St. John Cassian of Rome, Feast 29 (or 28) February

St. John Cassian of Rome, Feast 29 (or 28) February

(Latin: Johannes Eremita Cassianus, Joannes Eremita Cassianus, Joannus Cassianus, or Joannes Massiliensis) is a Christian saint celebrated in the Orthodox and Roman Churches for his mystical writings. He is known as one of the "Desert Fathers."

This Saint was born about the year 350, and was, according to some, from Rome, according to others, from Dacia Pontica (Dobrogea in present-day Romania). He was a learned man who had first served in the military. Later, he forsook this life and became a monk in Bethlehem with his friend and fellow-ascetic, Germanus of Dacia Pontica.

Hearing the fame of the great Fathers of Scete, they went to Egypt about the year 390; their meetings with the famous monks of Scete are recorded in Saint John's Conferences. In the year 403 they went to Constantinople, where Cassian was ordained deacon by Saint John Chrysostom; after the exile of Saint Chrysostom, Saints Cassian and Germanus went to Rome with letters to Pope Innocent I in defence of the exiled Archbishop of Constantinople. There Saint Cassian was ordained priest, after which he went to Marseilles, where he established the famous monastery of Saint Victor. He reposed in peace about the year 433.

The last of his writings was On the Incarnation of the Lord, Against Nestorius, written in 430 at the request of Leo, the Archdeacon of Pope Celestine. In this work he was the first to show the spiritual kinship between Pelagianism, which taught that Christ was a mere man who without the help of God had avoided sin, and that it was possible for man to overcome sin by his own efforts; and Nestorianism, which taught that Christ was a mere man used as an instrument by the Son of God, but was not God become man; and indeed, when Nestorius first became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, he made much show of persecuting the heretics, with the exception only of the Pelagians, whom he received into communion and interceded for them to the Emperor and to Pope Celestine.

The error opposed to Pelagianism but equally ruinous was Augustine's teaching that after the fall, man was so corrupt that he could do nothing for his own salvation, and that God simply predestined some men to salvation and others to damnation. Saint John Cassian refuted this blasphemy in the thirteenth of his Conferences, with Abbot Chairemon, which eloquently sets forth, at length and with many citations from the Holy Scriptures, the Orthodox teaching of the balance between the grace of God on one hand, and man's efforts on the other, necessary for our salvation.

Saint Benedict of Nursia, in Chapter 73 of his Rule, ranks Saint Cassian's Institutes and Conferences first among the writings of the monastic fathers, and commands that they be read in his monasteries; indeed, the Rule of Saint Benedict is greatly indebted to the Institutes of Saint John Cassian. Saint John Climacus also praises him highly in section 105 of Step 4 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, on Obedience.


St. John Cassian wrote two major spiritual works, the Institutes and the Conferences. In these, he codified and transmitted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. Thes books were written at the request of request of St. Castor, Bishop of Apt. The Institutes (Latin: De institutis coenobiorum) deal with the external organization of monastic communities, while the Conferences (Latin: Collationes) deal with "the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart".

His third book, On the Incarnation of the Lord, was was a defence of orthodox doctrine against the views of Nestorius, and was written at the request of the Archdeacon of Rome, later Pope Leo the Great.

His books were written in Latin, in a simple, direct style.

Spirituality of John Cassian

The Desert Monks of Egypt followed a threefold path to mysticism. The first level was called the Purgatio during which the young monk struggled through prayer and ascetical practices to gain control of "the flesh" - specifically gluttony, lust, and the desire for possessions. During this period, the young monk was to learn that any strength he had to resist these desires came directly from Holy Spirit. At the end of the Purgatio, a period that often took many years, the monk had learned to trust peacefully in the Lord for all his needs. As the monk underwent this period of purging, he identified with Christ's temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-Matthew 4:11, Mark 1:12-Mark 1:13, Luke 4:1-Luke 4:13).

At this point the Illuminatio commenced. During this period the monk learned the paths to holiness revealed in the Gospel. During the Illuminatio many monks took in visitors and students, and tended the poor as much as their meager resources allowed. They identified strongly with Christ when he taught the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. The monk continued his life of humility in the Spirit of God; his stoic acceptance of suffering often made him the only man capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.

The final stage was the Unitio, a period when the soul of the monk and the Spirit of God bonded together in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs, or the Canticle of Canticles). Elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests to find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded. In this, the monk identified with the transfigured Christ, who after his resurrection was often hidden from his disciples.

Doctrinal controversy

Cassian is considered to be the originator of the view that later became known as Semipelagianism. This emphasized the role of free will in that the first steps of salvation is in the power of the individual, without the need for God's grace. He was attempting to describe a "middle way" between Pelagianism, which taught that the will alone was sufficient to live a sinless life, and the view of Augustine of Hippo, that emphasizes Original sin and the absolute need for Divine grace. Cassian took no part in the controversy that arose shortly before his death; his first opponent, Prosper of Aquitaine, held him in high esteem as a man of virtue and did not name him as the source of the conflict. Semipelagianism was condemned by the local Council of Orange in 529. The views became popular again during the 19th century revival movement.

The Semipelagian views ascribed to Cassian are found in his Conferences, in book 3, the Conference of Abbot Paphnutius; book 5, the Conference of Abbot Serapion; and most especially in book 13, the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon.

Effects on later thought

The spiritual traditions of John Cassian had an unmeasurable effect on Western Europe. Many different western spiritualities, from that of St. Benedict to that of St. Ignatius of Loyola, owe their basic ideas to John Cassian. In particular, the Institutes had a direct influence on organization of monasteries described in the Rule of St. Benedict; Benedict also recommened that ordered selections of the Conferences be read to monks under his Rule. Moreover, the monastic institutions Cassian inspired kept learning and culture alive during the Early Middle Ages, and were often the only institutions that cared for the sick and poor. His works are excerpted in the Philokalia (Greek for "Love of the Beautiful"), the Eastern Orthodox compendium on mystical Christian prayer.

Even modern thinkers are beholden to John Cassian's thinking, although perhaps in ways the saint would not have expected; Michel Foucault was fascinated by the rigorous way Cassian defined and struggled against the "flesh". Perhaps because of investigations like these, Cassian's thought and writings are enjoying a recent popularity even in non-religious circles.

He was the first to introduce the rules of Eastern monasticism into the West, even before St. Benedict.


The son of wealthy parents, he received a good education, and while yet a youth visited the holy places in Palestine, accompanied by a friend, Germanus, some years his senior. In Bethlehem Cassian and Germanus assumed the obligations of the monastic life, but, as in the case of many of their contemporaries, the desire of acquiring the science of sanctity from its most eminent teachers soon drew them from their cells in Bethlehem to the Egyptian deserts. Before leaving their first monastic home the friends promised to return as soon as possible, but this last clause they interpreted rather broadly, as they did not see Bethlehem again for seven years. During their absence they visited the solitaries most famous for holiness in Egypt, and so attracted were they by the great virtues of their hosts that after obtaining an extension of their leave of absence at Bethlehem, they returned to Egypt, where they remained several years longer. It was during this period of his life that Cassian collected the materials for his two principal works, the "Institutes" and "Conferences". From Egypt the companions came to Constantinople, where Cassian became a favourite disciple of St. John Chrysostom. The famous bishop of the Eastern capitol elevated Cassian to the diaconate, and placed in his charge the treasures of his cathedral. After the second expulsion of St. Chrysostom, Cassian was sent as an envoy to Rome by the clergy of Constantinople, for the purpose of interesting Pope Innocent I in behalf of their bishop.

From this time Germanus is no more heard of, and of Cassian himself, for the next decade or more, nothing is known. About 415 he was at Marseilles where he founded two monasteries, one for men, over the tomb of St. Victor, a martyr of the last Christian persecution under Maximian (286-305), and the other for women. The remainder of his days were passed at, or very near, Marseilles. His personal influence and his writings contributed greatly to the diffusion of monasticism in the West. Although never formally canonized, St. Gregory the Great regarded him as a saint, and it is related that Urban V (1362-1370), who had been an abbot of St. Victor, had the words Saint Cassian engraved on the silver casket that contained his head. At Marseilles his feast is celebrated, with an octave, 23 July, and his name is found among the saints of the Greek Calendar.

The two principal works of Cassian deal with the cenobitic life and the principal or deadly sins. They are entitled: "De institutis coenobiorum et de octo principalium vitiorum remediis libri XII" and "Collationes XXIV". The former of these was written between 420 and 429. The relation between the two works is described by Cassian himself (Instit., II, 9) as follows: "These books [the Institutes] . . . are mainly taken up with what belongs to the outer man and the customs of the coenobia [i.e. Institutes of monastic life in common]; the others [the "Collationes" or Conferences] deal rather with the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart."

The first four books of the "Institutes" treat of the rules governing the monastic life, illustrated by examples from the author's personal observation in Egypt and Palestine; the eight remaining books are devoted to the eight principal obstacles to perfection encountered by monks: gluttony, impurity, covetousness, anger, dejection, accidia (ennui), vainglory, and pride.

The "Conferences" contain a record of the conversations of Cassian and Germanus with the Egyptian solitaries, the subject being the interior life. It was composed in three parts. The first instalment (Books I-X) was dedicated to Bishop Leontius of Fréjus and a monk (afterwards bishop) named Helladius; the second (Books XI-XVII), to Honoratus of Arles and Eucherius of Lyons; the third (Books XVIII-XXIV), to the "holy brothers" Jovinian, Minervius, Leontius, and Theodore.

These two works, especially the latter, were held in the highest esteem by his contemporaries and by several later founders of religious orders. St. Benedict made use of Cassian in writing his Rule, and ordered selections from the "Conferences", which he called a mirror of monasticism (speculum monasticum), to be read daily in his monasteries. Cassiodorus also recommended the "Conferences" to his monks, with reservations, however, relative to their author's ideas on free will.

On the other hand, the decree attributed to Pope Gelasius, "De recipiendis et non recipiendis libris" (early sixth century), censures this work as "apocryphal", i.e. containing erroneous doctrines. An abridgment of the "Conference" was made by Eucherius of Lyons.

A third work of Cassian, written at the request of the Roman Archdeacon Leo, afterwards Pope Leo the Great, about 430-431, was a defence of the orthodox doctrine against the errors of Nestorius: "De Incarnatione Domini contra Nestorium" (P. L., L, 9-272). It appears to have been written hurriedly, and is, consequently, not of equal value with the other works of its author. A large part consists of proofs, drawn from the Scriptures, of Our Lord's Divinity, and in support of the title of Mary to be regarded as the Mother of God; the author denounces Pelagianism as the source of the new heresy, which he regards as incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Yet Cassian did not himself escape the suspicion of erroneous teaching; he is in fact regarded as the originator of what, since the Middle Ages, has been known as Semipelagianism. Views of this character attributed to him are found in his third and fifth, but especially in his thirteenth, "Conference". Preoccupied as he was with moral questions he exaggerated the rôle of free will by claiming that the initial steps to salvation were in the power of each individual, unaided by grace. The teaching of Cassian on this point was a reaction against what he regarded as the exaggerations of St. Augustine in his treatise "De correptione et gratia" as to the irresistible power of grace and predestination.

Cassian saw in the doctrine of St. Augustine an element of fatalism, and while endeavouring to find a via media between the opinions of the great bishop of Hippo and Pelagius, he put forth views which were only less erroneous than those of the heresiarch himself. He did not deny the doctrine of the Fall; he even admitted the existence and the necessity of an interior grace, which supports the will in resisting temptations and attaining sanctity. But he maintained that after the Fall there still remained in every soul "some seeds of goodness . . . implanted by the kindness of the Creator", which, however, must be "quickened by the assistance of God". Without this assistance "they will not be able to attain an increase of perfection" (Coll., XIII, 12). Therefore, "we must take care not to refer all the merits of the saints to the Lord in such a way as to ascribe nothing but what is perverse to human nature". We must not hold that "God made man such that he can never will or be capable of what is good, or else he has not granted him a free will, if he has suffered him only to will or be capable of what is evil" (ibid.).

The three opposing views have been summed up briefly as follows: St. Augustine regarded man in his natural state as dead, Pelagius as quite sound, Cassian as sick. The error of Cassian was to regard a purely natural act, proceeding from the exercise of free will, as the first step to salvation. In the controversy which, shortly before his death, arose over his teaching, Cassian took no part. His earliest opponent, Prosper of Aquitaine, without naming him, alludes to him with great respect as a man of more than ordinary virtues. Semipelagianism was finally condemned by the Council of Orange in 529.