Abba Cassian the Ascetic Part 1

written by Josh Hoffert April 28, 2018
Abba Cassian the Ascetic

Abba Cassian said: “I have never done my own will, nor taught anything, which I have not previously carried out myself.”

Around the turn of the 5th century, a man named John Cassian visited the Egyptian monks of the desert in order to learn their way of life. What he wrote about these men and women became one of the most proliferated and influential collections of teachings of the desert fathers and mothers.

Abba Cassian was born around the 360 AD, but not much else is known about his family of origin. His writings show the influence of a good education, and seemingly imply that he was born to wealthy parents. He joined a monastery in Bethlehem at a young age.

While in Bethlehem, he shared living quarters with a man named Pinufius, a famous desert father. His interactions with this father were probably influential in his motivation to visit the Egyptian desert in 385 AD. Abba Cassian and a close friend named Germanus spent 15 years visiting the fathers of the desert, and eventually returned to Bethlehem in 400 AD.

Eventually, Cassian made his way to Marseilles where he wrote the collection of teachings of the fathers, and wrote the tenets of the spiritual life as practiced in the desert. The works were called the Conferences and the Institutes, respectively. These writings served to spread the teachings of the desert fathers into the mainstream and became one of the classic, authoritative works on the spiritual life of the fathers.

Cassian was an apt learner and brilliant thinker. The mark his writings left on the monastic practice of the 5th century is deep and profound. He took the teachings of the desert fathers and made them presentable and more widely applicable than had previously been. He has been credited with introducing the desert fathers to the Christians in the west. Without his sojourn in the Egyptian desert, we may never have known as much about the lives of these spiritual giants as we are able to today.

Cassian concerned himself not only with the external life of the monk, but was passionate about the formation of the inner life: “Let us therefore pass from what is visible to the eye and the external mode of life of the monks, of which we treated in the former books, to the life of the inner man, which is hidden from view.” Without the formation of the inner life, exterior discipline is merely dead works. It serves to be seen of men and not of God. God does not look on external discipline as anything special, but rather, considers and esteems the heart of man.

The Spiritual Life

To Abba Cassian, the spiritual life consisted of serving others, learning obedience, and growing in humility and purity. The form of the spiritual life was entirely set out to that end. Pride and greed were the greatest hindrances to this life.

“Humility of soul helps more than anything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin.” Without humility it would be impossible to accomplish anything in the kingdom of God. Jesus claimed that those who were to be given the kingdom of God would be those who were poor in spirit. When we are poor in spirit we recognize that there are things that we lack. Pride fights against recognizing your need for outside help. Humility embraces the life of God and seeks to make the life of God its own.

Pride will by nature fight against humility as the vice to its virtue. And pride, by nature, is subversive and difficult to detect, it is all-pervasive: “The passion of vainglory (pride) has many forms and is very subtle, and for this reason even he who is being tempted by it does not immediately detect it; for the assaults of the other passions occur more openly, and it is easier to fight against them, since the soul recognizes the Enemy and immediately puts him to flight through rebuttal and prayer. The vice of vainglory, since it assumes many forms, as we have said, is difficult to struggle against, since it is present in every facet of our life.”

Lust finds its outworking in the object of desire, whether of sexuality or the desire for a thing, greed is directly connected with the acquisition of material goods, anger as a vice finds something it is directed towards, but pride finds itself in every aspect of life. Pride can take root in the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we relate, in our prayer life, in our study, etc… There is not an area of life that pride is by nature absent from. As such, pride destroys the efficacy of the spiritual life by make what is inherently about loving God and loving others about esteeming the self.

The love of self can only ever be rooted in the love of God, and it must recognize the absolute depravity of self in order to find itself lovely. Absent the revelation of sin, love of self turns to pride. But when love of self is anchored in the depravity of the heart and the love of God for the individual, love of God demonstrates love of self and breeds humility.

“In the same way that a pestilential and deadly disease does not destroy only one member of the body, but the entire body, so also pride incapacitates and destroys not just a part of the soul, but the entire soul.”

The practice of the spiritual life is aided by and mainly comprised of watchfulness of heart. The purpose of the practice of the spiritual life is not to deal with outward expression, but inward disposition: “If we wish to acquire perfect meekness and be vouchsafed the Lord’s blessing (St. Matthew 5:5), we ought to rid ourselves not only of outward anger, but also of inward agitation.” It is one thing to restrain oneself from speaking when angry, it is another to forgive and refuse to dwell on the offense.

With the heart, man keeps watch over himself: “For this reason, the wise proverb does not say, ”Keep thine eyes with the utmost care,” but ”Keep thy heart with the utmost care” (Proverbs 4:23); that is, it is to the heart that He entrusted the role of a physician charged with keeping strict watch, because it uses the eyes as it wills.” The heart is responsible for expelling anger, lust, greed, etc… Watchfulness of heart is being sensitive to the thoughts and emotions that run counter to the Spirit of God.

Prayer, as an aspect of the spiritual life is not to be done by rote, but to experience the power inherent in the word of God: “For this reason precisely, the monks of the coenobitic monasteries of the East are careful to read the Psalms without making noise and without annoyance, experiencing spiritual joy, not from multifarious verses, but from the deep contrition of concentration on the readings.” The purpose wasn’t to accomplish prayer, but to move the heart: “For they consider it far more beneficial to chant ten verses, but with the mind captured by their meaning, than a whole Psalm when the mind is scattered.”

Cassian taught that we were to deal with the root and not just the fruit: “The teaching of the Gospels exhorts us to cut out the roots rather than the fruits. For, when the root of anger has been excised from the heart, neither hatred nor envy can be acted out.” The fruit of the root is anger, but what is the root? The root is generally our inner wounds and the offenses to which we have clung. Jesus taught that we were not to simply refuse to be outwardly angry, but to deal with the inward propensity to anger. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus emphatically and finally declared anger and murder one and the same. Murder is merely the outward expression of anger.

“God sees the inner impulse of the heart.” The circumstances of our lives, when it comes down to it, are for our chastisement in order to correct the posture of our hearts to God and those around us. God allows the fruit of our choices to play out as a way of correcting the inner position that we hold: “God recompenses men with crowns or chastisements not only for their deeds, but also for their thoughts and choices.” The next time you find someone irritating you, don’t jump to a conclusion about how irritable they are, but rather ask, “God, why do I find them so irritable, and what are you correcting within my heart by bringing them before me?”

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