John Cassian

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CASSIAN, JOHN (c. 365c. 435), monastic leader, founder of ascetic theology in the Latin church. According to Gennadius of Marseilles, John Cassian came from Scythia Minor (modern-day Dobruja), a province of the early Byzantine empire. Born of a rich Scythian family, Cassian received a good education. After he moved to Palestine, he entered a monastery in Bethlehem, together with his friend Germanos. Receiving permission for a temporary absence, the two men left the monastery for a short visit to the monastic colonies of Egypt. After they met the first prominent elders there, they were so fascinated that they forgot their promise to return to their monastery in Bethlehem. They continued on their travels as far as the region of Scetis, where they settled. From time to time they made visits to other monastic areas, but they do not seem to have realized their original intention of visiting the Pachomian monasteries at Thebais. Cassian and Germanos stayed in Egypt for over thirteen years, with only a short break to settle the matter of their permission to leave Bethlehem.

During the anti-Origenist persecution of 399 the two men were forced to abandon Egypt because of their association with Origenist monks, whose theological exponent was Evagrios of Pontus. They fled to Constantinople, where they were well received by the archbishop John Chrysostom. There Germanos was ordained a priest and Cassian a deacon. At the beginning of 405, they went to Rome on behalf of Chrysostom to deliver a letter to Pope Innocent I.

After 415 Cassian, now a priest, moved to Marseilles, where he established two monasteries, one for men and one for women. The last record of him is Prosper of Acquitaine's theological attack on him, in about 433. A short time after the attack Cassian died; his last words, reported in Sayings of the Fathers, were "I have never done my own will, nor taught anyone something which I had not previously carried out."

Cassian came very late to writing, and he wrote only when requested to do so by important persons. Generally he used the same material as did Evagrios, but he gave it his own personal imprint. More synthetical than Evagrios, he arranged his sources in extensive collections. He was a brilliant Latin stylist, distinguished for his clarity and elegance. Three of his works are still read today with great interest.

  1. Institutes of the Cenoby and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Vices, written around 420 at the request of Castor, bishop of Apt in Provence, consists of two distinct sections. Books 14 discuss clothing, prayer, psalmody, and rules of monastic life; books 512 are a moral exposition of the eight evil thoughts, or vicesgluttony, luxury, avarice, wrath, sloth, acedia (negligence), vainglory, and prideand their remedies.
  2. Conferences of the Fathers has three sections. Conferences 110, written around 422 and dedicated to Leo, bishop of Fréjus, and the monk Helladius, recount Cassian's conversations with famous elders from Scetis on the fundamental principles of the ascetic and spiritual life. Conferences 1117, written around 424 at the request of Honoratus, founder of Lérins monastery, and the monk Eucherius, recount Cassian's conversations with elders of the Nile delta on problems of spiritual theology. Conferences 1824, written around 426 and dedicated to a group of Gallican monks, present conversations with elders of the Nile delta and Scetis on particular problems of the ascetic life.
  3. On the Incarnation against Nestorius, written in 430 at the request of the future pope Leo, constitutes the single Western refutation of Nestorian teachings, which Cassian considered a result of Pelagian influence.

Cassian is the first monastic leader in the West to have set forth the theological principles of monastic life. Although his works encompass not only the anchoritic but also the cenobitic form of monasticism, his real interest lay in anchoritism. On questions of monastic organization, his sources are the institutions of the monastic centers in the East, chiefly Egypt and Palestine. In the theoretical area, he has as his guide the great teacher of ascetical theology, Evagrios, although, because Evagrios had been condemned as a heretic, Cassian avoided citing his name.

Cassian's thought revolves around the spiritual perfection of ascetics, following the classical twofold distinction of the stages of the spiritual life, the active and the contemplative way, for which he used the Greek terms praktikē and theoretikē. Complete renunciation leads to the active way: "We have two fathers, one to abandon, the other to follow" (Conf. 3.6). In the preliminary stage a fierce struggle develops against the passions caused in us by demons and evil thoughts. Praktikē becomes the way through which the cleansing of the passions and the establishment of the virtues are effected. Theoretikē is the higher stage, in which the contemplation of the divine realities and the acknowledgment of the most secret signs are acquired (Conf. 14.1).

Like all ascetic writers, Cassian demands from Christians a hard struggle for the attainment of perfection. This struggle, in turn, requires a strong and free will. Cassian rejected two important theories of his day. He regarded the volitionism of Pelagius as heretical, and the absolute predestination of Augustine of Hippo as sacrilegious. According to Cassian, humankind preserved even after the Fall the ability to turn toward the good and to accept or reject the salvation offered by God.

In the West, Cassian's teaching was criticized by Prosper of Aquitaine, a disciple of Augustine, and later it was condemned by the Council of Orange (529). It is still regarded today as semi-Pelagian. Cassian, however, was an Eastern theologian in the Latin West, and his teaching must be judged by Greek theological criteria. From this point of view, he was in agreement with the entire Eastern tradition and especially with the views of John Chrysostom.

In his last years, Cassian was regarded as one of the leading theologians of the West. Even though his opposition to Augustine kept him out of the mainstream of the Western church, his authority was unofficially accepted. Abridged redactions of his writings were made in both Latin and Greek, while eight of his sayings were preserved in Sayings of the Fathers. Through Benedict of Nursia his influence was spread throughout the West.

Gennadius of Marseilles calls Cassian a saint, but in the West he is not venerated, except in Marseilles, where his feast is celebrated on July 23. In the East the feast is generally celebrated on February 29.


Works by Cassian

Guy, Jean-Claude, ed. and trans. De institutis / Institutions cenobitiques. Vol. 109 of Sources chrétiennes. Paris, 1965.

Migne, J.-P., ed. Opera omnia. Vols. 49 and 50 of Patrologia Latina. Paris, 1874 and 1863.

Petschenig, Michael, ed. Opera omnia. Vols. 13 and 17 of Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vienna, 1886 and 1888.

Pichery, Eugène, ed. and trans. Conlationes Patrum (Conférences). Vols. 42, 54, and 64 of Sources chrétiennes. Paris, 19551959.

Works about Cassian

Cassian's doctrines on nature and grace in opposition to Augustine's view of predestination is the central concern of Alexander Hoch's Lehre des Johannes Cassianus von Natur und Gnade: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Gnadenstreites im fünften Jahrhundert (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1895), and Joseph Laugier's S. Jean Cassien et sa doctrine sur la grâce (Lyons, 1908). A general picture of the personality and the work of Cassian is given under "Cassien" in Dictionnaire de spiritualité (Paris, 1937). Owen Chadwick's John Cassian: A Study in Primitive Monasticism (1950; 2d ed., London, 1968) is very important. A number of other studies on special aspects of his monastic activities may be mentioned, such as Hans Oskar Weber's Die Stellung des Johannes Cassianus zur ausserpachomianischen Mönchstradition (Munich, 1961), Salvatore Pricoco's L'isola dei santi: Il cenobio di Lerino e il origini del monachesimo gallico (Rome, 1978), and Philip Rousseau's Ascetics, Authority and the Church in the Age of Jerome and Cassian (Oxford, 1978). Some new studies on the theological teachings are Victor Codina's El aspecto cristológico en la espiritualidad de Juan Casiano, "Orientalia Christiana Analecta," vol. 175 (Rome, 1966), and Paul Christophe's Cassien et Césaire: Prédicateurs de la morale monastique (Gembloux, 1969).

Panagiotis C. Christou (1987)

Translated from Greek by Philip M. McGhee

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Cassian, John (c.360–435). Christian monk. He came from the East to Marseilles, where c.415 he founded two monasteries and where he wrote his two main books. The Institutes sets out the ordinary rules for the monastic life. It was the basis of many W. rules, being drawn on e.g. by Benedict. The Conferences record his conversations with monastic leaders of the East.