SAINT JOHN CASSIAN
A monk and author of a monastic rule. John Cassian was born around 360, no doubt in the neighborhood of the present town of Constantza, Romania. After receiving a first-rate education, John Cassian was initiated into the monastic life at Bethlehem. He soon undertook a pilgrimage to the Egyptian monastic sites, which so impressed him that he decided to stay in Egypt.
He first met a number of solitaries and celebrated hegumenoi (leaders of monasteries) in the Nile Delta (at Thennesus, Thmuis, Panephysis, and DIOLKOS) before going to settle at SCETIS. It is very unlikely that he visited the monasteries of Upper Egypt, which included many Pachomian establishments.
The quarrels about ANTHROPOMORPHISM in 399 led him to leave Egypt. He was later at Constantinople and then at Antioch, and he took part in one or two legations from these patriarchal sees to that of Rome. At some time after 414 he was in Marseilles, where, at the request of Western monks, he undertook to put into writing the fruits of his long sojourn in Egypt.
Between 420 and 430 he composed in succession De institutis coenobiorum (Cenobitic Institutes) and twenty-four Conlationes (Conferences of the Fathers), divided into three series. Before his death he participated in anti-Nestorian polemic with his treatise On the incarnation of the Lord (De incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium).
Cassian thus represents a kind of link between the Eastern and Western branches of the church at a time when they were beginning to draw apart—hence, the importance of the historical and spiritual testimony that he gave the Western monks about Egyptian monachism.
Paradoxically, the evidence from Cassian’s writings is of scarcely any use for fixing the locations of the monastic settlements in Lower Egypt. The few indications he makes correspond ill with those given by other contemporary writings, and they cannot be confirmed by present topography (Guy, 1966, pp. 363-72).
As for the monks whom he visited and consulted, biographical information is fragmentary, uncertain, and sometimes nonexistent.
Consideration is given only to the fourteen Egyptian monks who are spokesmen in the Conlationes.
The monks of Scetis include the following:
- Moses (Conlationes I and II; cf. Institutis coenobiorum X 25 and, perhaps, Conl. XIX 9.1). A former brigand, it seems that he should be identified with Moses of Calamus in Conl. III 5.2 and VII 26-27. His life could not be described without reference to the parallel sources, especially Historia Lausiaca (see PALLADIUS) and APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM (cf. Guy, 1963, pp. 139-45).
- PAPHNUTIUS (Conl. III). Cassian knew him personally, and information concerning him is more precise. At first a cenobite (Conl. XVIII 16.7), although we do not know in which monastery, he soon sought solitude and gave himself up to it with such ardor that he was given the sobriquet bubal, the wild ox (Conl. III 1.1-3; XVIII 15.1). At Scetis he was in the school of ISIDORUS, whose successor he became after being ordained a priest (Conl. XVIII 15.2-8). He seems then to have acted with a special authority (cf. Inst. coen. V 40.1; Conl. IV 1.1-2; II 5.4; X 2-3). Even in his nineties, he still refused to have younger men supply him with water.
- Daniel (Conl. IV). Unknown elsewhere, this disciple of Paphnutius was ordained priest to succeed him, but died prematurely.
- Serapion (Conl. V). No information is given about his life; he is simply presented as a spiritual father full of discernment (Conl. II 10-11; XVIII 11.2-4). Perhaps he should be identified with Sarapion of Scetis, who with difficulty acknowledged the Festal Letter of Theophilus (Conl. X 3.1; cf. Guy, 1966, pp. 147-49).
- Serenos (Conl. VII and VIII). No information about him is given.
- Isaac (Conl. IX and X). No information about him is given, and nothing to locate him in relation to others known as Isaac (cf. Guy, 1966, p. 102).
The monks of the Nile Delta include the following:
- Chaeremon (Conl. XI, XII, and XIII), at Thennesus. Cassian met him at the beginning of his stay (c. 386). Then more than a hundred years old, Chaeremon was very austere and refused to have any disciples.
- Nesteros (Conl. XIV and XV). No information about him is given.
- Joseph (Conl. XVI and XVII). Of noble family and a native of Thmuis, he spoke both Coptic and Greek. Perhaps he should be identified with Joseph of Panepho in the Apophthegmata Patrum.
- Piamun (Conl. XVIII). He lived in the region of Diolkos, where he was the oldest of the anchorites and served them as priest (Conl. XVII 24.1).
- John (Conl. XIX). After thirty years in a coenobium (monastery) and twenty in solitude, he returned to the coenobium when it became too difficult to find solitude in the desert. He is also called John of Thmuis (Inst. coen. V. 27-28; Conl. XIV 4.2). He should be distinguished from another John charged with the DIACONIA at Scetis (Inst. coen. V 40.1; Conl. XXI 1.2-3; cf. Guy, 1966, p. 116).
- Pinufius (Conl. XX). He is known only from Cassian, who held him in special esteem (Inst. coen. IV 30-31). Priest of an immense coenobium near Panephysis, he fled from glory and went incognito to Tabennese. When recognized, he returned home but soon took flight again. He went to Bethlehem, where Cassian met him, but recognized once more, he returned to his coenobium. There Cassian met him again and heard his address on penitence and his celebrated “discourse on taking the habit” (reproduced or composed afresh in Inst. coen. IV 32-43).
- Theonas (Conl. XXI, XXII, and XXIII). While still an adolescent, he was married off by his parents; but five years later an exhortation by John (perhaps of Thmuis) made him resolve to leave his wife to enter the monastery, where he succeeded John at the head of the diaconia.
- Abraham (Conl. XXIV). From a well-to-do family, he lived in great solitude four miles from the Nile. He is different from the Abraham who was called “the Simple” (Conl. XV 4-5), and from those whose memory is preserved in the Apophthegmata Patrum.
Clearly, Cassian has little concern for providing his readers with historical information, even about those personages who played a large part in his work. It is Cassian’s spiritual testimony that constitutes his fundamental contribution, for he was less concerned with reporting what he had seen or even the reading that he had done (notably in the Pachomian and Evagrian literature) than with organizing the whole into a coherent doctrinal corpus. Drawing on his personal experiences in the desert, his works confidently set forth the first pedagogical treatise on the experience of God as it had been gradually worked out in the concrete practice of the Egyptian monks.
According to Cassian, “spiritual combat” is not conducted haphazardly. One can only engage in it by going to school with a master or senior adept—that is to say, a man experienced in the discernment of what, beyond appearances, is in conformity with the aim of purity of heart and with the end of the monastic life, the Kingdom of God. To reach it, one must methodically pass through all the stages that lead to it, from “the formation of the outer man” (Inst. coen. V-XII: the eight capital vices, a theory taken over from EVAGRIUS), to the formation of “the inner man,” (Conl. I-X), which is essentially an education in discernment and an opening up toward perpetual prayer.
Only then can one enter upon the questions that relate to the “perfecting” of the inner man (Conl. XI-XVII and XVIII-XXIV). These concern human cooperation with the grace of God, the relation between ANACHORESIS and cenobitism, and, above all, the “spiritual science,” or inward knowledge of the scriptures, thanks to which the monk will be able “to adhere to God without ceasing.”
In all this, Cassian was in no way original, borrowing everything from those monks whose way of life he shared (chiefly from Evagrius). Yet he was unique in the breadth of his purpose and the vigor of his personal reflection. Under the guise of a simple compiler who might allow himself only some slight adaptations to the Western climate and context, Cassian in reality laid the foundation of the first coherent pedagogy of Christian experience, and he did so by reworking and transposing into a new culture the experiences received from the monks of Egypt.
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