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)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - On the Three Things that Exist in This World: the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

In this issue we will begin a new study from "The Conferences" of St. John Cassian. 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.

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 the sixth Conference which includes a dialogue "On the Three Things that Exist in this World -- the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent."


1. "There are three things in this world -- namely, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. We ought to know what, properly speaking, is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent, so that our faith, strengthened by real knowledge, might remain undamaged by any temptation.

"As far as human affairs are concerned, then, nothing should be believed to be the chief good other than the virtue of the soul alone, which leads us to the unchangeable good. On the other hand, nothing should be called bad other than sin alone, which separates us from a good God and joins us to the wicked devil.

2. "Indifferent things are those which can go in either direction depending on the desire and will of the user, such as wealth, power, honor, bodily strength, health, beauty, life itself and death, poverty, bodily sickness, insults, and other things similar to these which can have good or bad consequences according to the character and desire of the user.

"For even wealth frequently has good consequences, in the words of the Apostle who charges "the rich of this world to give freely, to share with the poor, to store up for themselves a good foundation in the future, so that in this way "they may seize the true life." In the words of the Gospel, it is good for those who "make friends for themselves from wicked mammon."

3. It can be turned to bad, again, when it is accumulated only for hoarding or for the sake of luxury and is not distributed for the needs of the poor.

"Likewise, that power and honor and bodily strength and health are indifferent and can veer to either side is clearly proven from the fact that many holy persons in the Old Testament possessed all these things, having been very rich and highly honored and strong in body, and they are also known to have been most acceptable to God.

4. "On the other hand, those who misused these things in bad fashion and turned them to serve their own wickedness were not inappropriately either punished or destroyed, as is frequently indicated in the Book of Kings.

"That life and death themselves are indifferent is shown by the birth of Saint John and of Judas. So advantageous was the life of the one to himself that his birth is also said to have brought joy to others, as it is written: 'Many rejoiced at his birth.' Of the other's life, however, it is said: 'It would have been good for him if that man had not been born.'

5. "It is said of the death of John, as of the death of all the holy ones: 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones.' But of that of Judas and of those like him: 'The death of sinners is very bad.'

"The blessedness of the poor Lazarus, full of sores, shows how useful even bodily sickness can sometimes be. Scripture mentions nothing virtuous about him apart from the mere fact that he very patiently bore deprivation and bodily sickness, and for this he deserved to possess Abraham's bosom as his blessed destiny.'

6. Deprivation and persecutions and insults, which are considered to be bad in the opinion of the crowd, are also clearly shown to be beneficial and necessary from the fact that holy men have not only never desired to avoid them but have even, once having become the friends of God, sought them with all their strength, steadfastly endured them, and pursued them as the price of eternal life. The blessed Apostle says in agreement with this: 'Therefore I am happy in sickness, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distress, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong, for power is made perfect in weakness.'

7. "Therefore, those who are exalted by the greatest wealth and honor and power in this world must not be believed to have thereby obtained the chief good, which is understood in terms of virtue alone, but rather something indifferent. For just as these resources are seen to be beneficial and good to the righteous who use them correctly and unavoidably, since they offer the possibility of a good work and of fruit in eternal life, so likewise they are valueless and bad and offer an occasion of death and sin to those who misuse them in bad fashion." END

from St. John Cassian (trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P.), "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 218 -- 220