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, June 19, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - Teachings on Renunciation

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.

Today we will look at St. John's teachings on "renunciation," that is, "the instruction of him who renounces the world." As with all the writings from St. John's voluminous works, we can only look at a part of his great teaching, but we will look at enough to give a good overview of how a person became a monk in ancient times (and still today in many monasteries!) and what it means from a spiritual perspective to renounce the world. This text is especially interesting because it explains how strict the procedures were in ancient times for a man to become a monk (we can assume, I think, that the procedure was the same, or at least very similar, for women renunciants) and the seriousness with which monastic communities took the issue of property and material goods. Next week, we will follow up with a look at how the common life was conducted in the monasteries of that time.


-- Before anything else I think we ought to touch upon how the great perseverance and humility and subjection of these men is so enduring and by what training it is shaped, such that they persevere in the cenobium until they are bent with age. For it is of a kind that we do not recall anyone who has joined our monasteries to have maintained even for a full year. Then, when we have seen the initial stages of their renunciation, we shall understand how, as a consequence, the foundations of these beginnings rose to such lofty heights of perfection.

-- So, then, whoever seeks to be received into the discipline of the cenobium is never admitted until, by lying outside for ten days or more, he has given an indication of his perseverance and desire, as well as of his humility and patience. And when he has embraced the knees of all the brothers passing by and has been purposely rebuked and disdained by everyone, as if he wished to enter the monastery not out of devotion but out of necessity, and has been visited with numerous insults and reproaches and has given proof of his constancy, and by putting up with taunts has shown what he will be like in time of trial, and when the ardor of his intention has been proven and he has thus been received, he is asked with the utmost earnestness if, from his former possessions, the contamination of even a single copper coin clings to him.

-- For they know that he could not remain subject to the discipline of the monastery for any length of time, nor indeed grasp hold of the virtue of humility and obedience or be content with the poverty and strictness of the cenobium, if some amount of money, however small, lay hidden on his conscience; rather, when the first disturbance arose for any reason whatsoever, he would be encouraged by the security of that sum and would flee the monastery as fast as a whirring sling stone.

-- Therefore they do not even agree to accept money from him that would be for the needs of the cenobium. The reason for this is that, first, he might be puffed up with self-confidence from having made this offering and would never deign to be on a par with his poorer brothers; and that then, as a result of this pride, he would never stoop to the lowliness of Christ, and when he was unable to remain under the discipline of the cenobium he would leave and would with sacrilegious spirit endeavor, now having grown lukewarm, to take back and claim what he had brought in at the beginning of his renunciation, when he was inflamed with spiritual fervor, and this would be injurious to the monastery. They have often been taught by numerous experiences that this observance must always be maintained. For in other less cautious monasteries some who were admitted without any ado have afterwards most blasphemously attempted to demand the return of what they had brought in and had been spent on the work of God.

-- Hence, when someone has been received, all his former possessions are removed from him, such that he is not even permitted to have the clothing that he wore. He is brought to the council of the brothers, stripped of what is his in their midst, and clothed in the garb of the monastery at the hands of the abba. Thus he may know not only that he has been despoiled of all his former things but also that he has put off all worldly pride and has stooped to the poverty and want of Christ, and that now he is to be supported not by wealth obtained in worldly fashion or stored up by his former lack of faith but that he will receive the pay for his soldiering from the holy and gracious supplies of the monastery. Thenceforth, knowing that he will be clothed and fed from there, he will learn both to possess nothing and ever to be worried about the morrow, according to the words of the Gospel, and he will not be ashamed to be on a par with the poor -- that is, with the body of the brotherhood -- among whom Christ was not ashamed to be numbered and who brother he did not blush to call himself; rather he will glory in having become the companion of his servants.

-- When, therefore, a person has been admitted, has been proven in the perseverance about which we have spoken, and has put aside his own garments and been clothed in the monastic habit, he is not permitted to join the community of the brothers immediately but is assigned to an elder who dwells not very far from the entrance of the monastery, who is responsible for travelers and strangers and is particularly devoted to welcoming them and to being hospitable to them. And when he has served for a full year there and has without any complaining waited upon travelers, having in this way been exposed to his first training in humility and patience and having been recognized for his long practice therein, and he is about to be admitted from this to the community of the brothers, he is given over to another elder who is responsible for ten younger men, who have been entrusted to him by the abba and whom he both teaches and rules, in accordance with what we read in Exodus was established by Moses (Exodus 18:25).

-- The chief concern and instruction of this man, whereby the young man who was brought to him may be able to ascend even to the loftiest heights of perfection, will be, first of all, to teach him to conquer his desires. In order to exercise him assiduously and diligently in this respect, he will purposely see to it that he always demands of him things that he would consider repulsive. For, taught by numerous experiences, they declare that a monk, and especially the younger men, cannot restrain their yearning for pleasure unless they have first learned to mortify their desires through obedience. And so they assert that someone who has not first learned to overcome his desires can never extinguish anger or sadness or the spirit of fornication, nor can he maintain true humility of heart or unbroken unity with his brothers or a solid and enduring peace, nor can he even stay in the cenobium for any length of time. END

from Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (trans), "John Cassian: The Institutes," (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 79 - 82