13 March 2009

One Who 'Noetically Breatheth Forth Divine Cassia'—St John Cassian the Roman

Although today is technically 28 February on the Church’s calendar, I have decided to post about St John Cassian—whose feastday is actually the 29th—anyway. It is customary on non-leap years to transfer the commemorations from that day to the 28th.

I have a tremendous devotion to St John Cassian (often called ‘St Cassian the Roman’ in Eastern sources), and consequently, I’m afraid that everything I want to cover can’t be confined to just one post. For this first one, I shall simply reproduce the Life of St Cassian by Archimandrite Ioanichie Bălan in his Romanian Patericon: Saints of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Vol. I (Third-Eighteenth Centuries) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), pp. 51-7. It is an unusually full, well-written hagiographic account. Even St Nicodemus’s ‘Brief Biography’ of St Cassian prefacing his writings in the Philokalia contains scarcely any biographical detail whatsoever, focusing instead on his writings and teachings (Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Α' [Athens: Astir, 1982], p. 60). For a brief account, however, see the Prologue, Bulgakov’s Handbook, and this account from HTM. The title of the post is paraphrased from the following verses translated on the latter site (which I found in Greek, with some additional lines, here):

Being noetically translated to the divine noetic beings,
Cassian noetically breatheth forth divine cassia.

Before I begin Fr Ioanichie’s account, I’d like to offer a brief note about the identification of St Cassian as a ‘Daco-Roman’. This is based on what seems to be the earliest testimony concerning St Cassian’s origin—the De Viris Illustribus (c. 495) of Gennadius of Marseille. Gennadius calls St Cassian a ‘Scythian by race’, which, as William Harmless points out, ‘would mean that he grew up in the Dobrudja, in modern Romania’ (Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism [Oxford: Oxford U, 2004], p. 374). Harmless, however, also notes that some modern scholars have discounted Gennadius’s testimony, arguing that he came from somewhere in southern France (on p. 403, n. 5, Harmless cites one argument, for instance, that ‘it is unlikely Cassian’s sister, who lived in Marseilles with him, would have made the long voyage from Scythia’). But aside from the intrinsically flimsy nature of the particular argument Harmless mentions, it seems to me that we are always on surer ground in trusting our Fathers in the Faith and, indeed, the ancients in general, than those whose careers depend on coming up with new and exciting things to say about matters thought long settled. So Gennadius was writing some 60 years after St Cassian’s repose. That seems pretty good to me, especially considering that he was a priest in the city where St Cassian’s monastery and relics were, and where traditions about him would have been most faithfully preserved.

So, here is Fr Ioanichie’s Life of St Cassian:

This great ascetic, theologian, organizer of monasteries, teacher, apologist, and renowned ecclesiastical writer of the Church of Christ was a native Daco-Roman. He was born in 360 in Dacia Pontica, in the diocese of Tomis, forty kilometers northwest of the town of Constanţa, in ‘the borders of Cassian and [the district] of the Caves’. His parents, pious and wealthy Christians, gave their son John Cassian (i.e., ‘from the parts of Cassian’) an excellent Christian education, training him from childhood in the reading of Holy Scripture and in an exalted spiritual life of prayer, asceticism, virginity, and zeal for divine things. Being thirsty for learning, he was given over from his childhood to one of the schools that functioned at that time at Tomis, Histria, and Axiopolis, or to one of the nearby monasteries. Here he studied the works of the great classical authors and philosophers, both Greek and Latin, and later also the patristic writings of the second to the fourth centuries which circulated in the northeast of the Roman Empire.

In one of his Conferences, St John Cassian evokes with fondness his parental home, the monasteries, and the beauty of his native land in Dacia Pontica. Here is what he tells us [the English translation of Fr Ioanichie’s Patericon gives a lengthy quote from Conferences XXIV.i.2-3 in the NPNF translation; here I shall give only a portion of XXIV.i.3, and that from Boniface Ramsey, trans., The Conferences, by St John Cassian (NY: Newman, 1999), p. 825]:

. . . In addition, there was painted before our eyes the setting of the ancestral property of our forebears and the pleasant and delightful nature of that region, and how graciously and aggreeably it stretched out to the reaches of the wilderness, so that the recesses of the forests might not only gladden a monk but also provide sufficient supplies of food.

According to his own testimony, St John Cassian ‘even from childhood lived among monks, whose exhortations he heard and who example he saw’. In the age-old forests in central and northern fourth-century Dobrogea, there existed a strong monastic movement with many monasteries and dozens—or perhaps hundreds—of ‘Scythian’ monks and Christ-loving hermits ‘in whose breast blossomed the monastic rule, the habitation of the life of virginity and a particularly severe asceticism . . . whose manner of life is completely worthy of admonition’, as St Epiphanius of Cyprus (340-403) states in his book Against the Eight Heresies, referring to the Audian monks of Dacia Pontica.

Seeing the holiness, zeal for God, and ascetic labors of the ‘Scythian monks’ in his homeland, St John Cassian decided from his tender youth to take up the good yoke of Christ, becoming a monk in one of the monasteries of the diocese of Tomis where St Germanus, his relative and life-long friend, was already laboring in asceticism. His good name, chosen life, and zeal for God—as well as the vast education he ahd acquired—made the young Monk John Cassian the friend of the great Bishops of Tomis, Ss Vetranion (second half of the 4th c.) and Theotimus I ‘the Scythian’ (c. 392-403).

Desiring to worship at the Holy Places and especially at the Life-giving Sepulchre of Christ, St John Cassian left for Jerusalem in 380, when he was only twenty years old, together with his sister, and his relative and friend St Germanus. Here the two monks settled at a monastery in Bethlehem, near the cave where Christ was born.

After more than five years of asceticism and spiritual labors in Bethlehem, St John Cassian was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit to visit the monasteries and hermitages of Egypt, the fatherland of Christian monasticism, together with his friend Germanus.

For more than seven years, the two Daco-Roman monks from the Mouths of the Danube sought out the holy monks, abbots, anchorites, and teachers of the Egyptian desert, learning from them the art of spiritual labor, and perfecting themselves in holiness, prayer, and humility. St John Cassian began here to write his celebrated literary work in twenty-four books called the Conferences with the Fathers, asking for and receiving the counsel and words of instruction from the great anchorites that labored in the Nile Valley, Scetis, Tabenna, Mt Nitria, Raithu, and Mt Sinai. The good soldiers of Christ went like bees from place to place, from one hesychast to another, collecting from each the nectar of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

After a short return trip to Bethlehem, the two Daco-Roman hesychasts went back to Egypt and stayed there until 399. Then, because of the disturbances of the monasteries of the Nile Valley which had been provoked by Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria, St John Cassian and his friend Germanus went to St John Chrysostom in Constantinople, whom they had heard about and greatly loved. Seeing the holiness of St John Cassian’s life and his deep theological education, the great Patriarch and Teacher of the whole world ordained him a deacon and accepted him as his disciple. St John Cassian lived in proximity to St John Chrysostom for five years, learning from him many profitable teachings.

The exiling of the great Patriarch John from his throne in 404 forced St John Cassian to leave for Rome together with his inseparable friend Germanus, to take up the defense of St John Chrysostom before Pope Innocent I. Then, hearing of the death of their good father and pastor in exile in Cucusus, Armenia in 407, and being disgusted by this great injustice performed by the Emperor Arcadius, St John Cassian never again returned to the East or to his fatherland at the Mouths of the Danube. He settled permanently at Marseilles in southern Gaul, where he founded two monasteries, one for monks dedicated to St Victor and another for nuns, according to the model of Ss Pachomius and Basil the Great. Thus he organized the first monasticism in the West according to the rules of the monastic life as practiced in the East.

Ordained a priest and made the Abbot of the two monasteries, St John Cassian gathered numerous disciples around him. He appointed spiritual fathers for them and arranged an order of asceticism and monastic life as in the East. He devoted his years of old age primarily to writing. His opera—which are still read today—comprise three works:

1. On the Institutions of the Monasteries of the Common Life and On the Healing of the Eight Principle Sins (De institutis coenobiorum), a work written in 420 in 12 books, at the request of Bishop Castor of Apta Julia in southern Gaul. In the first 4 books, St John Cassian speaks about the clothing of the monks in Palestine and Egypt, of the nightly prayers and psalms, the daily services, and the conditions of reception into the monastery of new novices. In the next 8 books, St John Cassian speaks about the 8 deadly sins, which he calls ‘thoughts of evil’, namely: gluttony of the stomach, incontinence, love of money, anger, despondency, sloth (accidie), vainglory, and pride.

2. Conferences with the Fathers (Collationes Patrum), in 24 books or conversations. This is the most important surviving literary work of St John Cassian. It is divided into 3 parts. The 1st part, in 10 books, comprises the first 10 conferences with the Fathers of the desert of Scetis which St John collected during his second trip through Egypt (393-399). It is dedicated to Bishop Leontius, a brother of Bishop Castor. The second part comprises 7 books, conferences 11-17, with Fathers from the region of Panephysis. The third part, the last 7 books, comprises conferences 18-24, with Fathers from the region of Diolkos. This work was written between 420 and 429.

3. On the Incarnation of the Lord, Against Nestorius (De incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium), in 7 books, written also in southern Gaul, in 429-430. This last work of St John Cassian has a profound dogmatic and apologetic character, and combats the heresy of Nestorius, who would not call the Virgin Mary the Birthgiver of God (Theotokos) but only the Birthgiver of Christ (Christotokos).

In the first two works, St John Cassian presented the rules of the monastic life as practiced in the East to Western Christianity for the firs time, thus making a stable connecting bridge between the Christian countries of the Orient and the Occident. And in his third work, the Daco-Roman theologian deals with the first heretical, unorthodox doctrine known to the West, Nestorianism. Thus St John Cassian became the first organizer and founder of monasticism in western Europe, where he made patristic and mystical thought, as well as the spiritual experience of the great Fathers of Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine, known for the first time. St John Cassian is also considered a great apologist of the apostolic faith, one who was profoundly knowledgeable in Orthodox dogmas, and who fought with all his strength against Nestorianism, Pelagianism, and the teaching of the absolute supremacy of grace over free will.

After more than sixty years of constant ascetic labor in the monastic life, St Cassian ended his life in peace at his monastery in Marseilles in 435, giving his soul into the hands of Christ and leaving behind some hundreds of disciples. His holy relics lie in a subterranean chapel in the Monastery of St Victor, and his head and right hand lie exposed in the church for veneration. He was considered a Saint even during his life. He is commemorated on February 29.

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