church leaders to kick back and relax. You’d be wrong, though! Even if all they’re doing is Lenten liturgies, and not organising special studies or thematic sermons, your clergy and lay leaders are probably already engaged in preparing for Lent. Easter is early this year, March 27, so Lent is early, too. Ash Wednesday comes on February 10. One month away.

My friend at the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, which I’ve mentioned before, graciously included me in their Lenten preparations, asking:

do you have some resources you would suggest for a six week preaching series on the role of fasting, and how it relates to Lent- even some crucial, often overlooked aspects- or simply put, what would you focus on?

I’ve been too busy preparing for a job interview to have given it a lot of thought, unfortunately. The interview has passed, though. So here I am, blogging about fasting. I still have to think more about this for my friend, though…

The first resource I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is my dear friend John Cassian (d. ca 435). In Book 5 of his Institutes, John Cassian discusses the ‘Spirit of Gluttony’ as part of his analysis of the Eight Deadly Thoughts/Spirits (these are an adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus that will be modified by Gregory the Great into the Seven Deadly Sins).

One of the themes running through both of Cassian’s major works (The Institutes and The Conferences) is discernment. Discernment is central to the disciplined life. It keeps you from doing more ascetic things than you can reasonably handle — a problem for ancient monks — as well as from being too lax (if a discipline is doing you no good at all or is really, really easy, is it really evidence of your sanctity?). Discernment is also helpful in our relationships with others — we cannot judge others if their rule of fasting or prayer is different, or if they are sore tempted by things we barely feel.1

Therefore, the first rule of fasting that comes out of Cassian is not to obsess over what others do. The second is related to it — set a fast that will challenge you (one meal, two meals, three meals, 24 hours, two days, a week, 40 days, or maybe two days out of a week or whatever). On a few occasions in Book 5 of the Institutes, the difference of the rule of fasting in different monastic or ecclesial communities addressed, as is the issue that a lot of monks break their rule of fasting in order to show hospitality to Cassian and his friend Germanus as they travel around the famous ascetics of Egypt.

The third rule is to remember what the purpose of fasting is.

Fasting is not an end in itself. As Cassian discusses in the first Conference, the point of all ascetic effort, of all the disciplines, is purity of heart. The goal of purity of heart is to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). In Institues Book 5, the argument is set forth that we cannot attain to spiritual purity until we have learned to control our bodies. The spirit of gluttony lies at the root of many of our problems; if we can tame the stomach, we can start to tame the thoughts that run through our heads.

We need to remember that we humans are, indeed, spiritual beings, but that we are also a psychosomatic unity. Everything we do is embodied. The embodied reality of human life means that Christian disciplines are not simply spiritual and intellectual — prayer, Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, praise of our God — but they are also physical — fasting, kneeling, prostrations, Eucharist, baptism, sexual purity.

As Sergei Bulgakov says, we mortify the flesh in order to gain a body.

I hope these thoughts help as we look forward to the Lenten season.


1. One of the stories out of the Egyptian desert is about a young monk who was struggling with the spirit of fornication to a very high degree. He went to seek the advice and wisdom of one of the elders, and explained his thoughts and desires and temptations about fornication. The elder had never really suffered from strong temptations to fornication and was horrified at what he heard and berate the young monk so such an extent that the younger monk was on the verge of giving it up. An angel was watching and was not well-pleased, so he opened the elder monk up to just a small fraction of what temptations the younger monk was suffering, and the elder monk could barely handle it. The moral of the story is that you don’t know another person’s suffering and temptations; what they need from you are your advice, your prayers, and your love, not your judgement. That’s the role of discernment.

Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony

In Frank Peretti’s bestselling thriller This Present Darkness there is a scene wherein one of the characters engages in physical combat with demons in his living room. No joke. This sort of presentation of demonology, while it certainly entertained me as a teenager, draws attention away from the real fight with the demons, a fight that usually has as its great champion Christ.

Even if you don’t believe in demons, I think the lessons we have to learn from the ancient demon stories are applicable. So please, keep reading.

A very good description of the real fight with demons, a fight that takes place at the level of temptation, not at the level of wrestling matches, is John Cassian’s in The Institutes when he deals with the Eight Thoughts (precursors to Seven Deadly Sins). However, hagiography does give us some interesting demon stories, so I’m going to give you three posts and three stories battle with demons: St. Antony (below), St. Savvas (here), and St. Columba (here).

Other saints who have similar stories are St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), one of John of Ephesus’ saints whose name escapes me, and some other tales from the Desert Fathers. This is probably literary borrowing, not historical truth, but I believe it has a lesson inside.

What can we learn from patristic and mediaeval hagiography? I mean, we’re not likely to wrestle with demons Peretti-style, nor are we likely to be tempted Antony-style. So what on earth can these ancient demon stories say to (post)moderns in the 21st century?

Case One: The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

This is the locus classicus of monastic hagiography as well as the battle with demons. Evagrius and Cassian may give us the more nuanced, psychological vision of how we combat the tempters, but here Athanasius gives us a very vivid picture of St. Antony’s temptations from demons and the fight against them. I’ve posted on this before here.

This time, rather than focussing on the strange menagerie comprised by the denizens of Hell, let us focus on what actually happens to St. Antony.

If you read this encounter of St. Antony with the demonic, which we can find at 8.7-10.9 of the Life which is pp. 14-16 of White’s translation in Early Christian Lives and available through the CCEL here. In some ways, this account is Frank Peretti-esque, especially with the Devil and his minions beating St. Antony up.

Despite being beaten, however, we see that Antony continues to inhabit the tombs and prays continually. He also recites verses from the Psalms against the temptations that assail him. Ultimately, regardless of everything the adversary throws at him, he prevails in the combat.

At the end of it all, he is granted a vision of Christ.

St. Antony immediately asks why Christ didn’t help him. Apparently Christ was testing him, but then goes on to assure him that he will be present with Antony through the rest of the saint’s testing with demonic powers.

What can we learn, then? I mean, we aren’t likely to be beaten. And those of us who even believe in demons don’t tend to dwell on them and often live as though they don’t exist. Is there any edification for today’s reader, then?

I think so. (No surprise there.)

First, as I mentioned when I first posted about the Temptations of St. Antony, our saint does battle with prayer as his chief weapon. We should never forget this piece of our arsenal when we are beset by temptations or evil in any of its forms, be it within ourselves or in the unjust world we see around us. Prayer is a walkie-talkie for the battlefield of Christian life (I think J Piper said that).

Second, St. Antony quotes Scripture at the demons. We need to hold the Scriptures in our minds. We need to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible. We need to memorise it, pray it, study it, read it, recite it. If you want to have a biblical mindset, you need the Bible in your mind (this is part of the advice Abba Chaeremon gives Cassian in one of the Conferences).

Third, Christ was there all along. He is our champion. This role becomes very important in other monastic encounters with demons, from Palestine to Ireland. Hagiography is essentially Christocentric; Jesus is the reason the saints can do the great things that they do. We need to remember this, as well as the Old Testament name YHWH Nissi — YHWH is our banner. He fights our battles.

Gluttony: Alive and Well

A friend of mine posted a link on facebook to this article from The Atlantic: “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” It’s an interesting article that delves into the world of food writing and the gastronomes/epicureans/gourmets/foodies who write about food.

It is a world that fixates on food, the eating thereof, the production thereof, and so forth. Usually in quantity, often unusual. Ultimately, the various problems concerning this lifestyle and mindset that arise in the article are boiled down to coming from the singlemindedness of the foodie.

This is, at a certain level, what gluttony is (the author of the article points this out).

Gluttony is when we focus too much on the appetitive aspect of our person. It is when we succumb to concupiscence concerning the sensual pleasures of food and drink to an unhealthy degree. It is the dethroning of God by Food.

Of course, John Cassian (our old friend) goes farther (he would). John Cassian tells us that gluttony is not merely eating too much or fixating on food but is basically any misuse of food as we seek to live a disciplined life. Primarily he is concerned with monks who eat at the wrong time — ie. too early — or monks who eat the wrong food — ie. not part of the Rule — or monks who eat too much — the common use of the term gluttony.

Given that John Cassian also teaches us that we shouldn’t eat enough to be satisfied, I don’t think we should simply apply all of his teachings on gluttony to our lives. Nevertheless, I think a few thoughts are worth contemplating in this regard.

First, eating at the wrong time. Or even eating too fast, if you ask me. Our bodies are a gift from God, and our bodily state can affect our spiritual state since we are psychosomatic unities.* Eating too fast means we don’t digest properly and sometimes our body doesn’t even know it’s full. It can lead to accidental overeating. Eating at the wrong time is also interesting because we often eat just whenever we (I) feel a little bit hungry — and eat whatever we can get our hands on first, be it a Mars bar, a bag of crisps, or something else unhealthy. Why not hold out against hunger until you’re home and can eat something healthier and cheaper?

Second, eating the wrong food. I eat the wrong food a lot. Soda pop, Mars bars, other chocolate bars, chocolate flapjacks, crisps, chips, other deep-fried items, greasy pizza, salty popcorn, on it goes. Now, I’m not entirely sold out to asceticism. I think we can treat ourselves to tasty, unhealthy food — but only in moderation. A can of pop or a chocolate bar every day, or even every other day, is not treating your body as it deserves. It is surrendering endurance to the easy, tasty, delectable way out. It is not discipline but laxity, surrendering to the appetitive part of your soul. It is, simply put, gluttony.

Eating too much, the third, is standard gluttony. But it can call out to any of us, at an Indian buffet, or a really cheap fish & chip shop, or the deal at the cinema with the gigantic popcorn, or what have you. This is healthy eating 101, though. We don’t need fifth-century monks telling us we shouldn’t overeat. Overeating when combined with unhealthy eating can lead to obesity and ultimately kill you.

But before that, it can kill your soul.

So let’s be more disciplined with our food intake as to when, what, and how much! Maybe our prayer lives and devotional times will pick up. Maybe we’ll hate it. But I’m pretty sure it will be good for us.

*Or noetopsychosomatic?

(St.) John Cassian: Pt 3, Legacy

More important than the controversy surrounding him is John Cassian’s legacy.  This legacy can be seen in East and West in the history Christian spirituality and monasticism.

In The Institutes, John Cassian presented his adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus’ teaching of the eight thoughts most to be avoided.  Cassian’s eight vices — Gluttony, Fornication, Avarice, Anger, Sadness, Acedia, Vainglory, Pride — were adapted by St. Gregory the Great (540-604) into a list of Seven Deadly Sins.  He combined vainglory with pride since the two vices are so similar.  The Seven Deadlies have influenced thought right up to this day; the only person I can think of whom you might be interested in reading on this topic is St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, Cassian’s Conferences are recommended reading for the monks.  The result of this is that many aspects of Cassian’s spirituality run throughout the spiritual writings of the Benedictines (and thence the Cistercians, Carthusians, and so forth).  As well, however, St. Benedict encourages his monks to begin their prayers, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me.”  This is a bit of advice from Cassian’s 10th Conference, where he waxes eloquent on the usefulness of that phrase from the Psalms.  To this day, if you go to a Prayer Book service in the Anglican Church, that is right near the beginning of Morning or Evening Prayer (it usually follows, “O Lord open thou our lips, / and our mouth shall show forth thy praise).

This is probably the best we can do for the obvious, visible legacy of Cassian in the West.  The controversy and the centuries have not dealt with him over here kindly.  Nonetheless, his influence no doubt runs through the whole current of monastic spirituality, which is itself the spring from which much of the rest of Christian spirituality draws.

In the East, Cassian’s teaching on Grace & Freewill is understood by some to be the orthodox Orthodox position.  I’m not sure that they are as obsessed as we are about having a perfect definition of this doctrine, however.  Nevertheless, he has the notable distinction of being the only Latin writer who is included in the Philokalia, the Eastern Orthodox collection of teachings from the 2nd through 15th centuries.  These teachings centre on prayer and are the core of most Orthodox spirituality.  This is where the bulk of his influence in the East is found.

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.