Abba Cassian The Ascetic - Part 2
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
The Process of Growth
Abba Cassian laid out what would be the process of growth regarding the spiritual life. Once an individual has been welcomed into the community he is charged with caring for the guests in humility and patience for a year.
“When a candidate has been accepted, having been tested by this strictness that we mentioned above, and has been found blameless, he is not allowed to mingle immediately with the company of the brothers, but is handed over to the monk who has the obedience of looking after guests; and he is directed to provide guests with every care and service.”
The first year served as a sort of test of the love of the individual. When the monk had served in humility and patience for a year, he is slowly introduced to the teachings of the fathers and mothers. To being the spiritual life we must learn to serve in obscurity before we hope to grow in maturity.
The first lesson when the individual has completed their first year is to teach the monk to overcome their own desire by denying themselves what they desire.
“First, he teaches him to overcome his own desires, by ordering him to do the opposite of what he wants. For the Fathers say that there is no other way for one to curb his desires, or to conquer anger or grief, or truly to acquire humility, or simply to achieve perfection in the monastery, together with the brotherhood, than first to deaden his own voIitions through obedience.”
It is the slow burn of obedience that teaches the monk to grow in humility and patience.
Without a teacher, Cassian taught that it would be nearly impossible for the individual to grow. We recognize our need for a teacher to show us the basic things in life, and to learn art, science, mathematics, etc...how much more do we have need of a teacher to show us the spiritual life.
“…if we are unable to learn by ourselves things of the arts and sciences-even though we can examine them with our hands-but have need of a good teacher to show us every single thing, how, then, would it not be foolish and idiotic to believe that we are able to succeed in learning the spiritual arts, which are more difficult and demanding than all the arts and sciences, without a teacher?”
The next step for spiritual growth is to make a regular practice of confession. To Cassian, this was rooted in the relationship a disciple would have with his spiritual father. He looked at examples in scripture of Samuel, who divulged his thoughts to Eli, and Paul, who was taught by those he would eventually lead.
“St. Paul, despite the fact that Christ Himself had called him and spoken with him, and could have immediately opened his eyes and shown him the way of perfection, God sent to Ananias, leaving him to learn from Ananias the way of truth, saying to him: ”Arise and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9: 6).”
Cassian also taught that the individual must consider themselves dead to the world.
“He also said, ‘There was a monk living in a cave in the desert His relations according to the flesh let him know, “Your father is very ill, at the point of death: come and receive his inheritance.” He replied to them, “I died to the world before he did and the dead do not inherit from the living.”
He taught that as the monk would grow, he must come to an awareness that the passions (anger, lust, greed) etc…have their root within us, and can never be blamed upon another individual, or an inanimate object. We must spend time practicing watchfulness of heart in order to subdue the passions, and this is no easy task.
“For the stimuli of the other passions (I mean, of anger and desire), as is well known, have their origin in our own bodies. In some way, the cause that provokes them is implanted and innate within us, and for this reason much time is needed for them to be subdued.”
Finally, the individual must recognize that it is not his own effort that aids him, but the grace and care of God. We cannot base our power on our individual efforts, but on God. The inverse dichotomy is when the monk finally gives up and resigns himself to God that God begins to really act on his behalf.
To overcome, we must resign.
“For a man will never cease being beset by this spirit, until he truly believes that he cannot be freed from this infirmity and be lifted up to the loftiness of purity, save by the protection and aid of God, and not by his own care and labor.”
Cassian taught that fasting was not about strict observance, or excessive starvation, but to be practiced by each as their own strength allowed. Fasting was more about refusing to satisfy your hunger, than about spending days not eating a thing. Cassian, in expounding on the teachings of other desert fathers, taught that fasting was about daily temperance in eating.
“To all, however, the Fathers have appointed one goal: to avoid too much food and not to let our stomachs reach satiation. On the basis of vast experience, they ascertained that daily temperance in eating, that is, a little fasting, is far more beneficial than extensive fasting that lasts three or four days or for the period of an entire week.”
The person who is fasting must determine what is “daily temperance” individually.
“The Fathers note that one person can eat two pounds of bread and still be hungry, while another person may be sated by one pound and six ounces of bread.”
The point of fasting to the desert fathers was to not fulfill desire by placating hunger, but to re-train desire and place it upon the heart of God. The one who undertakes a fast transforms their disposition in a moment. The minute before the fast, when all food is within reach, self-restraint is not even a question. But the moment a fast is embarked upon the desire is enflamed for what was not even thought of the moment before. Fasting, in this way, exposes the things we turn to for comfort. As soon as we are deprived of a thing, our passion is ignited for that thing. In that way, fasting deals with desire.
But the rule of the fast was not to be staunchly applied without care for those around you. Cassian related a story of a particular father who interrupted his fast when he was visited by the brothers of the monastery. Cassian asked this father why he had interrupted his rule of fasting to entertain visitors, to which the father replied,
“Fasting is always to hand but you I cannot have with me always. Furthermore, fasting is certainly a useful and necessary thing, but it depends on our choice while the law of God lays it upon us to do the works of charity. Thus receiving Christ in you, I ought to serve you will all diligence, but when I have taken leave of you, I can resume the rule of fasting again.”
Abba Cassian taught that solitude was to be practiced in the midst of community. If anyone desired to remove themselves from the monastic community because they find the presence of other monks detrimental to their spiritual life, they are greatly deluded. Whenever we find in others a justification for our frustration, we hinder our own ability to grow. Thought the discipline of solitude was necessary for spiritual growth, love was tested in the midst of relationships.
If the monk removed themselves from the monastic community to seek God in the desert because his life was hindered by those around him, he was actually bound to get worse. In modern days we may say, “The grass is not always greener on the other side.”
Solitude when practiced as an isolating discipline actually does more harm them good.
“For whatever uncured passions they take with them into the desert they will only conceal through solitude, without, however, being rid of them. This is because solitude, for those who have not yet been delivered from the passions, not only keeps faults unrevealed, but also knows how to conceal them, so that those who have these passions do not perceive that they have them and, as a result, do not recognize by what passions they are overcome.”
This serves to underscore an even deeper principle: we need people around us to reveal to us our flaws. Without people we will never be tested in our love towards people. In isolation, we may have removed the external cause for our offense, but we have not dealt with the internal cause of our offense. It comes back to dealing with the root, not the fruit.
The problem is we make decisions based upon internal offense to isolate or remove ourselves from what we call difficult circumstances. And what we call difficult circumstances God calls growth cycles. Solitude is not isolation, but rather being set apart for God.
John Cassian did more than nearly any other person in history to make the teachings of the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt accessible and applicable on a broader basis. The writing of this particular desert father began to become the standard understanding of living alone for God in his own life, and found widespread acclaim in the years after his death. Nearly every author today that writes on the disciplines of the spiritual life owes something to Abba Cassian. His earthly influence lasted until 435 AD, and after he passed away, his writings have lasted for 1700 years.