The goal of life for Christians is the kingdom of God, but early in the Church’s history the men and women of the desert realized that the practice of the Christian life re quired more proximate goals. In their writings the phrase used most often to depict what one strives for in life’s daily struggles was “purity of heart.” Without purity of heart, all yearning for holiness and all desire for God come to naught, for hour by hour, even minute by minute, we are bent and shaped by distractions and wayward thoughts, many good and legitimate, that drive our minds and take our affections captive.
All the great spiritual writers have known this, but few in the Church’s history understood it better, experienced it more deeply, and wrote about it with more insight than John Cassian, the monk from southern Gaul who lived in the early part of the fifth century. Yet Cassian is not well known except in monastic circles and among connoisseurs of the spiritual life. While the sayings and stories of the desert fathers have become popular, and names such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, the Syrian Jacob of Sarug, and medievals Richard and Bernard and John of the Cross and Theresa, are often invoked, Cassian has languished. In part this is because of the vagaries of translation. Only selections have been available in contemporary English. To have Cassian in full one had to turn to the nineteenth–century translations in the Nicene and Post–Nicene Fathers.
But perhaps Cassian’s time has come. In the last two years there has appeared not only a first–class monograph on him by the fine scholar Columba Stewart of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, but also an excellent translation of the whole of Cassian’s major work, The Conferences, his presentation and interpretation of the spiritual teachings of the monks of the Egyptian desert. The translator, Boniface Ramsey, O.P., is a seasoned student of the church fathers and an accomplished translator; for this task, it is not beside the point to note that he is also a pastor of a large urban parish, and thus able to present Cassian as he was intended to be read, as a guide to the Christian life. In the same way Stewart’s book is not simply a book about “who Cassian was”; it is, he tells us, also a book “about who he is for us.” One would not go far wrong to look upon these two publications as upscale self–help books.
John Cassian was born in the middle of the fourth century in what is present day Romania, and as a young man he became a monk in Bethlehem. From there he traveled to Egypt, where he lived for many years and apprenticed himself to the ascetic masters of the Egyptian desert. Eventually he returned to the West and settled in southern France near Marseilles, where he founded two monasteries. There he drew on what he had learned in Egypt and his own experience to compose two works that have become classics, The Institutes, a kind of introduction to the religious life, and The Conferences, a fuller and more mature exposition offering richer fare for the advanced. The Conferences takes the form of extended interviews with individual monks who are named and whose words are sometimes prefaced by personal anecdotes. (Father Ramsey is also due to publish a translation of The Institutes, again with Paulist Press, this fall.)
Here is how the conference with Abba Serenus on the “principalities” begins:
When everything . . . that the solemnity of the day demanded and the congregation in church had been dismissed, we returned to the old man’s cell and there we first splendidly refreshed. For in place of the brine which, along with a little bit of oil added to it, was his customary daily meal, he mixed in some sauce and poured over it more oil than usual. For when anyone is about to take his daily meal he puts in a few drops of oil—not so that he may enjoy some kind of pleasant flavor from the taste of it (indeed, the amount is so small that it is hardly enough to smear the passages of his throat, never mind to pass through it), but so that by doing this he may weaken the boastfulness of heart that usually creeps in flatteringly and surreptitiously with a stricter abstinence. . . . Then he put out some salt and three olives each. Finally, in addition to these other things, he produced a basket containing ground chick peas . . . from which we took only five morsels each, two prunes and a fig apiece. For whoever has ex ceeded this amount in the desert is blameworthy. When the meal was finished . . . the old man said: “Pose your question, which we have put off answering until now.”
Cassian was a natural teacher and his writings are carefully organized and always concrete. He realized that the path to spiritual maturity was not attained by reaching for lofty ideals. Specific areas of behavior have to be looked at one by one, broken down into parts, worked on in bits and pieces until over time one could begin to notice change. He liked to make lists: the eight vices (gluttony, lust, greed, anger, melancholy, sloth, vainglory, and pride), the three renunciations, four ways of interpreting the Scripture, three kinds of fornication, etc. By the time he wrote some of this was commonplace (he learned the eight vices from Evagrius, the most sophisticated thinker of the Egyptian desert), but he adds his own insight and experience to what he had received. It was not only what he said but his skill as a teacher that accounts for his popularity over the centuries. Though he was not the first to make a list of eight vices, it was from him that later generations learned to group the vices in that way.
Here is how he handles the list of four kinds of prayer given in 1 Timothy 2:1: “I urge first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made.” Before beginning his discussion of prayer, Cassian realizes he needs to put to rest certain misconceptions. Cassian knew that “prayer” is too general a category to be of much help in teaching someone to pray. Prayer is varied and takes different forms at different times. A person prays one way, he says, when he is happy and another way when burdened by a weight of sadness, one way when enjoying spiritual successes and another when oppressed by troubles, one way when begging pardon for sins and another when asking for grace or some virtue. This being said, he can now analyze the different occasions for prayer in light of the list given by Paul.
As an elderly man Cassian also wrote a theological work, “On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius,” but as a thinker he does not move in the company of the great theological minds of the early church—he is not an Augustine or an Athanasius. His interest is always in the formation of souls (that is, how one lives), and his books are practical and down to earth, filled with direction and psychological insight, even “tips” for life. In Cassian’s world temptation, not heresy, was the enemy. The Conferences is a book to be read as one practices and practiced as one reads, digested slowly over time, as one might read, for example, St. John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle. Cassian’s aim is to change the behavior and attitudes and affections of his readers, not their ideas. There are chapters on discretion, renunciation, desire, the vices, changeableness of the soul, prayer, chastity, perfection, friendship, spiritual knowledge, making promises. Ramsey’s translation makes it easy to enter into Cassian’s world so that one can return changed to one’s own world.
Columba Stewart’s book is a scholarly monograph that situates Cassian in his historical context, searches out the sources of his thinking, and analyzes the central features of his spiritual teaching. Yet Stewart writes from within the tradition of which Cassian was a part, and is eager to present him as a living master of the spiritual life. I recall an electrifying moment a few years ago at a learned conference on the church fathers when Fr. Stewart stood up and challenged a speaker who was treating the early monks as though they belonged to a forgotten and moribund past. He reminded her that people still practiced what these monks had written about centuries ago.
Stewart discusses Cassian the theologian, his ascetical teaching, and other matters, but fully a third of the book is devoted to prayer. Everything Cassian teaches about prayer de pends on the Bible. Cassian does not mean that one learns how to pray by studying the Scriptures; for him rather the words of the Bible are the primary vehicle that one uses to pray. This requires of course that large sections of the Bible be memorized, chiefly the psalms, and also that one’s prayer take the form of repeating a biblical verse or phrase. In Cassian’s words: “The unceasing recitation of the Holy Words should bring the soul into a climate, into a disposition, from which its own prayer can arise spontaneously.” He begins with the words of the Bible, and as these words are repeated they become our words and free us to speak to God out of our deepest self. As Cassian puts it: “Everything lies in the soul’s inner sanctuary.” But we need to be led to this sanctuary, and it is the words of the Bible that line the path.
Stewart concludes his discussion with what Cassian calls “fiery prayer,” that intense communion with God that is “known and experienced by very few.” This prayer is exuberant, fervent, pure, joyful, beyond words, and, as one can readily understand, of brief duration. Yet it must have happened often enough for the ancient monks to talk about it and for Cassian to find the words to describe it. In a beautiful final chapter Stewart helps us understand what Cassian meant by “fiery prayer,” but he also shows how his teaching fits into the larger tradition that formed the practice of the great spiritual masters of the Christian past. “In the end,” writes Stewart, “his importance is greatest not to the historical theologians who puzzle over his thought but to those of both East and West who recognize in him the great charism of Teacher.”
It is serendipitous that Stewart’s monograph should appear shortly after Ramsey’s translation. For now one can read Ramsey and turn to Stewart for clarification or read Stewart and open the pages of Ramsey for confirmation. Together they invite us into a world that has much to teach us.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.