13 March 2009

St Cassian on the Summum Bonum

I thought it worthwhile to provide more from St Cassian’s writings, and rather than go looking through the entire Conferences or even the Institutes I decided to look for something suitable in the neat little book Selected Writings of St John Cassian the Roman (Stafford, AZ: St Paisius Orthodox Women’s Monastery, 2000). Here is a wonderful selection on fasting, and thus quite apropos to the current liturgical season (pp. 118-9):

Of Why Fasting Is Good

Mercy, patience, love, and the dictates of other virtues wherein the chief element is absolute good, should not be practiced for fasting’s sake, but rather we should fast for their sakes. Our endeavor must be, by means of fasting to attain to those virtues which are good essentially, and not that the exercise of these virtues shsould issue in so much fasting. This, then, is the reason why castigation of the flesh is to our good; for this cause we must apply the remedy of sparingness in food; in order that thereby we may be able to attain to love, wherein is found steadfast and unalterable good, untouched by time. For medicine, or the craft of the goldsmith, or other arts and disciplines which exist in this world, are not practiced for the sake of the instruments which severally appertain to them,—which are, indeed, rather tools prepared for the exercise of these arts. Just as they are of use to the skilled workman, so they are void of value to those ignorant of the methods of the particular art. They are of the highest value to those who employ them to perfect their several tasks, but they cannot be of the very slightest avail to those ignorant of the purposes for which they were made, who are content to have them simply in their possession; for such persons place their value in the mere having them, and not in doing work by their aid. That then, is absolutely best, on account of which the other things exist as a means to an end. And the highest good is to be practiced, not because of any extraneous cause, but just because of its own inherent goodness. — Conference XXI, 15 (Abbot Theonas)

Incidentally, this volume also contains a Life of St Cassian by Ivan Kontzevitch (pp. 9-16). While Prof. Kontzevitch unfortunately operates under the idea that St Cassian came from Gaul (p. 9), it is quite a useful account of his life and contains a wonderful appreciation of his writings and significance. Kontzevitch makes the statement—which seems incredible but may in fact be true, and therefore, telling—that ‘The whole of subsequent Western monasticism lived on the heritage of St John Cassian, and the West was never able subsequently to produce anything equal to his works in the sphere of asceticism’ (p. 15). He also points out the appreciation of his writings in the East, quoting St Photius the Great as saying that St Cassian’s books are ‘something divine in nature’ (p. 16).

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