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Saint of the week

The saint whose guide on virtue was read every day by monks in the Middle Ages

St John Cassian (July 23) fell out of favour in the 16th century

By on Monday, 23 July 2012

John’s book Collationes gave the Italians their word for breakfast

John’s book Collationes gave the Italians their word for breakfast

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?

  • CFS

    Avoid the company of women and bishops??  Women temp to lust, bishops tempt to anger?

  • Parasum

    “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.”

    ## But is that *Biblical* thinking ? We are more fortunate than Newman, because the Church has returned to modes of thought that are much more Biblically influenced than the Classical ideas that infected Catholic theology in the 19th century – or the  fifth. Heathens like Plato are useless guides on matters that we can know of only through Scripture, & above, all Christ. What can pagan philosophers have to say about being “partakers of the Divine Nature” *in Christ*, when they did not even know & adore the True God, and are blamed by St.Paul for not acknowledging Him. They have their uses – but are useless for Christian theology, Christian formation, Christian ethics.  To use these men as guides in what belongs the Life which is supernatural, in which we share by God’s grace, is to subject the Wisdom of Christ to the broken & obscure & shattered wisdom of sinful & heathen men, of men even poorer in Divine things than we are.

    2. The “natural man” is described unflatteringly by St.Paul: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” 


    Ephesians 2 starts thus:

    1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,
    2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
    3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
    4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
    5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
    6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
    7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
    8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
    9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
    10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.


    ## So much for what we are “by nature” ! What St. Paul means & the Greeks mean by the phrase is entirely different. So different, that salvation by Christ involves being saved from what we are by nature.