Saint John Cassian

From New World Encyclopedia

Saint John Cassian (ca. 360 – 433 C.E.) (Latin: Jo(h)annes Eremita Cassianus, Joannus Cassianus, or Joannes Massiliensis) is a Christian theologian celebrated in the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings. He is known both as one of the "Scythian monks" and as one of the "Desert Fathers."

He was born around 360, possibly in the eastern Roman Empire. Whether or not he was a Scythian by birth,[1] as a young adult, he and a friend traveled to Palestine, where they entered a hermitage near Bethlehem. After a while there, they journeyed to Egypt, which was rent by Christian struggles, and visited a number of monastic foundations. Later, Cassian went to Constantinople, where he became a disciple and friend of John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople and participated in his struggles with the Imperial family. When Chrysostom ran into theological trouble, Latin-speaking Cassian was sent to Rome to plead his cause before Pope Innocent I.

It was possibly when he was in Rome that he accepted the invitation to found an Egyptian style monastery in southern Gaul, near Marseille. His foundation, the abbey of St. Victor, a complex of monasteries for both men and women, was one of the first such institutes in the west, and served as a model for later monastic development. Cassian's abbey and writings influenced St. Benedict, who incorporated many of the same principles into his monastic rule, and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian. Since Benedict's rule is still used by Benedictine, Cistercian, and Trappist monks, the thought of John Cassian still guides the spiritual lives of thousands of men and women in the Western Church.

John Cassian is venerated as a saint in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. His feast day is traditionally celebrated on February 29; however, since this date occurs only once every four years, official Church calendars often transfer his feast to a different date. In the Roman Church, his feast is no longer commemorated in the universal calendar, but the Archdiocese of Marseilles and some monastic orders continue to observe his memorial on July 23.


John Cassian wrote two major spiritual works, the Institutes and the Conferences. In these, he codified and transmitted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. These books were written at the request of Castor, Bishop of Apt. The Institutes (Latin: De institutis coenobiorum) deal with the external organization of monastic communities, while the Conferences (Latin: Collationes) deal with "the training of the inner man and the perfection of the heart."

His third book, On the Incarnation of the Lord, was a defence of orthodox doctrine against the views of Nestorius, and was written at the request of the Archdeacon of Rome, later Pope Leo the Great.

His books were written in Latin, in a simple, direct style; they were swiftly translated into Greek, for the use of Eastern monks, an unusual honor.

Spirituality of John Cassian

The Desert Monks of Egypt followed a three step path to mysticism. The first level was called the Purgatio during which the young monk struggled through prayer and ascetic practices to gain control of "the flesh"—specifically gluttony, lust, and the desire for possessions. During this period, the young monk was to learn that any strength he had to resist these desires came directly from the Holy Spirit. At the end of the Purgatio, a period that often took many years, the monk had learned to trust peacefully in the Lord for all his needs. As the monk underwent this period of purging, he identified with Christ's temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13).

At this point the Illuminatio commenced. During this period, the monk learned the paths to holiness revealed in the Gospel. During the Illuminatio many monks took in visitors and students, and tended the poor as much as their meager resources allowed. They identified strongly with Christ when he taught the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. The monk continued his life of humility in the Spirit of God; his stoic acceptance of suffering often made him the only man capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local Christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.

The final stage was the Unitio, a period when the soul of the monk and the Spirit of God bonded together in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called the Song of Songs, or the Canticle of Canticles). Elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests to find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded. In this, the monk identified with the transfigured Christ, who after his resurrection was often hidden from his disciples.

Doctrinal controversy

Cassian is considered to be the originator of the view that later became known as Semipelagianism. This emphasized the role of free will in that the first steps of salvation is in the power of the individual, without the need for divine grace. He was attempting to describe a "middle way" between Pelagianism, which taught that the will alone was sufficient to live a sinless life, and the view of Augustine of Hippo, that emphasizes Original sin and the absolute need for Grace. Cassian took no part in the controversy that arose shortly before his death; his first opponent, Prosper of Aquitaine, held him in high esteem as a man of virtue and did not name him as the source of the conflict. Semipelagianism was condemned by the local Council of Orange in 529. The views became popular again during the nineteenth-century revival movement.

The Semipelagian views ascribed to Cassian are found in his Conferences, in book 3, the Conference of Abbot Paphnutius; book 5, the Conference of Abbot Serapion; and most especially in book 13, the Third Conference of Abbot Chaeremon.

Effects on later thought

The spiritual traditions of John Cassian had an immeasurable effect on Western Europe. Many different western spiritualities, from that of St. Benedict to that of St. Ignatius of Loyola, owe their basic ideas to John Cassian. In particular, the Institutes had a direct influence on organization of monasteries described in the Rule of St. Benedict; Benedict also recommended that ordered selections of the Conferences be read to monks under his Rule. Moreover, the monastic institutions Cassian inspired kept learning and culture alive during the early Middle Ages, and were often the only institutions that cared for the sick and poor. His works are excerpted in the Philokalia (Greek for "Love of the Beautiful"), the Eastern Orthodox compendium on mystical Christian prayer.

Even modern thinkers are beholden to John Cassian's thinking, although perhaps in ways the saint would not have expected; Michel Foucault was fascinated by the rigorous way Cassian defined and struggled against the "flesh." Perhaps because of investigations like these, Cassian's thought and writings are enjoying a recent popularity even in non-religious circles.


  1. Recent scholarship has called that tradition into doubt. Probably this came from the fact that he originated from the Roman province of Scythia Minor, where the "Scythian Monks" community existed.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Casiday, A. M. Saint John Cassian on Prayer. Cistercian Publications, 2007. ISBN 9780728301665
  • Columba, Stewart. Cassian the Monk. Oxford University Press: Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, 1998. ISBN 9780195134841
  • Cunningham, Lawrence. Brief History of Saints (Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2004. ISBN 9781405114028
  • Luibheid, Colm. John Cassian: Conferences (Classics of Western Spirituality) Paulist Press, 1985. ISBN 9780809126941

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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