We commemorate today a monk named John Cassian, born into privilege in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus at a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart, and for many of the same reasons familiar to us today. As a young man, Cassian traveled to Bethlehem, then to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits. 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 was a prolific writer. His most famous works, still in print and quite relevant today, were his Institutes, dealing with the external organization of monastic communities, and his Conferences of the Desert Fathers, dealing with the training and perfection of the heart. Cassian’s influence was vast in both the eastern and western churches. Benedict of Nursia – his Rule of Life – and Ignatius of Loyola – his Spiritual Exercises – owe their most basic ideas to John Cassian.
Cassian assumed that monastic life had both a “near goal” and an “ultimate end.” He illustrates the difference between them drawing on life in his fifth-century world. A farmer works every day through all the changing weather and seasons, with each turn of the spade having the ultimate harvest in mind. So too, the merchant who travels and the soldier who fights. There is always the end goal in mind. And for the monk? The end goal is purity of heart, the conversion to Christ. So the monk engages in disciplines of mind and body – both corporate and personal disciplines – to become whole, pure, one with Christ. The moment-by-moment “near goal” and the “ultimate end” must always be kept in mind. The added advantage for the monk’s conversion is life together. The monastic community who surrounds the monk will call forth his best. The monastic community will also expose him at his worst – all his inconsistencies and hypocrisies – and be the essential help he needs to reach his ultimate end. In life – be it in a monastery or external – we are given one another as teachers in our conversion to Christ.
Blessed John Cassian, whom we remember today.
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