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March 1, 2010

The Legacy of John Cassian in East and West

St. John Cassian the Roman (Feast Day - February 29 (or 28))

Augustine's view that grace was irresistible and therefore indefectible (not subject to failure) went to the extreme of virtually denying man's free-will. The view of an absolute predestination, irrespective of foreseen character, and of the irresistible and indefectible character of grace, was put forward by Augustine initially in a letter to a Roman priest, Sixtus, in the year 418. Due to some controversy over his views, he expanded on this teaching in 426 in his work titled De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio (On Grace and Free Will) and then further clarified his position in another work titled De Correptione et Gratia (On Rebuke and Grace). These clarifications gave rise to further protests, which were especially taken up in southern Gaul. These fathers saw Augustine's teaching not only as novel, but also perilous. Augustine, by maintaining predestination and limiting the divine good will to a fixed number of predestined persons, not only cut to the root exertion, but encouraged negligence or even despair. They insisted that salvation should be available to all, because Jesus Christ died for all (2 Cor. 5:15). The fathers in Gaul contended that to explain away this scriptural assurance was to falsify the divine promise and to nullify human responsibility.

Those opposed to Augustine were accused of the error of Semi-Pelagianism, that is, that nature, unaided, could take the first step toward its recovery, by desiring to healed through faith in Christ. If it could not - if the very beginning of all good were strictly a divine act - exhortations seemed to them to be idle, and censure unjust, in regard to those on whom no such act had been wrought, and who, therefore, until it should be wrought, were helpless, and so far guiltless, in the matter. Of the party which took up this position, Cassian was the recognized head. Though he never directly entered into the controversy himself by authoring any polemical works on the subject, his "Conference XIII" with Abba Chaeremon, titled "On the Protection of God", countered the Augustinians; denial of the need of effort on man's part.

When Saint John Cassian made his protest against the rising tide of Augustinianism, he was only handing on the teaching which he had received from his eastern instructors. The west was never able subsequently to produce anything equal to the works of Cassian in the sphere of asceticism. In the east, his works were early translated into Greek and respected. Saint John Klimakos speaks of Saint John Cassian's work with praise in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, saying: "The great Cassian reasons in an unsurpassed and exalted manner." Saint Photios the Great, in his encyclopedic summary of thousands of books, Myriovivlon, testifies that Saint John Cassian's works are "something divine in nature." Saint Peter of Damascus (11th or 12th cent.) in the Philokalia also cites Saint John Cassian as an authority, and indeed he is the only Latin writer featured in the Philokalia. His edifying teachings can also be found in the spiritual classic Evergetinos.

Unlike Cassiodorus and others who used Saint Cassian's works with caution because of his anti-Augustinian teaching on grace, Saint Benedict of Nursia indicates no reserve whatever with regard to Saint Cassian's teaching. Saint Benedict considered himself to be simply continuing the tradition of the eastern fathers. For him the monastic authorities were The Conferences, The Institutes, and The Rule of Our Father Saint Basil (See The Rule of Saint Benedict, Ch. 73). Chapter 42 of his Rule prescribes after the evening meal or Vespers the reading of The Conferences or The Live of the Fathers. And all instructions on prayer in his Rule comes directly from Saint John Cassian's "Conference IX".

Later western monasticism, however, despite the prestige of Saint Benedict, lost contact with its eastern sources and participated in that spiritual decline that, apparently, began in the Western Church even before the formal Schism. Within a few centuries the face of western monasticism was totally obliterated. One can detect, in fact, even in the early period, indications of an important misunderstanding of eastern ascetic doctrine. From a Catholic perspective, the leaders of the monastic movement in fifth-century Gaul stand under the shadow of a "heresy", later to be called by them "Semi-Pelagianism". The westerners regard Saint John Cassian as the founder of this "heresy". They, furthermore, accuse many other fathers of Lerins for their subscription to it - Saints Vincent of Lerins, Hilary of Arles, and Faustus of Riez (Rhegium). In Orthodox eyes, it is rather these fathers who transmitted the Orthodox doctrine of divine grace and man's free will. It was Augustine who pursued an exaggeration of the doctrine o grace that threatened to negate the whole meaning of human effort and asceticism in the path of salvation.

Archbishop Philaret of Chernigov writes thus: "When the monks of Adumetum presented to Augustine that, according to his teaching, the obligation of asceticism and self-mortification was not required of them, Augustine felt the justice of the remark. He began more often to repeat that grace does not destroy freedom; but such an expression of his teaching changed essentially nothing in Augustine's theory, and his very last works were not in accord with his thought. Relying on his own experience of a difficult rebirth by means of grace, he was carried a long by a feeling of its further consequences....In defending the truth, he himself was not always faithful to the truth. Therefore it is not surprising that in the Eastern Church the teaching of Augustine on grace was not received with such a lively participation as it was in the west. The Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus (451) properly confirmed the condemnation of Pelagius' teaching, but concerning the teaching of Augustine it said not a word" [Historical Teaching of the Fathers of the Church (Saint Petersburg, 1882), v.3, pp. 33, 34].

I. M. Kontzevich further writes: "The west followed Augustine and has always regarded Saint Cassian and his followers as being in error. Does not this failure to understand a basic point of Orthodox ascetic doctrine already prefigure, as it were, the tragic loss in the west of traditional monasticism, of Orthodox spirituality, of Christianity itself? Because of this misunderstanding, also, Saint Cassian was never canonized in the Western Church. Locally, however, in Marseilles and a few other places in southern Gaul, he was venerated as a saint, his feast on the 23rd of July being one of the main feasts of the Abbey of Saint Victor. In the Middle Ages his relics were kept whole in the Abbey of Saint Victor in a marble tomb on four pillars, with a light burning before it day and night. Near Cannes, a hill once known as Arluc - where in antiquity there had been a temple of Venus and in Christian times a monastery for women - bears to this day the name of "Saint Cassian". It is a silent reminder of what the west once had and then lost, but about which it may again, by the grace of God, learn from the Orthodox Church of Christ" ["The Life of Saint John Cassian the Roman", The Orthodox Word 5, Number 2 (25) (March-April 1969) pp. 70, 71.]

For more on this topic, see my earlier post titled "John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins and Faustus of Riez Were Not Semi-Pelagians".

Apolytikion in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone
The image of God, was faithfully preserved in you, O Father. For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By Your actions you taught us to look beyond the flesh for it passes, rather to be concerned about the soul which is immortal. Wherefore, O Holy John Cassian, your soul rejoices with the angels.

Kontakion in the First Tone
Thy words breathe forth the sweetness of heavenly cassia, dispelling the foul odour of passion and pleasures; but with the sweet fragrance of thy discretion and temperance, they make known the spiritual ascents in the Spirit, leading men on high, O righteous Father John Cassian, divinely-sent guide of monks.