13 March 2009

St Cassian in the Tradition of the Church

Having already posted an account of St Cassian's life, I wanted to add a bit on his teachings and his place in the Tradition of the Church. So this is St John Cassian, part 2.

St Cassian forms a solid link between East and West, first and foremost because of his bilingualism (see William Harmless, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 375). But he is also a faithful representative of the spirituality of the Christian East (on this, see Fr Deacon Matthew Steenberg’s short paper here). He is, to my knowledge, the only Latin to be featured in either the Gerontikon (see Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], pp. 112-5) or the Philokalia (see St Nikodimos and St Makarios, comp., The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. I, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1983], pp. 72-108). Columba Stewart, in his extremely important study, Cassian the Monk (Oxford: Oxford U, 1999), tell us, ‘Cassian’s perspective was very much that of the eastern Christian and monastic traditions that formed him’ (p. 78).

But while he was at home in Greek, St Cassian himself wrote in Latin, which ‘seems to have been his native language’ (Harmless, p. 374). More importantly, his primary contribution as a teacher of monasticism and the spiritual life was made in and to the West. It is ‘in the West, in Gaul’ that he founded his own monastery (St John Cassian, The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 2000], p. 14), and more importantly, it is there that his particular influence on subsequent monasticism has been deemed ‘incalculable’ (Stewart, p. 24). As Fr Seraphim (Rose) has put it, faced with the need for Latin writings on the monastic life, ‘As with one voice, the monastic fathers of Gaul turned for this account to St John Cassian . . .’ (‘Introduction to Orthodox Gaul’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 95). Later, his continued influence in the West was assured by St Benedict’s Rule, since it both distilled and reflected St Cassian’s teachings (see for instance, the entry for St Cassian in the index to either of the commentaries on the Rule by Adalbert de Vogüé), and explicitly enjoined the reading of his books (see RB 73:5). As Owen Chadwick has written (‘Introduction’, Conferences, by St John Cassian, trans. Colm Luibheid [NY: Paulist, 1985], p. 29):

It was Cassian’s fortune to be taken up by the greatest of the makers of rules; more than his fortune, because he deserved the fate. . . . He became the guide of Western monasteries partly because his guidance was of a wisdom and stature that enabled him to sustain the role, and partly because through St Benedict he became one main part of the spiritual reading of monks.

Of course, St Cassian’s influence in the West has not been without controversy, chiefly because of his faithfulness to the Orthodox teaching on grace and free will in Conference XIII (see St John Cassian, The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], pp. 467-91; this Conference is conspicuously absent from the Paulist edition, the Introduction to which I have cited above) in the face of the growing hyper-Augustinianism of the West. For this, he was criticised by St Augustine himself in two books containing the latter's exaggerated teachings on the subject, and even more directly by St Augustine’s overly zealous disciple, Prosper of Aquitaine. The almost hegemonic authority of the great Bishop of Hippo in the West led to the silly convention of referring to St Cassian’s presentation of the Orthodox doctrine of the cooperation between Divine grace and human freedom as ‘Semi-Pelagianism’ (see the old Catholic Encyclopedia article for a typical expression of this view), despite St Cassian’s clear rejection of the Pelagian heresy. Of course, in the East it has always been obvious that, as Fr Seraphim has said, the ‘true teaching of St Cassian’ is nothing other than ‘the teaching of the Orthodox Church’ (The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], p. 38).

Fortunately, such Augustinians as Prosper (who, according to the CE, ‘alludes to him with great respect as a man of more than ordinary virtues’) and St Fulgentius of Ruspe (who, according to Stewart, ‘was aflame with desire to visit Egypt after reading [the unnamed] Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences’ [p. 24]) were at least respectful towards the great Father. Unfortunately, their example has not been followed, in particular, by many of the disciples of John Calvin. Modern scholars at least seem to be rethinking this whole approach of reading St Cassian through the criticisms of Prosper and his ilk. Boniface Ramsey, in his translation of the Conferences, suggests that St Cassian’s teachings are ‘probably more correctly’ characterised as ‘Semi-augustinianism’ (p. 459), and in his review of Stewart’s book, he calls his spirited defence of St Cassian’s position on pp. 77-81 characteristic of ‘a growing number of students of the “Semi-Pelagian” controversy’. Interestingly, Stewart calls Prosper’s account of St Cassian’s teaching ‘a virtual parody’ (p. 77), and ends up affirming what Fr Seraphim had already told us (Bl Augustine, pp. 41-2):

To Christian experience, and in particular to the monastic experience from which St Cassian speaks, there is no ‘contradiction’ [contra Prosper] at all in the cooperation of freedom and grace; it is only human logic that finds the ‘contradiction’ when it tries to understand this question much too abstractly and divorced from life. The very way in which Bl Augustine, as opposed to St Cassian, expresses the difficulty of this question, is a revelation of the difference in the depth of their answers. Augustine merely acknowledges that this is ‘a question which is very difficult and intelligible to few’ (Letter 214, to Abbot Valentinus of Hadrumetum), hereby indicating that for him it is a puzzling intellectual question; whereas for St Cassian it is a profound mystery whose truth is known in experience. At the end of his thirteenth Conference St Cassian indicates that in his doctrine he follows ‘all the Catholic Fathers who have taught perfection of heart not by empty disputes of words, but in deed and act’ (such references to ‘empty disputes’ are the closest he allows himself to come to actual criticism of the eminent Bishop of Hippo); and he concludes this whole Conference on the ‘synergy’ of grace and freedom with these words: ‘If any more subtle inference of man’s argumentation and reasoning seems opposed to this interpretation, it should be avoided rather than brought forward to the destruction of the faith; for how God works all things in us and yet everything can be ascribed to free will cannot be fully grasped by the mind and reason of man’ (Conferences, XIII.xviii.4 [this is found in Ramsey on p. 490]).

Stewart notes that St Cassian ‘has the Bible on his side’ (p. 80), and it is interesting to consider his relationship to the Scriptures. Harmless observes that St Cassian ‘certainly knew the Bible in Greek’ (p. 375), and Stewart confirms this (p. 35):

He compares Old Latin versions to Jerome’s Vulgate or remarks on textual variants in Latin manuscripts. He quotes the Septuagint or the Greek New Testament for nuances unparalleled in the Latin. Some of his interpretations depend on the Greek or on a comparison between the Greek and Latin versions.

Editors of Cassian’s works since Ciaconnius in 1588 have noticed that his biblical quotations frequently seem to be his own Latin translation of the Septuagint, portions of which he had probably memorized as a young monk in Palestine and Egypt. When he cites Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, two books particularly beloved by monks, nearly all his quotations are based on the Septuagint. On the other hand, he almost always cites the Psalms in the so-called Gallican Latin version of Jerome, reflecting his liturgical experience of that translation at the monastery in Marseilles. Other texts from the Wisdom literature, however, used for his private meditatio, retained their Greek character.

That St Cassian was a careful student of the Scriptures thus seems to me to be quite clear. But, like his teaching on grace and free will in particular, it is important to recognise that he is not merely interpreting the Scriptures as some kind of scholastic exercise. For, as he writes in Conference X.xi.5, 6 (Ramsey, pp. 384-5):

5. For divine Scripture is clearer and its inmost organs, so to speak, are revealed to us when our experience not only perceives but even anticipates its thought, and the meanings of the words are disclosed to us not by exegesis but by proof. . . . 6. . . . Having been instructed in this way, with our dispositions as our teachers, we shall grasp this as something seen rather than heard, and from the inner disposition of the heart we sshall bring forth not what has been committed to memory but what is inborn in the very nature of things. Thus we shall penetrate its inner meaning not through the written text but with experience leading the way. So it is that our mind will arrive at that incorruptible prayer to which, in the previous discussion, as far as the Lord deigned to grant it, the conference was ordered and directed.

Thus, we arrive at what is perhaps the most important and profound part of St Cassian’s teaching, that on unceasing prayer. Unfortunately, I have run out of time and space to deal with that weighty subject today. I have touched on it somewhat in this post, and the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has discussed it here among other places, but I’m afraid that will have to suffice for now.

I will also just mention that today is a sort of feastday of mine, as St Cassian is my patron Saint as an oblate of St Benedict.


John said...

I agree that "unceasing prayer" is Cassian’s great teaching.

I enjoyed reading your blog.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for your kind comment. I'm glad I'm not the only one who's had this thought about St Cassian's teaching!

Eric Costa said...
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