Wednesday Feb 12, 2014
Introduction to the Life, Times and Writings of St. John Cassian Part II
II. Conquest of Sin:
Both eastern and western spirituality as a whole conceives of the ascetic life as a slow progress upward toward God, a climb of the hill by spiritual exercise - - prayer, mortification of the carnal lusts, growth in the knowledge of God - until the soul has become Christ like, God-like.
This being true, there developed early on principles upon which asceticism might be conducted. Cassian does not develop a system to be followed, but establishes certain principles to be followed in one's spiritual life. As always he makes these principles
understandable to the western mind.
A. Flesh and Spirit:
1. basic antagonism between the two - a war in which neither ceases to attack or defend does not mean the material substance of the body but the carnal desires, the passions.
2. The essence of the Christian life is seen as a war within the personality.
3. Cassian experience was that the body was not evil in essence, but is inclined to and
encourages evil, though its union with and war against the spirit is nevertheless for the
benefit of the spiritual life.
4. the Christian way is not quiet or gentle or pleasant; it is a battle fought in the soul.
This battle is the condition of spiritual progress.
5. Apart from this violence of warring, there is nothing but indifference, lukewarmness.
Advance to attack expresses Cassian's outlook; for the lustful will is the chief adversary of man.
B. The Goal:
1. the ultimate goal is the kingdom of heaven, but the aim(skopos) of the purgative
process is purity of heart. The purgative process must place a person in a state of
freedom from the passions, to produce in the mind a concentration of thought upon God,
in the soul an indifference to all apart from the Creator. To this goal the monk must
march along the royal road unswervingly, must close his eyes like the competitor in a
shooting contest to all but the bullseye. Asceticism is a means toward the skopos
2. Behind this theory lay the ideal of the angelic life.
This was the notion that man must aim at contemplating and worshipping and praising God like the angels and at doing his will on earth as the angels in heaven. But according to Cassian sinlessness is impossible, temptations never cease in this life and there is always the need to fight.
3. Perfection in this life is relative perfection, not to be identified with sinlessness but
rather with the completion of the purgative process, which can be described as the state
of purity of heart.
It is possible to achieve freedom from the grosser passions, but this does not mean immunity from temptation. Purity of heart is but the moral platform from whence God can be seen.
C. The Principal Sins:
1. Cassian list contained eight principal sins: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, dejection, accidie, vainglory, pride. Cassian treated them as sin produced by
2. The order is not random. They are linked together as cars in a railroad train. Because
they are so intimately coupled an attack upon one is an attack upon all and conversely a
surrender to one is a surrender to all, and because gluttony acquires its capital place in
the list as the root instigator of the corrupting series, fasting and abstinence must become
the first and most valuable element in all ascetic practice.
3. Cassian writing is intended to drive the mind to seek the reason for sin, not in superficial symptoms but in the latent evil in the human heart. Fight, strive, press on, struggle, resist, conquer - - are all key words. Cassian can only repeat, "here is the evil - fight against it.
4. In all of this grace is presupposed: God is both the goal and the means by which the
goal is attained. Grace is what leads us to embrace methods of spiritual progress.
D. The Motive of the Life of Virtue:
1. Three things enable men to control and remedy their faults: a) the Fear
of hell, or the penalties of earthly laws, b) the thought of and desire for the kingdom of heaven and c) a love of goodness and virtue in itself.
2. These three motives are not equally excellent, but correspond to different grades in the
spiritual life, in which the third, the selfless motive must be the highest aim of all who seek after God. The Christian is seeking to be united with God.
3. The soul must love and follow God for his own sake and not in the hope of personal
advantage or enjoyment. Ethics are the instrument to the love of God.
E. The Virtues:
1. virtue for Cassian consists in not committing sin. Where he thinks of virtue, he
normally treats it as the opposite of vice: chastity means not fornicating, patience not
being angry, humility not being proud, temperance not being gluttonous.
2. Charity, or love of God, was the transcendent virtue in which all individual virtues were absorbed. For this reason he was uninterested in the discussion of the specific virtues and
the distinctions of later moralists.
3. morality acts as an instrument to the contemplation of God, and so Cassian invariably treats good deeds not as the flowing outcome of the love of God but as a useful aid in the
struggle for personal perfection. Good works and acts of virtue will even disappear in
heaven where all is caught up in the contemplation of God.
4. He normally conceived the fight as a battle against the pressing, insidious powers of
evil, rarely as a battle for the good. The assaulting sins are much more numerous than
the defending virtues.
A. The Doctrine of Cassian:
1. His thought centers upon the strife between flesh and spirit. The carnality of man
which is the result of the Fall, has not made man incapable of doing good: it has rather
produced a tension in human nature whereby sinful desires pull against the spiritual
desires. In the middle of the strife, between the flesh on the one side and the spirit on the
other, the free will is set maintaining the tension. He calls the free will the balance in the
scales of the body.
2. Cassian's view stirred him to emphasize the powers of the human will - - even if it is
weakened. The whole weight of his thought is thrown upon the necessity for exertion.
The monk must fight to achieve purity of heart, he must work to eject the seeds of vices,
he must fast and watch and labor with his hands, he must direct his mental process and
ward off temptations. In all of this grace is not discarded but thoroughly assumed, on
account of the enormous importance he attaches to prayer.
3. Cassian never suggests that sin can be overcome, that the Christian road can be
travelled, unless God grant his grace. Rather his teaching emphasizes two truths of the
Christian faith - - that man depends absolutely upon God, and that his will has full
responsibility for choice between good and evil.
4. Cassian is the teacher, emphasizing opposite sides of the same question for practical
reasons. Grace is not set in antithesis to freedom of the will, but to laziness.
B. Grace in the Conferences:
1. In Cassian, as opposed to Augustine, the human will is not portrayed so darkly. After
the Fall, while having a bias toward and desire for evil, man still has knowledge of the good; and since the human race has this knowledge of the good, it can sometimes
perform it naturally, of its own free will unaided by grace except in so far as God is
regarded as granting his grace when he originally created man capable of doing good. In
Augustine the will to good is dead: in Cassian it is not dead, but neither is it healthy.
Rather he conceives the human will as sick, needing constant attention from healing
grace, but like a sick man still capable occasionally - if revived by medicine - of healthy
2. In a more subtle argument, Cassian teaches that grace is sometimes removed for the benefit of the soul. To prevent the will becoming slothful and idle, grace may wait for some move on the part of the will. We see here again the connection in his mind between
grace and laziness.
IV. The Life of Contemplation:
1. although some ascetics considered sinlessness to be within the power of human nature,
Cassian denied the possibility. The soul is bound to leave the divine vision because of
that law in human nature resulting from the Fall. The word saint is not a synonym of the
word immaculate for Cassian.
2. Cassian will allow that an ascetic may achieve the destruction of all his faults. Yet this is not sinlessness, since the mind cannot maintain it hold upon the contemplation of God; and in the eyes of the saint even momentary departure from contemplation is the vilest of sin. Full possession of the virtues may be attained, but not the possibility of keeping the mind concentrated on God.
3. The principal barrier for the monk lies not so much in the commission of external sin,
but in the slippery thought of his own mind. Thus there can be perfection attain in the
active life, but not in the contemplative life.
B. The Mind
1. Cassian regards contemplation as the mind seeing God; union as the linking of the mind to God. Since the mind through the Fall is so unstable and wandering that it can never be still, the problem of contemplation consists in fixing the mind to a single point - God. Cassian reverts to the difficulty of the mobile mind perhaps more frequently than to any other subject dealt with in the Conferences.
2. Swarms of thoughts enter the mind, whether suggested by devils or by earthly
distractions. Yet, Cassian did not seek the stripping naked of the mind, but rather the mind must attempt to control the ascending and descending of thoughts, until the former
predominate over the latter.
3. In later stages, there is progressive simplification until the state of pure prayer is
reached where the prayer is so concentrated upon God alone that the mind has come to
unity from diversity and holds one prayer, one thought.
C. Prayer and Contemplation
1. Cassian's teaching on prayer is not unlike the consensus of Egyptian monastic thought
upon the beginnings of contemplation: from the discursive use of the mind in meditation,
the soul passes by a gradual simplification of thought to a condition where it does not
need mental variety in order to pray, but can rest "satisfied, and more deeply satisfied,
with a simple look at God than it was at first with much thinking. In the early stages the
soul is frequently filled with sensible sweetness, with spiritual delight in God. This
sweetness vanishes as advance is made upon the contemplative way, until the soul
confronts God in a cloud of unknowing, dimly and ignorantly, while the intellect without
concepts and without images, is not only at rest but cannot think discursively at all. In
pure contemplation all the faculties of the intellect and the heart are silenced in face of the simple longing for God.
2. For Cassian, the supreme goal of life, the kingdom of God itself, is to be found, in the
direct perception of God. He is at one with Egyptian tradition in believing that none may
enter upon this way who has not first undertaken the practical training of the active life.
The monk cannot contemplate if he is proud, unchaste or dejected, if he is not seeking
detachment from created things.
3. As prayer is reduced from a multiplicity of thoughts to simplicity, the object of
contemplation, which began by being complex, becomes little by little a unity. The ladder of contemplation has three rungs: the contemplation of many things, the contemplation of a few, the contemplation of one alone.
4. Cassian only mentions the effects of contemplation occasionally. It brings union with, by union of wills though not in essence. The soul comes to the image and likeness of God feeds on the beauty and knowledge of God, it receives the indwelling Christ the Holy Spirit, it is illumined attains to the adopted Sonship and possesses all that belongs to the Father. The soul is so filled that it begins to share in the love of the Blessed Trinity. For John, contemplation is a formless thoughtless, vacuity. Rather it is a unity wherein fullness is found: where God shall be all our love, and every desire and wish and effort, every thought of ours, and all our life and words and breath, and that unity which
already exist between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, has
been shed abroad in our hearts and minds.
Cassian bequeathed to Western Christianity the idea that the spiritual life was a science in which prayer reigned:that is possible to analyze temptation and the nature of sin: that methods of prayer and mortification are neither haphazard nor individual, but order according to established experience. All the guides to spirituality in which western Europe later abounded are his direct descendants.
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