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, June 16, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Canonical Method of Nighttime Prayers

Today we will continue our study of St. John Cassian's other book, "The Institutes." Together with the "Conferences," these two books are perhaps the two most important books of guidance on the monastic life available.

This great monastic saint of the both the eastern and western churches was born in what is now Romania around the year 360. He left his homeland as a young man, apparently in his 20s or 30s, and joined a monastery in Bethlehem with his friend, Germanus. The two of them visited Egypt twice in order to learn the riches of Egyptian monasticism. From there, they traveled to Constantinople where St. John was ordained to the diaconate by none other than St. John Chrysostom in about the year 400. He then went to Rome on a mission for St. John Chrysostom and was ordained there to the priesthood by Pope Innocent I and eventually ended up in Marseilles. There he founded two monasteries and wrote his two great works, along with a smaller third work against the heretic Nestorius. St. John Cassian then died around 430.

In today's study, we will look at St. John's teachings on the establishment of monastic discipline and the rule of prayer. While this history applies to the development of monastic rules in the Church (e.g., the Rule of St. Benedict or the Rule of St. Pachomius), it is also very useful for us as individuals in developing our own "rule" for use in our own life, guided by the teachings of the Church. It is important to have discipline, but a discipline developed without the guidance of a spiritual father is not necessarily the best discipline. Today's reading from St. John Cassian is instructive in how to develop a rule appropriate for one's life circumstances.


-- . . . in the early days of the faith few indeed - but they were very upright -- were regarded as monks, and they had received that form of life from the evangelist Mark of blessed memory, who was the first to rule as bishop over the city of Alexandria. They not only retained then those magnificent qualities that we read in the Acts of the Apostles were originally cultivated by the Church and by the throngs of believers (namely, "The multitude of believers had one heart and one soul, and none of them said that anything that he possessed was his own, but all things were common to them. For as many as owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of what they sold and laid it at the feet of the apostles, and this was distributed to each just as each had need" - Acts 4:32, 34-35) but to these they even added things far more lofty.

-- For they went off to quite secluded places on the outskirts of the city and led a strict life of such rigorous abstinence that even those who did not share their religion were astonished at the arduous profession of their way of life. For day and night they gave themselves over to the reading of Holy Scripture, to prayer, and to manual labor with such fervor that the very appetite for and memory of food only disturbed them every second or third day, when their bodies felt hunger, and they would take food and drink not so much out of desire as out of necessity. Indeed, they would not do this before sunset, so as to link the daytime with the pursuit of spiritual meditation but the care of the body with the night. And other things they did that were far more lofty than these.

-- Whoever has heard less about these matters from the telling of those who are familiar with them can be taught by the Church's history. At that time, then, when the perfection of the primitive Church remained inviolate and was still fresh in the memory of succeeding generations and when the faith of the few had not yet been spread among the multitude and grown lukewarm, the venerable fathers, reflecting with unceasing concern on those who would follow them, came together to discuss what form daily worship should take throughout the whole body of the brotherhood. Thus they would transmit to their successors a legacy of devotion and peace that was free of any contentious strife, for they feared that in the daily services, among men who were participating in the same worship, some discord or difference might arise and that sometime thereafter it would burst forth into error or rivalry or hurtful schism.

-- And as each one was recommending, in accordance with his own fervor and heedless of his neighbor's weakness, that what he judged easiest for himself in view of his faith and strength should be mandated, taking little account of what would be most possible for all the brothers (necessarily including a very large proportion of the sick also), and as they were contending in various ways to settle upon an enormous number of psalms, each one in keeping with his ability, some fifty and others sixty psalms, while still others who were not even content with this number were suggesting that it should be surpassed, there was among them such a holy division in their pious struggle on behalf of the rules of religion that the moment for the most sacred evening service intruded upon the discussion. As they were getting ready to carry out the daily rites of prayer, someone in their midst arose to sing the psalms to the Lord.

-- And when all were seated, as is still the custom throughout Egypt, and had fixed the full attention of their hearts upon the cantor's words, he sang eleven psalms that were separated by the interposition of prayers, all the verses being pronounced in the same tone of voice. Having finished the twelfth with an Alleluia as a response, he suddenly withdrew from the eyes of all, thus concluding both the discussion and the ceremony.

-- Thereupon the venerable gathering of fathers understood that, at the Lord's willing, a universal rule had been established for the groups of the brothers through the teaching of an angel, and they determined that this number was to be observed at both the evening and the morning assemblies. To this they joined two readings -- that is, one from the Old and another from the New Testament; this was their own doing and as it were optional, and they added them only for those who wished and who were eager to reflect on Holy Scripture by assiduous meditation. But on Saturday and Sunday they do both readings from the New Testament -- that is, one from the Apostle or the Acts of the Apostles and another from the Gospels. On all the days of Pentecost this is also done by those whose concern is the reading and recalling of Scripture.

-- . . . When the Psalms are finished, then, and the daily gathering, as we noted previously, has broken up, none of them dares to linger or to chat for a while with anyone else. Nor, indeed, does anyone presume during the course of the day to leave his cell or to quit the work that he is accustomed to do in it, unless perhaps they are called out for the performance of some kind of urgent task. Once they have gone outside they accomplish this in such a way that hardly any conversation is carried on among them, but each one does his assigned task while going over a psalm or some scriptural meditation.

-- For the greatest care is taken that no one, and especially the young men, be seen even for a short while lingering with or going off anywhere with someone else or holding hands together. But if, contrary to the discipline of this rule, any persons are discovered to have committed one of these forbidden acts, they are declared to be insolent, breakers of the law, and guilty of no small fault, and they may even be under suspicion of wickedly scheming and plotting. Unless they have absolved this fault by a public repentance in the presence of all the brothers, none of them is allowed to take part in the brothers' prayer. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 39 - 47