Tag Archives: Saint John Cassian

23 July: On Gluttony I

Harvest table St Mildred’s Canterbury.

Our friend Ignatius recently published this refection on Gluttony in his blog, ‘As a little child’. We found it thought provoking, so much so that we publish our response tomorrow.

What is gluttony? According to its Catholic Encyclopedia entry, gluttony is ‘the excessive indulgence in food and drink. The moral deformity discernible in this vice lies in its defiance of the order postulated by reason, which prescribes necessity as the measure of indulgence in eating and drinking.’ It is also one of the seven deadly sins/cardinal vices, and yet it seems to be widely forgotten today.

Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire.’ (St John Cassian) Food was made to nourish us as its primary purpose, and to deny it this is to twist it out of its own nature, and into something that is both harmful and wasteful.

St John Cassian from SJC.

What’s more, gluttony subverts the created order in which the mind rules over the body, managing its needs and desires, and lets the body and its desires instead rule the mind. It attaches us to bodily/earthly realities, and so prevents us from rising to spiritual/celestial realities.

Gluttony also feeds the next cardinal vice, lust. This vice we hear about all the time. St John Cassian said, ‘No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity.’ Indulgence spills out to indulgence. First the flesh demands its basic good and pleasure of food, and then it goes on to its higher good and pleasure of sex.

According to St Thomas, there are five ways to be gluttonous: too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily. While growing obesity levels are visible and concerning, gluttony is much more than getting fat, and likely affects most people in the western world. Being excessively fussy is itself a form of gluttony.

So how should we oppose this vice? St John Cassian: ‘A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied.‘ I’m not sure how hungry/unsatisfied this requires, but at least try to leave some room (and not just for dessert!).

Speaking of dessert, I won’t say anything against that, nor against enjoying life generally. But we do need to learn moderation, and eat with the end of nourishment in mind. Food should absolutely be enjoyed as a gift from God, but we have to watch not to abuse it.

God bless 🙏

We ran a series of reflections from Sister Johanna on Saint John Cassian, starting here. Well worth exploring. Today is his feast day.

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August 5: The Psalms as Personal Prayer VI.

Westminster_Psalter_David

I’d like to say a few words about singing the psalms.  In the fifth century text I quoted above from John Cassian, he refers to singing the psalms, indicating that this was already an accepted practice in the Church.  Again, from my personal perspective as an ex-ballet dancer, music is highly important to me, and I am so grateful that this long tradition of singing prayer exists.  The psalms were first used in Jewish worship, and they were composed to be sung there; the poets intended this when they wrote them.  The link-up between music and meaning is extremely close in the psalms, then; music wasn’t an afterthought.

We are fortunate in having a poet in our monastic community.  Most of her poems are composed to be simply read, but at least one of her poems was composed as a piece to be sung.  There is a recording of it, and it is very beautiful.  But, take away the musical accompaniment and read the poem alone, and the experience of its beauty diminishes somewhat.  That’s because the words and the music are bound up together to work their artistic magic.  In the same way, it’s arguable that the psalms come alive most fully when the words are integrated with music, because that is the way they were composed.

There are other reasons, too for singing the psalms.  St. Benedict says, “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”  He’s talking about the power of music to keep us focused and recollected.  Singing integrates more of the body into the act of worship than is enlisted in reading silently.  In singing you involve the eyes, the ears and the voice most obviously.  Less obviously, you have the effect of musical rhythm.  Even if one is singing while standing or sitting still, this rhythm is felt by the whole body.  I’ve never forgotten what I was once told by the daughter of a deaf woman.  She said that her mother loved coming to the monastery church because she liked the music.  Although her mother couldn’t hear or sing, she felt the rhythmic vibrations of the simple chants we used for the liturgy, and found it prayerful.  Those able to hear fully might not be so conscious of feeling the vibrations of the music, but we do feel them nonetheless, and they help us to pray, also.

Music also elicits a response from the emotions – beauty and pathos can be expressed even in a simple, repetitive melody.  Song, further, is an aid to memory.  A snatch of a verse from a psalm may return to me later in the day because melody has a way of coming back and back.  This is how it works for me.  And I am so grateful that music and psalms have been partners in my vocation for nearly 40 years.

SJC

Here is the choir and congregation of St Peter’s, Colombia, South Carolina, singing the Gelineau version of Psalm 23.

 

SJC


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August 2: The Psalms as Personal Prayer III.

 

John_Cassian

John Cassian

The monastic writer, John Cassian, writes in the fifth century that when we pray the psalms over time, it will be like this:

[The one praying will] take in to himself all the thoughts of the Psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart [emphasis mine] not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances, and his very own prayer…. [c.f. Conference X:11].

How does this happen?  Is the every-day experience something that always involves the “deepest emotion of heart”?  Well, of course, there are good days and bad days, as is always the case with any human endeavour.  But, on a deeper level, it may be important to say that the concept of the heart for the ancients had connotations that we don’t automatically think of today.  The heart, for Cassian’s original audience, has very little to do with the mushy, over-emotional concept we may associate with the term today.  For Cassian, the heart is the most important part of the inner being.  It includes the mind, but it is also to do with the will, the place of deepest inner truth, of self-dedication, firm decision, profound responsibility.   So when Cassian talks about the deepest emotion of the heart we need to understand something that has more permanence and stability than we usually attribute to the emotions, maybe akin to a kind of “groundedness” in truth.  In a fast-changing world, and an often chaotic life-style, this description of the heart’s inner strength and capacity for self-dedication can be highly appealing.  The psalms can help us to realise this state in our own lives.

Many of the psalms are composed in the first person.  This allows a species of “transference” to take place, because when we pray things like “O God whom I praise, do not be silent, for the mouths of deceit and wickedness are opened against me” (108:1), or “When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy Lord, holds me up” (93:18), or “I am beset with evils…” (39:13) and so on, the “I” in any given psalm can become our “I” when we’re praying, no matter what our mood might be at that particular time.  In this way, the psalms become not only a mode of praying, but they help free us from the tyranny of our own emotions, and become a means of self-transcendence, and of empathy.  The psalms enable us to say to humanity, “I am praying not merely for you, but as you”.  We can pray the psalms from within the very consciousness of the one represented by any given psalm.  This allows us to put our own “stuff” to the side, and really listen to and pray from the perspective of different “stuff.”

SJC

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July 25, John Cassian IX: The Power of God’s Word

plough,sx (640x391)

 

As I write I am painfully aware of a friend who has confided in me about struggles she has in the workplace with employers and colleagues.  She faces injustice daily, and only by dint of dedication to her profession and commitment to those who work under her does she remain in her present situation.

I dare say she, and many others, could read what I have written about “owning” our problems and say, “I wish my boss or my colleague would do that!”  There are many such situations in our world where the Christian must somehow negotiate webs of deceit and structures of sin.  How does John Cassian’s teaching apply to such situation?

It is important to note that Cassian’s teaching is not geared to the political and social sphere but to the personal and spiritual sphere.  And so, I think we find the answer to this question in Cassian’s sense of the power of God’s Word, and his repeated urgings to us to “remember the cross.”   He says, “Thus at every moment we should cultivate the earth of our heart with the gospel plough – that is, with the continual remembering of the Lord’s cross”.

Cassian has changed the metaphor for the heart here from that of the vessel to that of a field.  The gospel works on this field like a powerful plough.  The continual remembrance of the Lord’s cross is the essence of the gospel, and is the power that eventually transforms us like a plough transforms a field.

It is worth lingering here a moment.  Imagine the field, the great lumps and clods of dark earth, and the plough’s work of digging and turning the earth, back and forth, over and over.  It is an image for the spiritual life that I have returned to many times over the years, whenever I feel that my inner “field” is being ploughed over once again.  I find it very easy to relate to this, and when I remember the cross and the gospel plough I feel the return of hope amid an experience that might otherwise feel as though anything good I had done was being destroyed.

For Cassian, the Word of God – epitomized by the remembrance of the cross – is alive.  It has its own intrinsic power to work within and strengthen our hearts if only we give ourselves over to it.  I cannot change others. I cannot do away with structures of sin in the world.  I can only change myself, but by doing this, I do make an effective contribution to the process of dismantling sin’s structures in the world. Through the continual remembrance of the Lord’s cross, personal change becomes possible.  Then, it becomes possible, too, to experience the truth of the words of Karl Rahner, with which we began our reflections, “The Christian faith professes that God is not merely the God far off….  God wills to be, in self-communication, the ‘content’ and future of man.”

SJC

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July 22, John Cassian VI: Conversion of Thought

crypt (640x481)

In modern language, we might say that the eight evil thoughts, as enumerated by John Cassian, are our “shadow side”, for, says Cassian, “they exist in everyone, yet no one knows of them until they are laid open by the teaching of the elders and the Word of the Lord”.

No one knows of them because, as we would say now, we deny that side of ourselves.  Yet, far from suggesting that the confrontation with our evil thoughts is a sign that we are back-sliding, Cassain tells us that this is a sign of progress.

What are these evil thoughts?  According to Cassian they are:

gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, sloth (or acedia), vainglory and pride.

mercylogoTo explore his treatment of each vice would go beyond the scope of these posts.  But, it is still worth noting that these tendencies, Cassian maintains, are just part of the human package, like it or not.  This is not such bad news, however.  The fact that we have the ability to see these tendencies within ourselves is a sign that God is there, providing the light by which they are seen (Conferences 23, XVII, 3).

SJC.

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July 21, John Cassian V: What Next?

 

gate,oldgrey (517x800)

The one who has made an effort to cut down on superfluous material things will find himself less occupied by concerns about maintaining them, repairing them, updating them.  The heart begins to be free.  It becomes possible to pray more, according to John Cassian.  But this does not mean that purity of heart has now been achieved.  It is not unusual, under such circumstances, to develop a more intense awareness of one’s own weaknesses and sinful tendencies.

Rather than seeing unending streams of light proceeding from within, one may find what Cassian calls “evil thoughts” emerging.  According to Cassian, this shouldn’t come as any surprise, for Jesus himself warns us that this is what we are like: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt. 15: 19).  Perhaps I am someone who has read that passage many times in scripture, yet, when I finally realise that this is a home truth about me, it can be shocking.

This is where Cassian comes to assist – not with false consolation that endeavours to sweep all the difficulties under the carpet.  He comes with true insight into the reality of our interior life.  Cassian enumerates eight principal vices, or “evil thoughts,” as he calls them.  He calls them “thoughts” because he knows that our deeds, whether good or bad, are conceived first as thoughts before they become actions.  So, it is there, on the level of our thoughts, that conversion needs to occur.

SJC.

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July 20: John Cassian IV: Renunciation Explored

me.time

John Cassian was aware that we often do not know how attached we are to something until we find ourselves deprived of it.  The resulting emotional fallout can surprise us.  This is precisely the reaction Cassian is trying to provoke.  This shows us how much our heart was filled with whatever material thing or things we are now trying to do without.

Cassian can seem to be quite radical about dispossession, but it is worth keeping in mind that he is not talking about destitution.  He is happy for us to possess those material goods that are necessary for our life, but if he were alive today, I am sure he would say, along with Pope Francis, that becoming free of “compulsive consumerism” through renunciation is vital as a first step to gaining purity of heart, and to entering into a new relationship with Christ, who was poor (Institutes 4:V).

The one who practices renunciation gives Christ greater access to his heart.  Although the person practising renunciation may have fewer material possessions than others, he is not bereft of what is most valuable, for what is most valuable is his relationship to Christ.

SJC.

Consumerism as a prison! Family Archive.

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July 18: John Cassian, II. Can my Heart Really Contain God?

 

 heart

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says “…the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of ones’ being, [is] where the person decides for or against God” [no. 368].  This decision exists in the human person as a dynamic and constant impulse toward God.  In John Cassian, whose writings we are considering for a few days, the decision issues in the willingness to labour unceasingly to make the vessel of our heart able to bear the indwelling of Christ.

For Cassian, in order for this to happen, the person needs to gain insight into what he already has within the vessel of the heart.  And, recall, according to Cassian, we can’t say, “Oh, I’m not a vessel, so I don’t have to worry about this.”  For Cassian, the acknowledgement that we are vessels must be our starting point.  It’s how we’re made.  So, what’s in us, then?

Although the human person responds naturally to love, beauty, truth and goodness, and we achieve our human fulfilment through augmenting these qualities within ourselves, there is another, less sanguine aspect of our interiority to consider.  Cassian maintains that the vessel of the heart can be a place of conflict and temptation.  The decision for God must be made again and again, on ever deeper levels.  Purity of heart, therefore, is our goal, not our starting point.  This is what he says,

For the sake of [purity of heart] then, everything is to be done or desired.  This should be our principal effort, then; this should be constantly pursued as the fixed goal of our  heart, so that our mind may always be attached to divine things and to God [Conf. 1, VII: 1].

 

So, it is a given that we are vessels, but it is not a given that we are automatically pure of heart.  To become so: that is our longing; and everything we do should be done not just with this goal vaguely in the picture.  Cassian puts it more strongly.  It should be our “fixed goal”, our “principal effort”.  How do we undertake such a project?  Tomorrow we will look at one way to proceed.

SJC.

 

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July 17: Interruption, Saint John Cassian

John_Cassian

Sister Joanna has shared these reflections on Saint John Cassian, whose thought continues to influence the Church to this day. A good read for the start of the summer holidays here in England. It’s also a good time to listen to him because his feast falls at the end of this week, July 23rd.

WT

Unknownhttp://www.pravicon.com

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July 17: John Cassian and Interiority: I

 

Karl Rahner wrote, “The Christian faith professes that God is not merely the God far off….  God wills to be, in self-communication, the ‘content’ and future of man.”  I would like to explore how this may be realised in us, with the assistance of John Cassian.

This might strike some as an unlikely pairing.  Rahner is modern, and John Cassian was born around 360. His birthplace was Dacia (present-day Romania).  How can someone who lived so long ago, and in such a far-away land, possibly help us to understand Karl Rahner’s insight?  Before we begin to answer this question, a bit of background about John Cassian.

Only a few facts about John Cassian have survived time’s ravages.  He was from a well-off family and was well-educated.  In his twenties, he entered a monastery in Bethlehem, and several years later he embarked on a pilgrimage to the then-famous monasteries of Egypt.  He spent perhaps ten years there, learning about the spiritual life from the great Egyptian monastic fathers.

After this long period of training in monastic wisdom, Cassian was ordained to the priesthood.  Finally, he ended up in Marseilles.  There, he founded two monasteries and wrote The Institutes and its companion work, The Conferences.  These are the writings I would like to refer to in the next several posts, for they speak about what, for Cassian, was the only thing that mattered: life with God.

One of the most intriguing terms Cassian uses to describe our inner self is that of the “vessel”.  Cassian first uses the term in his book’s dedication.  Addressed to one Bishop Castor, who himself had founded a monastery and had asked Cassian to write about what he had learned of monasticism in Egypt, Cassian says to the Bishop:

You are setting out to construct a true and spiritual temple for God…out of a community of holy men; and you also desire to consecrate very precious vessels to the Lord out of holy souls that bear within themselves the indwelling of Christ the king (emphasis mine).

 

Here, Cassian is saying that we are created as “containers” – that’s just how we are.  And so we are meant to have something inside.  Rahner says that God wants to be that “something.”  So does Cassian.  For both Cassian and Rahner, what makes us precious is not a thing, but a person: God.  Christ himself.  If we bear Christ within, we shine with his goodness.  How?  That is something that we will explore.

SJC.

Dear Friends,

This post somehow got out of sequence. My apologies! It will reappear on July 17th as advertised, to be followed by the rest of Sister Johanna’s reflections. WT.

If we bear Christ within, we shine with his goodness. St Maurice, Switzerland, MMB.

 

 

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