Commemoration of John Cassian (360-435)
We remember today a monk named John Cassian, born in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus in a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart. In many ways his world was not unlike our world today, minus the electronic technology. As a young man, John Cassian traveled to Bethlehem and later moved to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits.
At the heart of the desert spirituality was the conviction that we have been created in the image of God, and nothing will ever change that. “Original sin,” which we read about in the Book of Genesis, or our own subsequent collusion with sin, never coopts our “original blessing.”[i]We are created in the image of God. At our very core, our soul has the capacity and yearning to love God with the same kind of passion with which God loves us. The aim of the desertfathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, was to rid themselves of the anxieties, and distractions, and self-judgments that called their attention away from knowing and practicing the love of God with their our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
At the beginning of the fifth century, Cassian moved from Egypt to what is now southern France, and there founded a monastic community for monks, and later a community for women. Cassian remained committed to the desert ideal of “individual perfection.” This perfection was in the sense that Jesus calls us “to be perfect.” The New Testament Greek word for “perfect,” teleios, means to be complete, to be conformed to who God has created us to be and to do: quite literally, to be ourselves, to be real. That’s the Greekish sense of teleios. To be perfect is how we would talk about a glove which fits perfectly to the hand, or a spice which perfectly complements some food being prepared for a meal. Be perfect, i.e. be real and complete; be authentically and freely and fully who God has created us to be. However conversion is a process, and so we best hear the word “perfect” as a verb, i.e., to perfect. Conversion is life-long.
How to do this? A daily practice of prayer and worship is essential. If you are a monk, your rhythm of prayer and worship is one thing; however if you are living in the world, your rhythm of prayer and worship will be quite another. Whatever. Some practice of daily prayer and worship is essential, lest you lose your way. And Cassian was convinced we could not life life independently; Cassian wasn’t into “self-help.” We have been created in the image of God who is a Trinity of Persons, interdependent. And so are we: interdependent persons. Cassian was convinced of the necessity of life together in Christian community. As we read in the Book of Proverbs, “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”[ii]
Cassian’s convictions about “perfection” were complemented by his convictions about moderation and enjoyment. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, God saw that it was all good. Good for God; good for us. Cassian would say how essential, how delightful it is, to love life, this life and the life to come.
Years earlier, in the Egyptian desert, Cassian had been formed by one the the great desert fathers, Abba Antony. The story is told of a hunter in the desert who saw the revered Abba Antony enjoying himself with the brethren, and the hunter was shocked. Life was supposed to be serious business. Abba Antony said to the hunter, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. Antony then said, “Shoot another.” And he did so. Antony said, “Shoot yet again.” The hunter replied, “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” Then the old abba said to the hunter, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure, they will soon break.” Abba Antony wanted to show the hunter that it was necessary, both to strive for perfection – to perfect our life – and yet, also, to relax the discipline of life, for the sake of rest, and restoration, and re-creation. Live in goodness of both worlds simultaneously: this world and the world-to-come.
For you, our guests, who have come away from your normal life and work to be on retreat, Cassian would say, “What a good and necessary thing you are doing.” And then Cassian would want to know what else? How else do you practice the goodness of life? What else is essential for your practice of life to love God with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and in a way that mirrors God’s love and life for you?
Here’s a postscript. Cassian had an enormous influence on the formation of many monks, including a monk named Benedict of Nursia.[iii]Benedictine monasticism eventuality became the foundational spirituality of the Western Church.
[iii]Saint Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), having lived as a hermit for many years, founded a monastery southeast of Rome at Monte Cassino, which was the beginning of “coenobitic” monasticism (“coenobitic” derived, via Latin, from the Greek koinos “common” and bios “life”).
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