If purity of heart is our goal, then what are we like when we begin? How do we even find out what we are like? The heart first needs to be “found,” accessed. This is not easy. Usually, the regions of the heart cannot be accessed directly. We must go about the business of knowing ourselves by a rather roundabout process. The word Cassian uses most often for this process is “renunciation” (Institutes, 4). This may surprise us. What can he mean?
Here, we may turn to the recent encyclical letter by our Holy Father Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. In his treatment of global ecological concerns, Pope Francis makes the point in his encyclical that “compulsive consumerism” (no. 203) is one of the results of a “market [which] tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products…. This paradigm,” he says, “leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume.”
Even in the simpler world of the fifth century, John Cassian was aware that the need to possess things could easily escalate into a compulsion. Deliberately reduce the number of our material possessions, he implies, and we can find ourselves disturbed to a degree that surprises us. As Pope Francis says, the ability to possess things is somehow connected to our perception of personal freedom; reactions that are deep, maybe even primal, are triggered. But, this is a disordered reaction. Possessions do not really lead to freedom: instead, they fill the vessel of heart and leave little room for God or for true self-knowledge. This is why, for Cassian, the purification of the heart begins on the material level, with what we can see and touch and physically possess. By starting there, we gain access to the deeper reaches of our being.