29 February 2016

Remembering the God-bearing Abba Cassian the Ascetic

During my trip to China recently, I made an effort to complete my reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, as translated by the Anglican nun Sr Benedicta Ward. It was, frankly, a tough read for me – the more so when trying to reflect on and process Patristic sayings, parables and anecdotes which can have a surface-level simplicity but which carry deep truths which are not always apparent at first glance.

One of the few Latin Fathers (along with Abba Arsenius) treated in Sr Benedicta’s alphabetical collection of the Apophthegmata, is the Venerable and God-bearing Father John Cassian, whose feast day we are celebrating today on the twenty-ninth of February. Abba Cassian was born on the Danube Delta in the region of Dacia Pontica (what is now southeastern Romania), to wealthy parents who had him classically-educated in both Greek and Latin. When he was twenty-two, he made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and there entered a monastery, before being granted permission to accompany his friend and fellow Dacian Abba Germanus to study the monastic life as it was practiced in Egypt and in Syria. He later recounted his experiences there in his famous writing the Institutes of the Cœnobitic Life, and the interviews he and Abba Germanus had with the monks and Fathers of Egypt and Syria were compiled into his Conferences.

Abba Germanus was ordained as a priest and Abba Cassian as a deacon by the Holy Father John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople; they joined his circle of clergy and during his exile from Constantinople pleaded his case both before the elders of Constantinople at the Synod of the Oak, and before Saint Innocent, Pope of Rome. Later, Abba Cassian settled in Massalia (now Marseilles, France) to spread the Eastern monastic life among the Gallo-Romans there, and spent his life teaching, cultivating two monasteries in southern Gaul (one for women and one for men), and writing. Both his humble way of life and his writings on monasticism had an indelible impact, particularly on the Benedictine Rule in the West.

The brief sayings of Abba Cassian in the Apophthegmata reveal two aspects of the monastic life which were important to him: renunciation of one’s desires and renunciation of one’s will. Abba Cassian, though he upheld and endorsed the renunciation of wealth and status common to the monks of the Desert, had no use at all for rigid legalism. His sayings highlight two monks who forewent the usual fasting rule in order to be hospitable to him and Abba Germanus during their interviews; and another Desert Father who lived in a chaste friendship with a holy virgin and showed himself to be pure, even when men whispered about him that he was not. Legalism was, to Abba Cassian, the mark of someone who hadn’t yet fully renounced his will, in the same way the senator who held back some of his own wealth when he entered the desert had not yet renounced his desires and become a monk. Both the aversion to legalism, and the need for taming and renouncing the will, would figure into his later indirect critiques of the excesses of Blessed Augustine.

The Church of the late fourth and early fifth centuries, when Abba Cassian and Blessed Augustine lived, was rocked by a number of different heresies – one of which was that of Pelagius, who infamously taught that human beings could be perfected (and thus saved) without the aid of God’s grace. Pelagius was justly anathematised, but he also caused a number of other Christian writers – Augustine included – to swing far too far the other way: toward an outright denial of human freedom of will, and an overemphasis on the determining power of God in the world and in history, to the detriment of God’s personality. It should hardly need emphasising, that the dangers in this swing to the opposite pole were not merely those of speculation or theological theorising. After all, theory has consequences! As Fr Stephen de Young points out on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, the extreme Augustinian anti-Pelagian position actually caused a crisis in monastic practice – after all, if you are saved or damned based only on a predetermined action of the Holy Ghost on the passive substance of your soul, then why bother with monastic discipline or asceticism? Why renounce one’s will when that will doesn’t exist in the first place? Why renounce one’s desires when doing so will have no effect? Thus, Abba Cassian’s writings in the Conferences were in fact an exhortation and a comfort to the monks and nuns he served, without indulging in the heresies of Pelagius. The Holy Ghost requires the cooperation of the human will, which comes from its renunciation. As Fr Stephen puts it: ‘The Divine Energies are the beginning, end, and basis of salvation, but do not negate, overpower, or snuff out the human.’

Western theological thought had unfortunately progressed so far toward legalism by the 16th century that Abba Cassian’s work could be actively and viciously attacked by the Picardian lawyer Jehan Cauvin and his followers, who saw his work as an affront to the middle works of Blessed Augustine, and accused Holy Father Cassian of ‘semi-Pelagianism’.

It is very fitting, actually, that this year the Feast of Holy Father Cassian comes so soon after the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, because the tale of the Prodigal Son in fact illustrates quite well the subtle distinctions Abba Cassian was trying to make. In fact, Abba Cassian explicitly chooses this particular parable for commentary in his Conferences. When the young son takes his share of his father’s inheritance, leaves for a far country, squanders it in dissolute living and thereupon is compelled to sell himself into servitude to Gentiles in the wake of a famine, he is unaware that what sustains him in his self-imposed exile are the goods that come from his father. But bereft of all those goods, yearning after the pods eaten by the swine he is forced to herd, he came to himself (εις εαυτον ελθων) and realises that even his father’s servants live better than he does in his plight. He resolves to turn back and ask forgiveness of his father, and seeing him at a distance his father runs into the street to welcome him home.

This is not in any way a Pelagian, or even a ‘semi-Pelagian’, parable. There is illustrated here the reach and accessibility of God’s grace – both in the father giving his young son his share of his goods without question, and in his running into the street to greet him on his return. The young son would have died if it had not been for his father’s generosity, and his remembrance of his father’s life that he once enjoyed at home. But neither is it at all a Calvinist parable. The father does not come himself into the far foreign country, into the fields with the swine, and shake his son out of his stupor. Nor does the son stand irrevocably cast out by his father’s actions. Rather, the young son comes to himself: the Greek phrase has a beautiful double layer of meaning, but it does highlight quite clearly that the son has an active role in choosing to turn back, and choosing to ask his father’s forgiveness.

As it stands, not only monks can take comfort from the teachings and the life of Abba Cassian. I find myself broken enough and sinful enough and angry enough, especially these days, that I constantly need that reminder that I can turn back if I choose to, and that God will always be there.

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Father,
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing you taught us to disregard the flesh for it passes away
But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal.
Therefore your spirit, venerable John Cassian, rejoices with the angels.

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