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A Book Review . . . John Cassian Revisited

July 29, 2020 Featured Today No Comments

By JUDE DOUGHERTY

Clements, Niki Kasumi. Sites of the Aesthetic Self: John Cassian and Christian Ethical Formation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020. Pp. Xi + 280.

The book opens with an account of a well-educated young man, John Cassian, and his companion, Germanus, who attempt to establish in Bethlehem a monastic community based on the asceticism of the Egyptian desert model.
The mid-decades of the fifth century have been described by Robert Markus as the watershed of the great debates in the Latin West on what it means to be and live as a Christian. There is ample evidence to support that judgment as we follow the writing and activity of John Cassian, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Benedict of Nursia, and Pope Innocent I.
John Cassian, who lived from 360 to 436, was born in what is now Romania. A contemporary of St. Augustine (354-430), like Augustine he was led to address the issue of self-formation which in one formulation reads as follows: “In orienting oneself toward the proximate goal of purity of heart and the ultimate end of the Kingdom of God, how much is to be attributed to one’s own agency as distinct from the grace of God?”
Augustine spoke to the problem in his On Grace and Free Will (426), where he stressed human fallenness and human inability. Cassian in Conferences 15, “On God’s Protection,” was thought to offer a direct response to Augustine despite its antecedent composition. Cassian’s position, which later became known as semi-Pelagian, differed from Augustine’s, insofar as Cassian feared that the doctrine of Augustine possessed an element of fatalism.
“We must take care not to ascribe all merits of the saints to the Lord, so as to leave nothing but what is perverse to human activity.” Cassian claimed that the initial step to salvation was within the power of the individual unaided by grace. God created humans with a good will, and when human effort fosters this will, God encourages its growth, and spurs it on to salvation, increasing what He Himself had planted and saw arise from individual effort.
Cassian held that human progress in ascetic formation requires adaptation as well as human toil and effort, and Cassian noted that divine protection goes “together not with the lazy or careless person, but with the one who labors and toils.”
Cassian brought to his early works a knowledge of Egyptian asceticism and of the desert hermits. This is seen in his Institutes of Monastic Life (418) and Conferences of the Fathers (419). A third work, On the Incarnation of the Lord, was written against the heretic Nestorius at the request of Pope Leo I. That book, considered his master work, took him nearly a decade to write and appeared in 490. Without doubt his collected works were to influence the whole of Western monasticism. Benedict in his Rule made Cassian’s Conferences and Institutes required reading.
In the opinion of Niki Kasumi Clements, “Cassian is remarkable as a translator between Eastern and Western Christianities. He bridges geographies, languages, politics, customs, and friends.”
Notably, he was embraced not only in the West but by Eastern Christianity, as evidenced by the fact that his Latin texts were translated into Greek
Cassian writes about what an ascetic life looks like, materially and formatively, and how it feels and is socially transmitted. He emphasizes its positive aspects — not renunciation. In writing about communal practices, he stresses adaptation and accommodation for different geographic sites and times. He recognizes how subjects are directed by desire but need to be confirmed in their ambition through practice.
Commissioned by Pope Innocent I to work in southern Gaul, he established near Marseilles two monasteries, one for men and one for women. He founded and became the first abbot of the Abbey St. Victor where he remained for the rest of his life. His foundation for women was known as the Abbey St. Salvador.
Cassian was ordained a deacon by John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, around 404, and ordained a priest in 405. Although Cassian was never formally canonized, St. Gregory the Great regarded him as a saint, and today his feast with an octave is celebrated in Provence on July 23. His name is also found among the saints of the Greek calendar. A reliquary in Marseilles bears the inscription, “St. John Cassian.”
Niki Kasumi Clements, in introducing the reader to John Cassian, makes some interesting comparisons to Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, and Michael Foucault insofar as they too discuss the role of asceticism, perhaps better understood as “restraint” in self-governance and self-improvement.
Clements, it should be noted, is the Watt J. and Lilly G. Jackson Professor of Religion at Rice University. Conversant with the widespread contemporary interest in Cassian, she acknowledges that her subject lends himself to interpretation.
And so it was in the fifth and sixth centuries. Pelagius was formally condemned by the Council of Carthage in 418 for an overly generous view of human free will. Augustine’s view on divine grace prevailed at the Council of Carthage in 529 and became orthodox teaching.

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