St John Cassian

Gregory DiPippo

In the Byzantine Rite, February 29th is the feast day of one of the greatest among the early patriarchs of Christian monasticism, St John Cassian. Just as those who are born on that day customarily keep their birthdays on February 28th outside of leap years, he is usually commemorated at Compline on the evening of that day. Although he is recognized as a Saint in the West, he is honored with a feast almost nowhere apart from Marseilles in southern France, where he died ca. 435 A,D., at the age of roughly 75. His life and career are a perfect demonstration of the transnational culture created by the Roman Empire, with the Latin and Greek languages as parts of its foundation, and within which the early Church found fertile ground for sowing the seed of the Gospel.

It is believed that he was born ca. 360 in the region between the Danube river and the Black Sea which the Romans called Scythia Minor, and is now known as Dobruja, in the states of Romania and Bulgaria. When he was around 20, he and a close friend named Germanus traveled to the Holy Land, and embraced monastic life in a monastery near Bethlehem. But the heart of the growing monastic movement was in Egypt, and after a few years, they decided to go there, to live and learn among the great fathers of the desert. Around the turn of the 5th century, they moved to Constantinople, where the bishop, St John Chrysostom, ordained Cassian a deacon, and made him his cathedral treasurer.

In 404, Chrysostom was unlawfully deposed from his see and banished through the influence of the Empress Eudoxia, and Cassian was among the clerics sent to Rome to plead his case with Pope St Innocent I. He may have been ordained a priest at this point, but nothing is known of the next ten years of his life, nor of the fate of his friend Germanus. By 415, he had settled in Province, and begun the work of establishing monastic life in that region, modeled on what he had learned in the Egyptian desert.

(An icon of St John Cassian; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

To that end, he also wrote two books of tremendous importance for monasticism the West.

The first is titled “De institutis coenobiorum – on the Institutes of the monasteries” (from Greek “koinos bios – common life.”) The first of its twelve books explains the symbolism of the monastic habit, while the second and third are concerned with the manner of praying the psalms at the services of the night and day respectively. The fourth is called “de institutis renuntiantium – on the rules of those who renounce”, a technical term for those who have newly renounced the world and embraced the monastic life. Each remaining book treats of one of the capital vices, following the classification of the Egyptian monk Evagrius Ponticus: gluttony, fornication, greed, anger, sadness, dejection, vainglory, and pride. (Half of these are called by their Greek names: ‘gastrimargia’ for gluttony, ‘philargyria’ for greed, ‘acedia’ for dejection, and ‘cenodoxia’ for vainglory. These last two words became very common in the Middle Ages through Cassian’s influence, even as his distinction of eight capital vices was revised down to seven.)

His second book, the “Collationes – Conferences”, reports the teachings of various Egyptian monks on subjects pertinent to their spiritual and ascetic life: one named Isaac speaks on prayer, another named Joseph on friendship etc.

Although he does not use Cassian’s name, St Benedict refers to the Conferences three times in his Rule, twice in chapter 42.

“Omni tempore silentium debent studere monachi, maxime tamen nocturnis horis. Et ideo omni tempore, … mox surrexerint a cena, sedeant omnes in unum, et legat unus Collationes vel Vitas Patrum aut certe aliud quod ædificet audientes, … Si autem ieiunii dies fuerit, dicta Vespera, parvo intervallo mox accedant ad lectionem Collationum, ut diximus. Et lectis quattuor aut quinque foliis, vel quantum hora permittit, omnibus in unum occurentibus per hanc moram lectionis, si qui forte in adsignato sibi commisso fuit occupatus, omnes ergo in unum positi conpleant, et exeuntes a Conpletoriis, nulla sit licentia denuo cuiquam loqui aliquid.

At all times, monks must be given to silence, especially, however, during the hours of the night. And therefore at all times, … as soon as they have risen from their evening meal, let all sit together in one place, and let someone read the Conferences or the Lives of the Fathers, or something else that will edify the hearers; … But if it was a fast-day, then, when Vespers have been said, and after a short interval, let them next come together for the reading of the Conferences, as we have said; and when four or five pages have been read, or as much as the hour will permit, and all have assembled in one place during the time of the reading, let him also come who was perchance engaged in work enjoined on him. All, therefore, having assembled in one place, let them say Compline, and after going out from Compline, let there be no more permission from that time on for anyone to say anything.”

On the basis of this passage, it became a normal custom for Benedictine monasteries to have readings done in the refectory at all or most meals. The Latin name of Cassian’s Conferences, “collationes” therefore came by transference to mean “a small repast”, and even to this day, Italian uses the term “prima collazione – first conference”, to mean breakfast. Cassian’s writings were also translated into Greek, and widely circulated in the East. Excerpts from them are included in the anthology known as the Philokalia, one of the most important and influential spiritual works in the Eastern Christian tradition.

(The sarcophagus of St John Cassian in the crypt of the Abbey of St Victor in Marseilles. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Robert Valette, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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