Paths (Part 48: St John Cassian)

In 2012, as I was approaching Orthodoxy, my first guide and companion along the way was St John Cassian, a saint revered by both the western and eastern Christian traditions. In the west, his two primary works, The Conferences and The Institutes were both required reading for early Benedictine monks, and Benedict himself fashioned his famous rule upon the precepts laid down by Cassian in The Institutes. It is also said, that his works were very important to the illustrious western theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who supposedly always carried a copy of The Conferences with him in his satchel, along with The Bible. These things, while interesting and speak to his influence on later Christian thinkers, were less interesting to me than the path that he took, in trying to find the best way to know God, and the things he learned along the way, that I could relate with so deeply, and which inspired me to continue on my own journey.

I discovered that Cassian was born in the middle of the fourth century, and as a young adult, he and a friend traveled to Bethlehem, and joined an ascetic community of monks for about three years. Already I was intrigued by his life, because I also had joined an ascetic community in my early adulthood, and had spent some time in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. After this, they traveled to Egypt where they studied for many years with the Christian monks of the desert, who were famous for their holiness. This brought back to my mind considerations I had often had, throughout my life, about the value of monasticism, as a model even for laypeople, and as a fountain of wisdom about spirituality, and as a guide towards achieving a deeper relationship with God. I often wondered about my own Protestant tradition and why we didn’t have monks and monasteries helping to inspire and instruct us in the ‘angelic’ life, as it is commonly known. This seemed so strange to me that we didn’t, especially in view of the fact that Christ himself modeled solitude and prayer, fasting, and retreating to the desert to be with His Father. Additionally, John the Baptist (Forerunner) was a prime example of the monastic ideal, and again was a model for all Christians; and he was even described by Christ Himself as the “greatest among all that have been born of women.” But going even further, St Paul also described this path, in his letter to the Corinthians, describing the two ways of living: in marriage, or alone serving God. With all of this scriptural emphasis in support of the monastic life it seemed logical, as a Christian, even if I wasn’t able to be a monk myself, to avail myself of every possible thing I could gain, in my own spiritual journey, from the efforts, struggles, and victories of my monastic brothers and sisters, and to sit at their feet, so to speak, just as St John Cassian had done.

After many years in Egypt, Cassian traveled to Constantinople and served as a deacon under St John Chrysostom, and then went on to Rome, and finally to Marseilles, France where he founded a monastery based on the Egyptian model. It was here that he wrote his books. The Conferences consists of a series of interviews with many of the most accomplished elders that he studied under while in Egypt. This book in particular impacted me because of the topics included, and also the style of writing. Each interview, or conference, addresses a topic of spirituality, such as vice, desire, God’s protection, spiritual knowledge, divine gifts, and repentance, among many others, and almost line by line what is being said is referenced to a verse of scripture. It was incredible to me, the way that practically everything which was said, referred back to a teaching in scripture. I had never read anything like it, something so insightful, and addressed topics about which most Christians I knew, like me, didn’t know very much. And all of the citations allowed me to see the connections between Biblical verses, and the interpretations that these humble monks were teaching. Their teachings were within the context of scripture, but also within the context of the living traditions of the early church; these weren’t just some guys making things up, trying to be entertaining, or trying to be innovative and make a name for themselves. The depth and breadth of the teaching contained in The Conferences, and the gentle and humble manner with which it is written, delighted me and gave me hope that a wise and deep spirituality did exist in the Christian church, it merely had been hidden from me for all of these years, but it still remained even now, and just had to be sought after and uncovered.

I found guidance and discipleship through his writings that encouraged me to keep seeking God intently. He described the vital importance that purity of heart plays in one’s ability to know the Kingdom of God in this life, to participate in the life of God here and now, and not to merely waiting for this participation in the life to come. He described the way to achieve purity of heart through the repudiation of our passions, our vices, through repentance and the development of inner tranquility and most especially through humility before God. As an example, here he writes about this humility:

“If you wish to achieve true knowledge of scripture you must hurry to achieve unshakeable humility of heart. This is what will lead you not to the knowledge that puffs a man up but to the lore which illumines through the achievement of love.”      ~John Cassian

He also introduced me to the idea of praying without ceasing, as St Paul tells us to do in First Thessalonians 5:17, and he provided a short prayer, a psalm actually, that he recommended to use in order to always keep the Lord in our thoughts, and in our hearts. It is from Psalm 70: “Come to my help, O God; Lord (Jesus) hurry to my rescue.”  I added ‘Jesus’ myself, when I began to use this short prayer.  Scripture speaks often about keeping our thoughts on spiritual things and not carnal ones, and this prayer, or others like it, are intended to help keep the mind occupied on spiritual things. Through repeated effort, eventually a habit of thought can be developed, and this prayer can help orient us in the direction of God at all times. Of course, maintaining a prayer of this sort, always in our mind, is extremely difficult, but that is the discipline, and the goal.

Adding this ‘prayer of the heart’, as these types of prayers are known, to my daily prayer rule, helped me in every area of life, but especially at work, where stress and difficulty could be a real burden for me.  When I could remember to say the prayer, silently in my mind, I felt a renewed strength to meet the current challenge, and a greater peace within me, enabling me to create loving outcomes more frequently, as opposed to merely reacting to my circumstances. And I felt connected to God, simply put, by this prayer. It reminded me that yes, in fact, God is available to come to my help; I am not alone. So it is also a bulwark against despair, loneliness and temptation.

As with the other components of my prayer rule, praying without ceasing is a skill I am developing, and progress is slow over many years. I wish I could say I created the habit quickly, within a month or so, and that now I pray all the time, silently in my heart, to God. But certainly this is not the case. Even so, now I do pray within my heart much more of the time than I did when I first started seriously attempting it back in 2012. Progress may be gradual, but it is worthwhile, and I sometimes think that the process itself is also as important for us, and to God, as the success or the outcome. Just as the wise man of Proverbs may fall seven times and each time he gets back up; every moment that I forget to pray, is merely the moment before the one in which I begin to pray again.

(to be continued)


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