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February 28 – John Cassian

John Cassian

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read 2 Corinthians 6:17-7:3

Therefore, “Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”

And, “I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.

More thoughts for meditation about John Cassian

John Cassian taught: “God can be sensed when we gaze with trembling hearts at that power of his which controls, guides, and rules everything, when we contemplate his immense knowledge and his knowing look which the secrets of the heart cannot evade.”

John’s writings reflect his adventurous, radical, ever-seeking life. He was born in the Danube Delta in what is now Dobrogea, Romania, in about 360 (some sources instead place him as a native of Gaul). In 382 he entered a monastery in Bethlehem and after several years was granted permission, along with his friend, Germanus, to visit the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt. They remained in Egypt until 399, except for a brief period when they returned to Bethlehem and were released from their vows.

After they left Egypt they went to Constantinople, where they met John Chrysostom, who ordained  John Cassian as a deacon. He had to leave Constantinople in 403 when Chrysostom was exiled, eventually settling close to Marseilles, in modern France, where he was ordained a priest and founded two monasteries, one for women and one for men.

John’s most famous works are the Institutes, which detail how to live the monastic life, and the Conferences, which provide details of conversations between John and Germanus and the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These writings were hugely influential. He also waded into the big controversies of his day. He ably warned against some of the excesses in Augustine of Hippo’s theology when he defamed Pelagius, whose writings he also found extreme, in parts. He also defended the nature of Christ against Nestorius. John Cassian died peacefully in 435.

Cassian, like many during his time, was seeking to deepen his relationship with God and to escape a corrupting culture. He tried to balance the tension between pursuing an individual purity, loving God in solitude where distractions were limited, as the Desert Fathers and Mothers taught him, with living in a community with like-minded companions who could guide one’s journey. His life is a testament to seeking holiness individually and to loving God and others in community.

A quote from Conference Nine:

We need to be especially careful to follow the gospel precept which instructs us to go into our room and to shut the door so that we may pray to our Father. And this is how we can do it.

We pray in our room whenever we withdraw our hearts completely from the tumult and the noise of our thoughts and our worries and when secretly and intimately we offer our prayers to the Lord.

We pray with the door shut when without opening our mouths and in perfect silence we offer our petitions to the One who pays no attention to words but who looks hard at our hearts.

We pray in secret when in our hearts alone and in our recollected spirits we address God and reveal our wishes only to Him and in such a way that the hostile powers themselves have no inkling of their nature. Hence we must pray in utter silence, not simply in order that our whispers and our cries do not prove both a distraction to our brothers standing nearby and a nuisance to them when they themselves are praying but also so as to ensure that the thrust of our pleading be hidden from our enemies who are especially lying in wait to attack us during our prayers. In this way we shall fulfill the command “Keep your mouth shut from the one who sleeps on your breast” (Mi 7:5).

The reason why our prayers ought to be frequent and brief is in case the enemy, who is out to trap us, should slip a distraction to us if ever we are long-drawn-out. There lies true sacrifice. “The sacrifice which God wants is a contrite heart” (Ps 51:19). This indeed is the saving oblation, the pure offering, the sacrifice of justification, the sacrifice of praise. These are the real and rich thank offerings, the fat holocausts offered up by contrite and humble hearts. If we offer them to God in the way and with zeal which I have mentioned we can be sure to be heard and we can sing: “Let my prayer rise up like incense before your face and my hands like the evening offering” (Ps 141:2).

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Cassian’s tomb in Marseille [link]

Suggestions for action

John is such a scholar! Let’s think about our own study. What would you do with Micah 7:5? John reads it in a contemplative way, using it to speak into his personal relationship with God. He sees all the Bible as a means to that end. You might say, he starts his reading from his relationship with God, not from the words of the Bible.

In fact (as 21st century people see fact) Micah’s colorful analogy has little to do with relating to God or the devil, the  prophet is talking about not being able to trust your intimates when trouble comes.  John Cassian goes beyond the “facts.”

Do you want to think about what you are doing with these different ways to look at the same sentences? You could start with the prophet, start with yourself, or start with God, or even think of the words as having meaning in themselvesall might be profitable. How do you start your study of the Bible?