Thursday, 28 February 2013

With the Saints in Lent (16): Saint John Cassian, 28 February


Saint John Cassian ... a saint of both east and west, he has had a strong influence on many from Saint Benedict to Archbishop Rowan Williams

Patrick Comerford

Saint John Cassian, who is remembered in the calendars of the Orthodox Church and the Episcopal Church on 29 February, is regarded as a saint in both the Eastern and the Western Church, and has had a deep influence on the work of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

Because his feastday falls on 29 February, and this day occurs only once every four years, the Orthodox and Episcopal Church calendars transfer his feast to 28 February in the other three years.

Saint John Cassian was born ca 360 in the Danube Delta in what is now Dobrogea, Romania, of noble parents, and was well educated in secular things. But, thirsting for perfection, he left all behind and travelled with his friend Germanus to the Holy Land, where he became a monk in Bethlehem.

After becoming established in the monastic life for several years, Saint John felt a desire for greater perfection, and sought out the Fathers of the Egyptian Desert.

He spent seven years in the Egyptian Desert, learning from such Fathers as Moses, Serapion, Theonas, Isaac and Paphnutius. Through long struggles in his cell, Saint John developed from personal experience a divinely-inspired doctrine of spiritual combat. Many say that it was he who first listed the eight basic passions: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vain-glory and pride.

In time, struggles in the Church of Alexandria made life so difficult for the Egyptian monks that Saint John – still accompanied by his friend Germanus – sought refuge in Constantinople, where they came under the care and protection of the Patriarch, Saint John Chrysostom.

In Constantinople, Saint John Cassian was ordained a deacon and became a member of the Patriarch’s staff. But when Saint John Chrysostom was exiled in 404, Saint John Cassian once again fled, this time to Rome, where he came under the protection of Pope Innocent I.

This proved to be providential for the Western Church, for Saint John brought the treasures of Desert spirituality to the monasteries of the West.

He founded the monastery of Saint Victor in Marseilles. Then, at the request of his bishop, he wrote the Cenobitic Institutes, in which he adapted the austere practices of the Egyptian Fathers to the conditions of life in Gaul.

He went on to write his famous Conferences, which became the main channel by which the wisdom of the Desert East was passed to the monastics of the West.

Saint John died in Marseilles in 435, and has been venerated by the monks of the West as their Father and one of their wisest teachers. His relics are are kept in an underground chapel in the Monastery of Saint Victor in Marseilles, while his head and right hand are kept in the main church.

Like his contemporaries Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint John Chrysostom, he was never formally canonised. Pope Urban V referred to him as sanctus (a saint) and he was included in the Gallican Martyrology.

Saint John’s writings were soon attacked by extreme Augustinians and, as Augustinianism came to dominate thinking in the Western Church, his writings fell out of favour in the West. Nevertheless, the spiritual traditions of Saint John Cassian had an immeasurable effect on Western Europe. Many western spiritual writers, from Saint Benedict to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, owe their basic ideas to him.

In particular, his Institutes had a direct influence on organisation of monasteries described in the Rule of Saint Benedict. Saint Benedict also recommended that ordered selections of the Conferences be read to the monks under his Rule.

The monastic institutions Saint John 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, the Eastern Orthodox compendium on mystical Christian prayer. The Synaxarion calls him “Our Father Cassian, chosen by God to bring the illumination of Eastern monasticism to the West.”

The Roman Catholic Church also ranks him as a saint, with a feast day on 23 July, but his commemoration seems to be limited to the Diocese of Marseilles and some monastic orders.

Saint John Cassian in his own words:

I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies... A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.

Tomorrow (1 March): Saint David.