Who was John Cassian?
Saint John Cassian (360 – 435 A.D.), John the Ascetic, or John Cassian the Roman, was a Christian monk and theologian celebrated in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings.
Biography of John Cassian
John Cassian was born around 360, most likely in the region of Scythia Minor (now Dobruja in modern-day Romania and Bulgaria), although some scholars assume a Gallic origin. As a young adult he and an older friend, Germanus, traveled to Palestine, where they entered a hermitage near Bethlehem.
After remaining in that community for about three years, they journeyed to the desert of Scete in Egypt, which was rent by Christian struggles. There they visited a number of monastic foundations.
Approximately fifteen years later, in c.399, Cassian and Germanus fled the Anthropomorphic controversy provoked by Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, with about 300 other Origenist monks. Cassian and Germanus went to Constantinople, where they appealed to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Saint John Chrysostom, for protection.
Cassian was ordained a deacon and was made a member of the clergy attached to the Patriarch while the struggles with the imperial family ensued. When the Patriarch was forced into exile from Constantinople in 404, the Latin-speaking Cassian was sent to Rome to plead his cause before Pope Innocent I.
While he was in Rome, Cassian accepted the invitation to found an Egyptian-style monastery in southern Gaul, near Marseilles. He may also have spent time as a priest in Antioch between 404 and 415. In any case, he arrived in Marseilles around 415.
His foundation, the Abbey of St Victor, was a complex of monasteries for both men and women, one of the first such institutes in the West, and served as a model for later monastic development.
Cassian's achievements and writings influenced St Benedict, who incorporated many of the principles into his monastic rule, and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict's rule is still followed by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks, John Cassian's thought still exercises influence over the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Latin Church.
Death and memorials
Cassian died in the year 435 in Marseille. He is a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, with a feast day on 29 February, a date assigned also in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA). Because this day occurs only once every four years on leap years, official Church calendars often transfer his feast to another date (usually 28 February).
The Roman Catholic Church also ranks him as a saint, with a feast day on 23 July. Like his contemporaries Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint John Chrysostom, he was never formally canonized, a process that came into use several centuries after his death. Pope Urban V referred to him as sanctus (a saint) and he was included in the Gallican Martyrology.
He is included also in the Roman Martyrology with a feast-day on 23 July. Like the great majority of recognized saints of the Church, he is not one of the saints in the General Roman Catholic calendar of saints for celebration everywhere, but the Archdiocese of Marseilles and some monastic orders celebrate his memorial on his feast day.
Cassian's relics are kept in an underground chapel in the Monastery of St Victor in Marseilles. His head and right hand are in the main church there.
Cassian came very late into writing and only did so when a request was made by an important person or persons. His sources were the same as those of Evagrius Ponticus, but he added his own personal ideas which were arranged in extensive collections.
Cassian wrote two major spiritual works, the Institutions and the Conferences. In these, he codified and transmitted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. These books were written at the request of Castor, Bishop of Apt, of the subsequent Pope Leo I, and of several Gallic bishops and monks.
The Institutions (Latin: De institutis coenobiorum) deal with the external organization of monastic communities, while the Conferences (Latin: Collationes patrum in scetica eremo) deal with "the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart."
In Books 1-4 of Institutions, Cassian discusses clothing, prayer and rules of monastic life. Books 5-12 are rules on morality, specifically addressing the eight vices - gluttony, lust, avarice, hubris, wrath, envy, acedia, and boasting - and what to do to cure these vices.
The Conferences, dedicated to Pope Leo, to the bishop of Frejus, and to the monk Helladius, summarize important conversations that Cassian had with elders from Scetis about principles of the spiritual and ascetic life. This book addresses specific problems of spiritual theology and the ascetic life. It was later read in Benedictine communities before a light meal, and from the Latin title, Collationes, comes the word collation in the sense of "light meal."
His third book, On the Incarnation of the Lord, was a defense of orthodox doctrine against the views of Nestorius, and was written at the request of the Archdeacon of Rome, later Pope Leo I.
His books were written in Latin, in a simple, direct style. They were swiftly translated into Greek, for the use of Eastern monks, an unusual honor.
The Desert ascetics of Egypt followed a three-step path to mysticism: Purgatio, Illuminatio, and Unitio. These stages correspond to the three ways of later Catholic theology.
During the first level, Purgatio (in Greek, Catharsis), young monks struggled through prayer and ascetic practices to gain control of "the flesh"—specifically by purging their gluttony, their lust and their desire for possessions. This period of purgation, which often took many years, was intended to teach young monks that whatever strength they had to resist these desires (grace) came directly from the Holy Spirit. As the monks underwent this stage of their spiritual education, they identified with Christ's temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13), so that by the end of the Purgatio, they could trust peacefully in the Lord for all their needs.
At this point, the Illuminatio (theoria in Greek) commenced. During this period the monks practiced the paths to holiness as revealed in the Gospel, identifying strongly with the Christ who taught the Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5–7). Many monks took in visitors and students and tended the poor as much as their resources allowed. The monks continued their life of humility in the Spirit of God; the stoic acceptance of suffering was intended to make them capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local Christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.
The final stage was the Unitio (theosis in Greek), a period in which the soul of the monk was meant to bond with the Spirit of God in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called the "Song of Songs" or the "Canticle of Canticles"). To find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded, elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests, identifying with the transfigured Christ, who remained hidden from his disciples both during his life and often after his resurrection.
Effects on later thought
The spiritual traditions of Cassian had an immeasurable effect on Western Europe. Many different western spiritualities, from that of Saint Benedict to that of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, owe their basic ideas to Cassian. In particular, the Institutes had a direct influence on organization of monasteries described in the Rule of St. Benedict; Benedict also recommended that ordered selections of the Conferences be read to monks under his Rule.
Moreover, the monastic institutions Cassian inspired kept learning and culture alive during the Early Middle Ages, and were often the only institutions that cared for the sick and poor. His works are excerpted in the Philokalia (Greek for "love of the beautiful"), the Eastern Orthodox compendium on mystical Christian prayer.
Even modern thinkers are beholden to Cassian's thinking, although perhaps in ways the saint would not have expected. Michel Foucault was fascinated by the rigorous way Cassian defined and struggled against the "flesh". Perhaps because of investigations like these, Cassian's thought and writings are enjoying a recent popularity even in non-religious circles.
As viewed by the Roman Catholic Church
According to the established traditional view among scholars, Cassian is the most prominent of the representatives of the monastic movement in southern Gaul who, in about 425 gave expression to the soteriological view that much later was called Semipelagianism. This emphasized the role of free will in that the first steps of salvation are in the power of the individual, without the need for divine grace.
His thought has been described as a "middle way" between Pelagianism, which taught that the will alone was sufficient to live a sinless life, and the view of Augustine of Hippo, which emphasizes original sin and the absolute need for grace.
For instance, Owen Chadwick stated that Cassian held that man can come to God without the intervention of divine grace first; and B.B. Warfield called Cassian the leader of the monastics in southern Gaul who asserted that men begin their turning to God and that God assists that beginning.
The ideas expressed by Cassian to which critics have pointed as examples of his alleged Semipelagianism are found in his Conferences, in book 3, the Conference of Abbot Paphnutius; book 5, the Conference of Abbot Serapion; and most especially in book 13, the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon.
The view that Cassian propounded Semipelagianism has been disputed. Lauren Pristas, writes: "For Cassian, salvation is, from beginning to end, the effect of God's grace. It is fully divine. Salvation, however, is salvation of a rational creature who has sinned through free choice. Therefore, salvation necessarily includes both free human consent in grace and the gradual rehabilitation in grace of the faculty of free choice. Thus Cassian insists salvation is also fully human. His thought, however, is not Semi-Pelagian, nor do readers who submit to the whole corpus emerge Semi-Pelagians."
And Augustine Casiday states that "for Cassian ... although sparks of goodwill may exist (which are not directly caused by God), they are totally inadequate and only direct divine intervention can ensure our spiritual progress".
The Latin Church condemned Semipelagianism in the local Council of Orange in 529, but recognizes Cassian himself as a saint. It did not endorse Augustine entirely and, while later Catholic theologians accepted Augustine's authority, they interpreted his views in the light of writers such as Cassian.
As viewed by the Eastern Orthodox Church
Augustine Casiday states that Cassian "baldly asserts that God's grace, not human free will, is responsible for 'everything which pertains to salvation' - even faith."
Some other Orthodox, who do not apply the term "Semi-Pelagian" to their theology, criticize the Roman Catholics for allegedly rejecting Cassian, whom they accept as fully orthodox, and for holding, as, in Casiday's interpretation, that everything which pertains to salvation comes from God's grace, and so that even the human consent to God's justifying action is itself an effect of grace.
This position of the Roman Catholic Church and of Cassian as interpreted by Casiday is attributed by Eastern Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky also to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, he says, "always understood that God initiates, accompanies, and completes everything in the process of salvation", rejecting instead the Calvinist idea of irresistible grace. Neither Cassian nor any of his teachings have ever been directly or indirectly called into question or condemned by Eastern Orthodox, as they are considered a witness to the Orthodox position.
- "John Cassian." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.