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 23, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Struggle Against Sadness

In this issue, 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 text, we will look at the struggle against "sadness" and both the positive and negative roles sadness can play in one's spiritual development.


-- In the fifth struggle we must restrain the urges of a consuming sadness. If through separate and random attacks and as a result of fleeting and changing happenstance it has gained control of our soul, it cuts us off totally from the vision of divine contemplation and weakens and oppresses the mind itself, once it has been utterly cast down from the state of purity that it had held to in its entirety. It does not permit it to carry out its prayers with its customary eagerness of heart, nor does it allow it to dwell upon the remedies of the sacred readings. It does not suffer it to be peaceable and gentle with the brothers, makes it impatient and abrupt with regard to every duty of work and worship, and, having destroyed all salutary counsel and driven out steadfastness of heart, crazes as it were and stupefies the intellect, breaking and overwhelming it with a punishing despair.

-- Hence, if we wish to engage lawfully in the struggle of the spiritual contest, we must with no less foresight cure this disease as well. For "as a moth with a garment and a worm with wood, so sadness does harm to a man's heart" (Proverbs 15:20). Quite clearly and appositely has the divine Spirit expressed the force of this hurtful and pernicious vice.

-- For a moth-eaten garment no longer has any value or good use, and likewise worm-eaten wood deserves to be consigned to the flames rather than to be used for furnishing even an insignificant building. In the same way, then, the soul that is eaten away and devoured by sadness is certainly useless for that priestly garment which, according to the prophecy of holy David, is said habitually to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, coming down from heaven first to Aaron's beard and then to the edge of his garment. As it says: "Like oil on the head, which ran down to Aaron's beard, which ran down to the edge of his garment" (Psalm 133:2). Neither can it be part of the structure or furnishing of that spiritual temple whose foundations the wise architect Paul laid when he said: "You are the temple of God" (II Corinthians 6:16) and "the Spirit of God dwells in you" (I Corinthians 3:16). What its woodwork is like the bride describes in the Song of Songs when she says: "Our rafters are of cypress, the beams of our houses are of cedar" (Song of Solomon 1:16). Hence wood of this sort, which is fragrant and incorruptible and cannot succumb to the decay of age or to being eaten by worms, is selected for the temple of God.

-- But sometimes it follows upon the vice of anger, which precedes it, or arises out of the desire for some gain that has not been achieved, when a person sees that he has failed in his hope of acquiring the things that his mind was set on. Occasionally we are even provoked to fall into this misfortune for no apparent reason, when we are suddenly weighed down with great sorrow at the instigation of the clever for, so that we are unable to welcome with our usual courtesy the arrival even of these who are dear to us and our kinfolk, and we consider whatever they say in innocuous conversation to be inappropriate and unnecessary and do not give them a gracious response, since the recesses of our heart are all filled with the gall of bitterness.

-- Hence it is very clear that disturbing urges are not always aroused in us by other people's faults. Rather, we are to blame -- we who have stored up within ourselves the causes of our offenses and the seeds of our vices that, when the rain shower of temptation drenches our mind, at once break forth into buds and fruits.

-- For a person who is irritated by someone else's vices is never compelled to sin if he does not have the stuff of wrongdoing stored away in his heart. Neither should anyone be believed to have been deceived all at once when, upon having seen a woman, he has fallen into an abyss of wicked desire; rather, at the sight there rose to the surface diseases that had been hidden and concealed deep within.

-- Therefore God, the Creator of all things, knowing better than anyone else how to right his handiwork and that the roots and causes of our offenses lie not in others but in ourselves, commanded that the company of the brothers should not be forsaken and that those persons should not be avoided who have been hurt by us or by whom we think that we have been offended. Instead he orders that they be won over, for he knows that perfection of heart is attained not by separation from human beings but by the virtue of patience. When this is firmly possessed it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace. By the same token, if it has not been acquired, we find ourselves constantly at odds even with those who are perfect and better than us. For occasions of irritation, on account of which we strive to flee from those to whom we are joined, can never be missing from human affairs, and therefore we do not escape from but only change the causes of sadness because of which we have separated ourselves from our former companions.

-- And so it is incumbent upon us to strive, rather, to correct our faults and to improve our behavior. Without a doubt, once these have been set straight, we shall get along very well even with wild animals and beasts, to say nothing of human beings. This is in accordance with what is said in the book of blessed Job: "Wild beasts will be at peace with you" (Job 5:23). We shall not fear offenses coming from without, nor shall any stumbling blocks from outside be able to have an effect on us, if their roots have not been let in and planted within us. For "there is much peace for those who love your name, and for them there is no stumbling block" (Psalm 119:165).

-- There is another kind of sadness as well, which is more detestable. It inspires in the wrongdoer not amendment of life or correction of vice but the most pernicious despair of soul. It did not cause Cain to repent after his brother's murder (Genesis 4:8) or Judas to hasten to healing and reparation after the betrayal; instead it drew him to hang himself with a noose in his despair (Matthew 27:5).

-- Hence sadness is to be judged beneficial for us in one instance alone -- when we conceive it out of repentance for our sins and are inflamed by a desire for perfection, and by the contemplation of future blessedness. Of this the blessed Apostle himself says: "The sadness that is in accordance with God works repentance unto a lasting salvation, but the world's sadness works death" (II Corinthians 7:10).

-- The sadness that "works repentance unto a lasting salvation," likewise, is obedient, courteous, humble, mild, gracious, and patient, inasmuch as it comes from the love of God. It stretches itself out tirelessly, in its desire for perfection, to every bodily pain and to contrition of spirit. With a kind of joy, and quickened by the hope of its own progress, it retains all its gracious courtesy and forbearance, having in itself all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which the same Apostle enumerates: "The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, kindness, faith, mildness, continence" (Galatians 5:22-23). But the other is very harsh, impatient, rough, full of rancor and barren grief and punishing despair, crushing the one whom it has embraced and drawing him away from any effort and from salutary sorrow, since it is irrational. Too, it not only removes the efficacy of prayer but also eliminates all the spiritual fruits that we have spoken of and that the first is capable of bestowing.

-- Hence, apart from that which is taken up for the sake of a salutary repentance or in the pursuit of perfection or out of a desire for things to come, all sadness is to be equally rejected as this-worldly and death-dealing, and it is to be immediately cast out from our hearts, just like the spirit of fornication or avarice or anger.

-- We shall, therefore, be able to expel this most pernicious passion from ourselves once our mind is occupied constantly with spiritual meditation; then we may raise it up with a hope of things to come and by contemplation of promised blessedness. For we shall be able to overcome every kind of sadness -- whether that which derives from previous anger, or that which befalls us when a loss of money or some other disadvantage strikes us, or that which occurs when some injury has been inflicted on us, or that which proceeds from an irrational turn of mind, or that which brings upon us a deadly despair -- when we are ever rejoicing at the sight of things eternal and to come and when we remain steadfast and are neither cast down by present events nor carried away by good fortune, viewing both as empty and soon to pass. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 211 - 214