The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Need for Spiritual Fathers

Our weekly blog will often quote the Desert Fathers as they were recorded by St. John Cassian in his wonderful books “Institutes” and “Conferences.”  On the Orthodox Church  calendar, Cassian is commemorated on February 29 or March 1 (depending on whether it is a leap year).

BEGIN: Our Holy Father, John Cassian, was born in Rome of eminent parents.  In his youth he studied the secular disciplines, especially philosophy and astronomy.  After that, he gave himself entirely to the study of Holy Scripture.  He moved from the good to the better, and, desiring higher and higher steps to perfection, Cassian left Rome for the East, to learn more and attain this greater perfection.  He went to Bethlehem, then lingered in Egypt, at Nitria, among outstanding spiritual athletes from whom he learned to exercise himself in all the virtues.  In Constantinople, he became a pupil of St. John Chrysostom and was ordained by him to the diaconate.  He finally returned to the West and settled near Marseilles, there founding two monasteries, one for monks and one for nuns.  At the request of the monks, Cassian wrote many books, among which the ones on the lovers of the spiritual life are especially helpful: “Eight books on the struggle against the eight chief passions” (The Institutes).  His book against the Nestorian heresy (On the Incarnation of the Lord), which he wrote at the request of Archdeacon (later Pope) Leo, is very important.  He served the Lord faithfully and enriched many by his wisdom, then entered into eternal rest in 435.  St. Cassian’s relics are preserved to this day in Marseilles.  END

St. John Cassian’s book, “Conferences,” was written with the intention of providing spiritual instruction to monks.  One of the over-riding themes found in this volume is the need for spiritual guidance and instruction, if not from actual spiritual directors, then at least from the writings of holy men and women.  One especially heart-breaking example of self-reliance is described by St. Cassian in the following story:

BEGIN: A recent example of the kind that I promised you will show the force of that description proclaimed of old by the blessed Anthony and by the other fathers.  Think of what you recently saw happening before your very eyes.  Remember the old man Hero who was cast down from the heights to the lowest depths because of a diabolical illusion.  I remember how he remained fifty years in this desert, keeping to the rigors of abstinence with a severity that was outstanding, loving the secrecy of the solitary life with a fervor marvelously greater than that of any one else dwelling here.  After such toil how and why could he have been fooled by the deceiver?  How could he have gone down into so great a ruin that all of us here in the desert were stricken with pain and grief?  Surely the reason for it was that he had too little of the virtue of discernment and that he preferred to be guided by his own ideas rather than to bow to the advice and conferences of his brethren and to the rules laid down by our predecessors.  He practiced fasting so rigorously and so relentlessly, he was so given to the loneliness and secrecy of his cell, that even the special respect due to the Easter day could not persuade him to join the brethren in their meal.  He was the only one who could not come together with all his brethren assembled in church for the feast, and the reason for this was that by taking the tiniest share of the vegetables he might give the impression of having relaxed from what he had chosen to do.

This presumptuousness led to his being fooled.  He showed the utmost veneration for the angel of Satan, welcoming him as if he were actually an angel of light.  Yielding totally to his bondage he threw himself headlong into a well, whose depths no eye could penetrate.  He did so trusting completely in the assurance of the angel who had guaranteed that on account of the merit of his virtues and of his works he could never come to any harm.  To experience his undoubted freedom from danger the deluded man threw himself in the darkness of night into this well.  He would know at first hand the great merit of his own virtue when he emerged unscathed.  He was pulled out half-dead by his brothers, who had to struggle very hard at it.  He would die two days later.  Worse, he was to cling firmly to his illusion, and the very experience of dying could not persuade him that he had been the sport of devilish skill.  Those who pitied him his leaving had the greatest difficulty in obtaining the agreement of abbot Paphnutius that for the sake of the merit won by his very hard work and by the many years endured by him in the desert he should not be classed among the suicides and hence, be deemed unworthy of the remembrance and prayers offered for the dead.  END

St. John Cassian’s life is taken from “The Prologue From Ochrid,” by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, (Birmingham, England: Lazarica Press, 1985), vol. I, p. 223.

St. John's teaching is taken from “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 64-65.