Simon Cashmore is a student at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His PhD study investigates the relationship between the descriptions of ecstatic experiences in the writings of John Cassian and the texts’ broader advocacy of self-control and constraint in the pursuit of holiness.
John Cassian had a knack for travelling into trouble that would have been the envy of many an intrepid war-correspondent.[i]
One of the great teachers of early Christian monasticism, Cassian appears to have had his sojourn among the desert fathers of Egypt cut short by the purge of “Origenist” monks instigated by Theophilus bishop of Alexandria at the end of the fourth century. Like many of the monks expelled from Egypt, he found refuge in the service of John Chrysostom bishop of Constantinople. Soon after Cassian’s arrival, however, Chrysostom was deposed after falling foul of a vengeful Theophilus and his unlikely ally Eudoxia, the wife of the emperor Arcadius. After failing to raise support for Chrysostom in Rome, Cassian looks to have opted to stay in the ancient city. Within a decade, Visigoth armies were besieging Rome and Cassian was forced to hit the road once more. He finally found refuge in southern Gaul where he wrote his acclaimed guides to monastic life – the Institutes and the Conferences.[ii]
Cassian’s monastic texts offer little insight into the travails that forced their author to keep on the move. Secondary sources written by contemporaries such as Palladius and pope Innocent I help fill in some of the gaps in Cassian’s travel itinerary.[iii] In the Conferences, however, Cassian hints at another journey. It’s a journey prompted not by ecclesiastical skullduggery or dramatic shifts in geopolitics. Instead, this journey was born out of desire; a desire to know and experience God more intimately.
Early in the Conferences, Abba Theodore, one of the holy sages of Egypt who Cassian greatly admired, teaches about the importance of remaining steadfast in the ascetic pursuit of perfection. Those monks who are able to master their desires and lusts and reject the vices of the flesh could sometimes find themselves propelled onto a spiritual journey, says the abba. When deep in prayer they might experience an “ecstasy of the mind” (excessus mentis) and then see into the future and even observe the bright splendor of the divine dwelling. Furthermore, the intensity of a monk’s love of God might be so great that he could actually pass over, albeit briefly, into this eternal realm.[iv]
Cassian doesn’t say much more about travelling beyond the confines of the material world and entering into the heavenly domain. Elsewhere in the Conferences, as well as in the Institutes, he briefly describes occurrences of an ecstasy of the mind and the intense prayer that often accompanies it. This rare form of prayer he terms evocatively “the prayer of fire” (oratio ignita).[v]
Despite a paucity of information about celestial journeys in the Conferences and Institutes, it’s clear that Cassian viewed heaven as more than just a desirable destination for devout monks. He saw it as a divine realm, or perhaps a state of being, into which followers of Christ who had shunned sinfulness and cultivated virtue might gain access while still living in this world. Cassian believed that monks shouldn’t be confined to living out their lives in what Colm Luibhéid once described as the “anterooms of eternity” but could instead experience direct encounters with God.[vi]
The Conferences and Institutes chart a course for monks eager to follow the example of the holy abbas of Egypt and gain access into the presence of God while still citizens of this world. These texts are not maps that mark out pathways to God. Rather, they’re travel guides. They comprise descriptions of ascetic practices Cassian claims to have observed in Palestine and Egypt as well as with discussions with the revered sages of the desert about how a person should condition themselves to be open to the guidance of others, and of God, in their pursuit of holiness. The goal of these travel guides is not to direct monks to their divine destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. Instead, they strive to heighten the travelers’ awareness of the presence and attention of God while they stride and sometimes stumble towards their journey’s end.
The description of an excursion into the eternal divine realm that Cassian includes in his monastic texts alerts his audience to potential celestial journeys that they too might experience while following his lead. Readers of the Institutes and Conferences who earnestly follow Cassian’s directions might find themselves seized by an ecstasy of the mind and transported into the wonderous domain of the divine where the “heavenly sacraments” shine in everlasting splendor.[vii]
Like all good travel guides, the Institutes and Conferences provide their readers with far more than informed descriptions of desirable locations. They actually encourage those who are eager to travel to embark on the journey upon which they have set their hearts. Furthermore, they provide the assurance and support that is often needed to sustain a journey that is challenging and forbidding as well as enormously rewarding.
However, Cassian’s monastic texts go beyond the remit of even the best of travel guides. They have the potential to help transport their audience into the divine realm they describe. Throughout the Institutes and Conferences, Cassian emphasizes the importance of the classical notion of imitatio (imitation).[viii] He urges the fledgling monks of Gaul to copy the example of the desert abbas of Egypt and to emulate their ascetic practices and their attitudes to holiness. Among the key monastic disciplines described by Cassian are a variety of “textual practices”.[ix] These include prayerfully reading the Scriptures, listening to biblical expositions, meditating on passages and verses of the Bible and memorizing, and frequently reciting, holy texts. The Institutes and Conferences, like many Christian texts composed in late antiquity, are infused with quotations and references from the Scriptures. When Cassian’s audience in Gaul engaged with the Institutes and Conferences, using some of the textual practices these texts advocate, they encountered manifestations of the divine Word embedded in the teaching of the holy abbas. The prayerful, often liturgical, contexts of these engagements could inspire an ecstasy of the mind. During such moments of ecstasy, the presence of God was no longer the focus of a deep yearning but instead became an immediate reality. Monks ravished by this intense intimacy with God could find themselves transported into the heart of the celestial dwelling of the divine. Their minds, according to Cassian, might be infused by heavenly light, their understanding suspended and out of their mouths would gush a fountain of ineffable prayers to God.[x]
When Cassian first embarked on his journey to discover greater knowledge of God he set out on his travels with a trusted companion. Germanus was a compatriot of Cassian’s who was older and wiser.[xi] It is Germanus who starts most of the discussions with the holy abbas that Cassian presents in the Conferences. Palladius records Cassian and Germanus travelling to Rome on behalf of the embattled John Chrysostom.[xii] After the two travelers arrive in Rome, Germanus disappears from view. Cassian seems to have journeyed on alone.
For the early monks in Gaul, Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences were an astute and trustworthy companion. These texts guided and encouraged the monks as they journeyed towards a demanding but alluring destination. Furthermore, they opened the monks’ minds to the immanent presence of the God who they longed to meet. But, like Germanus, they could only accompany the travelers for part of the journey. Once the monks had experienced the presence of God for themselves, and stepped within the celestial realm, they had no need of guides to direct them. They travelled in the company of God alone.
[i] Columba Stewart’s Cassian the Monk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) provides a thorough survey of Cassian’s life and work.
[ii] Marseilles is traditionally identified as the city in southern Gaul where Cassian wrote the Institutes and Conferences. However, Richard Goodrich argues convincingly in Contextualizing Cassian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) that Cassian wrote these texts in the nearby province of Narbonensis Secunda, probably in the town of Apt.
[iii] See Palladius’ Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom (Chapter Three) and Innocent’s letter to John Chrysostom and his letter to the clergy of Constantinople.
[iv] Conferences, Book Six 10:2-3.
[v] Conferences, Book Nine 25:1.
[vi] Colm Luibhéid, Preface to John Cassian Conferences (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), xiii.
[vii] Conferences, Book Six 10:2.
[viii] For a discussion on Cassian’s uses of classical education to convey his monastic teaching, see Rebecca Krawiec, ‘Monastic Literacy in John Cassian: Toward a New Sublimity’, Church History 81.4 (2012) 765–795 and Christopher J. Kelly, Cassian’s Conferences: Scriptural Interpretation and the Monastic Ideal (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).
[ix] See Steven D. Driver, John Cassian and the Reading of Egyptian Monastic Culture (London: Routledge, 2013) and Rebecca H. Weaver, “Access to Scripture: Experiencing the Text”, Interpretation 52.4 (1998) 367-379.
[x] Conferences, Book Nine, 25:1.
[xi] Cassian’s place of origin is a subject of much conjecture. Scythia Minor, on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania, is widely recognized as Cassian’s place of birth. Some researchers, however, suggest that Cassian returned to his homeland when he arrived in Gaul from Rome.
[xii] Dialogue on the Life of St John Chrysostom (Chapter Three)