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 17, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - Gospel "Perfection" Is Not Just Obedience

Our study of "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian continues in this issue. Although we studied some selections from this phenomenal collection of ancient desert wisdom before, it is a work of such magnitude and such a breadth of spiritual teachings that it is worth returning to again and again and its teachings cover many topics relevant to all of us today.

St. John Cassian lived from about 360 to 430 and joined a monastery in Bethlehem early in his adulthood. With his companion, Germanus, St. John Cassian made several trips from Palestine to the deserts of Egypt where they studied the monastic life from the great desert fathers of their time. "The Conferences" records their twenty-four dialogues with fifteen abbas. Cassian then arranged these dialogues collected over a period of years into a monastic "primer" that has been studied ever since by generations of the faithful seeking to advance in spiritual wisdom. As such, this spiritual treasure is not just for monks, but for everyone seeking spiritual growth.

In today's newsletter, we will look at several conferences on the general subject obedience. Like the ones from last week, they come from a conversation between Germanus and Abba Joseph:


A Question About How Those Who Obey the Commands
of Christ May Fail in Gospel Perfection

GERMANUS: "Why must someone be blamed who carries out the gospel precept and not only does not make retaliation but is even prepared to undergo redoubled mistreatment?"

JOSEPH: 1. "As was said a short while ago, it is not merely the thing itself which is done but also the character of the mind and the intention of the doer that must be looked at. Therefore, if by careful scrutiny you weigh what is accomplished by each person, with what mind it is done and from what inmost disposition it proceeds, you will see that the virtue of patience and mildness can never be exercised by a contrary spirit -- that is, by one of impatience and rage.

2. "Our Lord and Savior instructed us thoroughly in the virtue of patience and mildness -- that is, so that we would not promote it by mere lip service but would lay it up in the deepest recesses of our soul -- and gave us this formula for gospel perfection when he said: 'If anyone strikes you on your right check, offer him the other as well.' [Without doubt one on the right is to be understood, and this other right one cannot be understood except as being, in my estimation, on the face of the inner man.] In so doing he desired to remove completely the dregs of wrath from the inmost depths of the soul. Thus, if your outer right cheek has received a blow from the striker, the inner man should offer his right cheek to be struck as well in humble accord, suffering along with the outer man and as it were submitting and subjecting its own body to the injustice of the striker, so that the inner man may not be disturbed even silently within itself at the blow dealt the outer man.

3. "You see, then, that they are far from that gospel perfection which teaches that patience must be observed not by words but by the inner tranquility of the heart, and which commands that we must hold to it when something adverse occurs in such a way that we not only keep ourselves far from wrathful disturbance but also, by submitting to their mistreatment, urge those who have been aroused by their wickedness to return to calm, now that they are sated with their blow. Thus we shall conquer their rage with our mildness, and thus we shall also fulfill the apostolic words: 'Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'

4. "This can by no means be fulfilled by those who utter words of mildness and humility in a proud spirit. They not only do not calm the fiery rage that has been conceived; on the contrary, they cause it to flare up more in their own mind than in that of their brother who has been aroused. Yet, even if in some way they could remain gentle and calm, they would never receive any fruits of righteousness thereby because they are claiming the glory of patience for themselves by way of their neighbor's loss, and thus they are very far indeed from that apostolic love which 'does not seek what is its own' but rather what belongs to others. For it does not want riches in such a way as to make a profit for itself at its neighbor's expense, nor does it desire to acquire anything to someone else's impoverishment."

That a Person Who Submits to Another's Will is Strong and Sound

"It should certainly be known that, as a rule, he who submits his own will to his brother's will acts the stronger part than he who is more obstinate in defending and holding on to his own opinions. For the former, in putting up with and tolerating his neighbor, obtains the status of one who is healthy and strong, whereas the latter that of one who is somehow weak and sickly, who must be so flattered and coaxed that occasionally it is good that some adjustments be made even with respect to necessary things for the sake of his calm and peace. In this, to be sure, he should not believe that his perfection is at all diminished, although by giving in he has somewhat mitigated his intended strictness. On the contrary he should realize that he has gained much more by his forbearance and patience. For the apostolic precept has it: 'You who are strong should put up with the infirmities of the weak.' And: 'Bear one another's burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.' For one weak person never puts up with another weak person, nor will someone who is sick be able to endure or heal someone else who is ailing in the same way. Rather, it is he who is himself not subject to infirmity who bestows healing on the infirm. Rightly is it said to him: 'Physician, heal yourself.'

That the Weak Mistreat Others and are Unable to Bear Mistreatment

"It should also be noted that the character of the weak is consistently of this sort: They quickly and easily pour out abuse and sow discord, but they themselves do not wish to put up with the slightest mistreatment, and although they carry on violent arguments and get on their high horse without any fear of the consequences, they are unwilling to bear small and indeed very minor things. Therefore, according to the aforesaid opinion of the elders, a stable and unbroken love cannot endure except among men of the same virtue and chosen orientation. For it is bound to be rent at some time or other, however carefully it may be maintained by one of the persons involved." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 570 - 572