John Cassian (c 360-435) outlined monastic principles which greatly influenced St Benedict, while as a spiritual writer his heirs included St Dominic, St Philip Neri, St Francis de Sales and Cardinal Newman.
His asceticism, while rigorous, was tempered by common sense. “The perfection of self-control is not only found in our use of time, nor the quality of our food, but is to be sought before the tribunal of conscience.”
The first part of John Cassian’s life was extraordinarily peripatetic. Originally hailing, apparently, from the Danube delta on the Black Sea, he entered a monastery in Bethlehem about 382, and from around 385 to 399 lived with monks in Egypt.
Escaping from conflicts between Coptic and Greek traditions, he went to Constantinople and met St John Chrysostom. Moving on again around 403, he passed through Rome before finally settling in Marseille, where he founded two monasteries, one for men, the other for women.
His travels now completed, Cassian wrote De Institutis Coenobiorum and the Collationes (or Conferences). The first offers advice on how to grow in virtue as a monk, while the second reports conversations which Cassian and his friend Germanus had conducted with various elders in Egypt.
St Benedict recommended Cassian for daily study. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages Collationes was read so regularly to monks at daybreak that the very title came to mean “breakfast” in some languages – as in the Italian colazione and the Polish kolacja.
Up to the end of the 16th century Cassian’s writings were regarded as essential Christian texts. St Philip Neri used to read Cassian to the laity and would frequently use his work as the starting point for his own addresses.
Subsequently, however, Cassian rather fell from favour, as a more repressive and rigid notion of morality replaced his essentially sympathetic counsel.
In the 19th century Cardinal Newman distinguished the “Athenian” tradition of spirituality, which worked with the grain of humanity, from the “Spartan” teaching which sought to combat sin by destroying the natural man.
Cassian, most definitely an Athenian, had written frankly about sexual temptation. In combating this vice, he held, will power alone would prove dangerously insufficient. Rather, “we must acknowledge that we are fighting a war beyond our strength, and that we are unable to gain the victory by our own effort and determination, unless supported by the help and protection of Our Lord”.
Chastity, moreover, should not be considered in isolation from other virtues. “How can we believe that someone has extinguished the burning darts of lust… if he has been unable to control the pricks of anger which arise from the heart alone?”
Monks, he advised, should avoid the company of women and bishops. As for excessive mortification, of what use could that be if followed by over-indulgence?